Sport plays a powerful role in connecting people, on social media as well as in the flesh. Fans are passionate and engaged, and are eager to talk about – and with – their favourite teams and players online. Brands can tap into fans’ enthusiasm and connection with their team by becoming part of the conversation on social media.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the NBA replacing the NFL as America’s favourite sports league. Now the league’s top players, as well as a crop of fresh faces, are driving new dialogue with fans on social media that is transforming the game and opening up new opportunities for brands. Publicis Media Sport and Entertainment decided that the NBA would make a great subject for a study on the power of sport in social media, and how brands can tap into it. Together with Blinkfire Analytics we tracked the ability of players to amass and engage fans online, and used the results to create an NBA Basketball Social Performance Index (SPI).

Some of the NBA’s greatest players are active on social media, giving fans a front-row seat to drama as it unfolds on and off the court. Media rights for the NBA are much more flexible than the NFL, allowing content to go viral more easily. Players’ posts fuel speculation about everything from trade deals to rivalries and dating rumours. More importantly, NBA royalty like LeBron James and Stephen Curry weigh in on everything from societal issues to pregame commentary to family life. A new shorthand language has emerged on this channel, and you do not have to be an avid NBA fan to follow the conversation.

Good content is what drives followers, likes and fans. Kevin Durant (the second-most-followed NBA player) and James Harden (the fifth) are popular but do not offer a true look behind the scenes, and so their SPI scores have been dropping since 2016. In contrast, Curry and James chime in on current events and show inside looks at their family and personal lives, consistently earning them top spots in our SPI ranking.

According to our research, the average daily engagement driven by the top 117 NBA players doubled in 2017, while the frequency of posting remained the same, thanks partly to greater use of Instagram.

The annual NBA All-Star game is an event where popularity reigns supreme and determines which players are selected. In the early rounds of voting, several young players were surprising lead contenders, ranking ahead of some of the more established players of the game. These players, including Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid, are all in their early 20s and are very active on social media. All increased their SPI score this year, with Antetokounmpo scoring +47, followed by Embiid at +29 and Porzingis at +11. Antetokounmpo and Embiid were ultimately named All-Star starters, showing how younger and more socially-engaging players are making names for themselves and amassing loyal fan bases.

Embiid is a prime example of someone who has helped transform the culture of the NBA through social media. He is witty, authentic, and shares content that includes other global sports and athletes. Despite having fewer followers than Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson, Embiid is more skilled at engaging his fan base. Over the past year, he has generated 11,000 more likes and 3,800 more comments. Embiid’s popularity extends far beyond 76ers devotees – roughly 98% of his followers do not identify as 76ers fans or even follow the team on social media sites.

NBA players have become their own content creators. While brands can partner with them to drive awareness among their followers with simple endorsements, that would not make the most of their potential. Brands can driver greater ROI by working more closely with the players to craft an extended inside story that players can tell of the role brands play in their family or team lives.

There are still marketing opportunities to be found. There are several players who hold a strong SPI ranking who have not yet been engaged by brands. Those brands that can align authentically with these untapped social media superstars can engage with a new generation of NBA fans and followers. After all, these social media-savvy NBA stars have already demonstrated they can keep the conversation going on social long after the final whistle is blown.

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