As another NBA season is about to kick-off, it got us thinking. Why are Australians so passionate about the NBA and what is fuelling its growth in Australia? The answer is an interesting one and is surprisingly not reflected by media or attendance numbers. The players are the NBA’s secret sauce and their ability to connect with the everyday fan has been a major factor in the league’s success, particularly in Australia.
THE RISE OF BASKETBALL CONTINUES
The fact that more Australians than ever are tuning into an 82 game NBA season and finding time to shoot hoops down at their local court, reflects one thing – fans are highly engaged with the NBA and broader basketball product.
- The NBA reaches hard to find young consumers – in 2022 the NBA was the most popular international sporting league
- Interest in the NBA drives participation – As interest in the NBA has grown over recent years, there has been a steady increase in participation.
The NBA is a league that are masters of encouraging individual personalities to shine, whether it’s current players, hot take commentators or even mascots. It doesn’t matter if you are a casual fan or a basketball die hard, the impact of the NBA being culturally relevant and relatable has been a pillar for the growth of the sport.
You may ask, what sets the NBA apart. All other major professional leagues have top tier broadcasts, quality digital channels, endless amounts of content and accessible merchandise. What sets the NBA apart is its ability to capture the everyday before, during and after each game.
In a media environment where the 24 hour news and content cycle has shortened the attention span of fans, the NBA has leant in and is happy to give fans as much as they want. The media that surrounds the NBA is almost as big as the game itself. This is no different to many other sports, but where the NBA really sets itself apart is the freedom it gives it players to engage with the media as much or as little as they like. While other leagues carefully manage what players can or can’t say, the NBA is about as liberal as it gets in terms of player expression.
Take this great example from the 2022 Finals where Golden State Star Draymond Green released a podcast discussing his ejection mere hours after the game had finished Draymond Green releasing a podcast. This type of access is unprecedented and it showed in the level of fan engagement with 750,000 fans tuning into his YouTube podcast to hear what he had to say. In comparison the NBA received just over 1m views on their highlight package of the same game.
The photo above is a player by the name of Jae Crowder, sitting in an obligatory post-game press conference. Rather than rattle off the same old clichés he decided to have a bit of fun with opposition fans. In previous games a fan had gone viral for selling these shirts at the game and a rivalry was born. Jae Crowder got the last laugh and wore it to his press conference after his team knocked the fan’s team out in the finals. For the right or wrong reasons, moments like this tear down the wall between athletes and fans and build a narrative that extends beyond the game itself. He may have scored 20 points on the night, but more fans will remember the guy who wore the F*** Jae Crowder shirt.
Why are these two examples important? They are important because they typify relatable, controversial and appealing content. They extend our curiosity and draw us in to learn more, even if we don’t like the player, a connection is forged. Given the majority of players in the NBA are aged under 25 it makes perfect sense that if they can express themselves via the media conduit they are a part of, naturally younger audiences will buy in and become highly valued fans.
The NBA recognises and celebrates this by putting power in player’s hands, and as we move through this new era, there are opportunities for Australian sports to learn from this approach.
Basketball is a sport that lends itself to deep fan engagement. Indoor stadiums with seats right on the white line that separates fans to otherworldly athletes, you won’t find a better physical environment to engage fans. Though physical environment alone is not enough, it’s the imagined connection that is key. Put simply, it’s the culture created and nurtured by the NBA that encourages players to curate their own story, with the NBA acting as the vehicle.
In Gemba’s first addition of the Free-Throw, we challenged the sport industry to recapture the declining passion and fandom among younger age groups.
The NBA provides an important lesson for Australian sports looking to authentically engage with youth culture: there isn’t a need to force engagement through (sometimes tokenistic) league driven initiatives, rather embrace personality and flair and let players drive the narrative.
For this to occur, two key macro shifts in the Australian sporting landscape are needed:
- There must be buy in from the media who, rather than condemn players who express personality, encourage more of it.
- A cultural shift in how we expect our sports stars to carry themselves is required, but it is a shift that is necessary to engage the next generation of sports fans.
It is important to remember the new generation of Australian sports stars have grown up in a world of unapparelled accessibility to sport and are different for it. They are open, honest and want to express themselves in ways that may make some people a little uncomfortable. I’ll leave you with one final example; Western Bulldogs star Bailey Smith at just 22 years old is already the most followed AFL player on social media. At one of his biggest moment of his career he pulled out the famous ‘Ice in my veins’ celebration, a celebration that originated in the NBA by young superstar D’Angelo Russell.