The NBA All-Stars will not be the only stars in Indianapolis this weekend. The league also invited more than 100 digital content creators and influencers to town, taking over a comedy club for a series of invitation-only events and collaboration opportunities.
The goal is simple: keep some of the Internet’s biggest personalities within what executives call “the NBA family,” ensuring they are closely tied to the game, just like their followers. But sports leagues also face a risk in welcoming Web celebrities: What if, one day, fans cared more about the faces in the stands than those on the field?
The NBA’s official creative program has now been in existence for nearly a decade and encompasses work with more than 1,000 people that has generated more than 10 billion video views. There are fewer than eight billion human beings alive today.
NBA officials were the first to democratize fan expression, giving viewers at home the tools and freedom to post clips and comments online, fueling an entire generation of discussions on social media and the old NBA Twitter community. But today the relationship can be even deeper.
At December’s first In-Season tournament, the NBA rolled out the red carpet for creators, literally, by letting them follow the same path LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo took on the court in Las Vegas. Influencers even took to the court for the first-ever Creator Cup, a game featuring 12 basketball culture figures hosted in partnership with YouTube. The Hoopers beat the Ballers, 87-86, in overtime, and the NBA came away with more than 200 million social video views during its stay in Las Vegas.
Hoopers head coach Kristopher London, who entertains 3.6 million YouTube subscribers when he’s not patrolling the sidelines in exhibition games, has since earned a promotion. He is one of four “creative general managers” who have drafted teams of professional players for Sunday’s upcoming G League Up Next Game. NBA G League head coaches will have to deal with in-game decisions. Other notable All-Star Weekend attendees include TikTok food critic Keith Lee, shooting coach Lethal Shooter, comedian Funny Marco and streamer Kai Cenat, who will participate in the Celebrity Game on Friday evening. TikTok star Air Corgi (AKA Steph Furry) will also be there.
“The NBA has been the most proactive in leveraging digital creators and influencers to help raise awareness of the league,” said Dan Levitt, CEO and founder of Long Haul Management, which represents digital-focused sports talent.
The position of creators vis-à-vis professional players has also evolved over the last ten years. Andrew Yaffe, NBA senior vice president and head of social, digital and original content, noticed NBA stars flocking to YouTubers like Jesse “Jesser” Riedel, wanting to shake up her hand. “It created a whole new dynamic,” Yaffe said.
Every basketball player wants to be a rapper this is how it is in 2010. Today, many want to become influencers.
In fact, a 2019 survey of children aged 8 to 12 in the US and UK found that 30% of young people wanted to become YouTubers or vloggers, compared to 21% who identified professional athletics as the job of their dreams. Some of these respondents are just a few years away from becoming eligible for the NBA Draft and are probably already trying to go viral online.
Of course, this is also a false choice. Just ask Flau’jae Johnson, LSU women’s basketball player, rapper, and one of college’s top NIL winners thanks to her huge social media following (nearly 3.5 million on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and X).
NBA Chief Marketing Officer Tammy Henault called the 450 NBA players “the world’s best influencers on our platforms.” They will, naturally, be invited to NBA House, while they produce their own content throughout the weekend, taking on the typical challenge of any influence hoarder looking to collaborate with colleagues while competing for eyeballs.
The NBA has clearly been smart in its strategy of elevating its players as personalities, while drawing hundreds more into its orbit. Foreign artists are particularly valuable as the NBA seeks to establish a deeper foothold in related communities ranging from gaming and betting to fashion and food. Training and travel represent two additional potential areas of growth. The league has the ability to create clips aimed at consumers interested in those categories, but partnering with a creator already embedded in one of those worlds typically represents a more fruitful shortcut.
Over time, the group responsible for identifying and working with creators has expanded from an influencer content group to include marketing experts and more within the new content workflow from NBA creator.
“It’s a critical part of our overall marketing strategy, especially being able to reach all fans from all walks of life,” Henault said of the NBA creators’ strategy in an interview. “This helps us increase our reach and scale and helps us deepen our engagement. And ultimately, it helps us bring our fans closer to the game.”
And the league is not alone. The NFL is already experimenting with adding a Creator Row to its more traditional radio version. The NBA’s media partners, ESPN and TNT Sports, also have their own creator connection efforts. The Creator Cup, for example, was clearly inspired at least in part by House of Highlights’ Creator League series.
Programs are here to stay. The only question remaining is how big they will be. Will digital video creators remain a vehicle for symbiotic growth for the sport, or are they more of a camouflaged predator in miniature?
Think about when movie theaters used sports stars of the day, like Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey, to lure young audiences to the movies, only to see sports emerge as a massive cultural force through other media like than radio or television. Journalists also thrived on making stars of athletes, until they were largely forced to abandon their role as intermediaries in the modern era as the Internet reached massive scale.
It should not be assumed that children will continue to grow up idolizing and emulating team sports stars. Today’s video platforms have a global, flattening effect: Highlights generated by a multimillion-dollar production assembled to capitalize on a multibillion-dollar rights deal sit next to a music video made on a smartphone in someone’s backyard (as well as YouTubers’ own massive productions). . Or, it’s possible that a user might not even see the first option at all, if their personalized recommendation engine doesn’t deem it worthy. On the contrary, televised sports are at a disadvantage here, forced to adapt in order to supplant local talent.
In a best-case scenario for traditional sports, younger viewers might be exposed to the games through social figures before becoming fully invested in the league as they get older.
Technology has brought its own benefits. New tools help leagues find promising creators and deliver pitches. Creators have been particularly valuable to the NBA’s international efforts. In Brazil, for example, YouTubers were tapped to translate the league’s Crunchtime show.
Some of them will be among Indy’s guests. The NBA launched a similar concept during the 2021 NBA Finals, first introducing it at All-Star Weekend last season in Salt Lake City. The league is “stepping up a gear this year,” Henault said, bringing in new partners and adding additional programming elements to inspire its guests. NBA House is quickly becoming a creator’s playground.