Players only: how the NBA shutdown is bolstering the power of athletes
Nate Houghteling, Executive Producer and Co-founder of content agency Portal A, takes us inside the thinking of NBA stars who've used their online audiences to take control of content during lockdown, and deliver a social media slam dunk.
There are a number of reasons that The Last Dance, the ESPN mega-doc about the ‘97 Chicago Bulls, is perfectly timed to the moment we’re living in.
The most obvious one is that sports fans are more content-starved than they’ve ever been. But another reason is that the story of Michael Jordan’s last season recounts a moment in NBA history where the individual athlete became the most powerful entity in the league’s solar system, eclipsing that of the team, the agent, or the owner.
Most aspects of the sports economy are being hit hard by the lack of live games.
If you look around in 2020, that dynamic is more pronounced than it’s ever been.
While most aspects of the sports economy are being hit hard by the lack of live games, a select group of athletes are thriving as they continue to attract an audience, generate headlines, and generally assert their dominance over the world of sports. Spurred on by their massive social media followings and supported by growing teams of digitally savvy producers, athletes are seizing this opportunity to strengthen their direct connection with fans and build massive businesses
Stephen Curry’s interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci made headlines all over the sports world.
One of the first signs that this would be an athlete-dominated shutdown came just a week into the shelter-in-place mandate, when Stephen Curry’s interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci made headlines all over the sports world and brought in an audience of 50,000 live viewers on Instagram. Its ubiquitousness in the press and on social media was a sign that people were desperate to have something positive to talk about, but also that athletes still have the ability to unify people in our fractured culture.
Above: Stephen Curry’s interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci.
As the scope of the shutdown has grown, a wave of NBA stars have taken to their own media properties to communicate directly with fans. Carmelo Anthony created a series called What’s in Your Glass, raising a virtual toast to weekly guests like Ludacris, Gary Vaynerchuck, and Jimmy Butler. Dwayne Wade and Gabrielle Union have been challenging couples to impromptu cook-offs, Iron Chef-style. Chris Paul has been dialing up athletes from across sports on IG live and grilling them about their quarantine life. The list goes on.
A wave of NBA stars have taken to their own media properties to communicate directly with fans.
The world of production is also being upended by the lockdown as the trend of athletes capturing their own content, either in-home studios or simply on their phone, has only accelerated due to our confinement. Remotely produced spots, like the Budweiser Wassup throwback featuring Chris Bosh and Candace Parker, have replaced traditional commercial shoots, without a huge drop-off in quality.
Above: The Budweiser Wassup throwback featuring Chris Bosh and Candace Parker.
Athletes have proven themselves to be, with a little help, adept producers. With our athlete partners, we’ve set them up to succeed by sending them DIY production kits and have been supporting them however we can, whether that’s producing live conversations over Skype or directing remotely on FaceTime.
It’s important to note that there are business motivations underlying these moves.
And while these athletes are fun, and keeping fans entertained, it’s important to note that there are business motivations underlying these moves. Take the rush of athletes into the world of gaming during this period, from the NBA 2K tournament (which hit the front page of a content-starved ESPN) or the continuous stream of athlete-fuelled competitions on Twitch.
Above: Some of the lots available on the Fanatics-endorsed All In challenge.
If you go a layer deeper and consider the value of this sector (FaZe Clan, a gaming network, was recently pegged at $240m), you’ll see why this diversification makes sense for athletes like De’Aaron Fox, Ben Simmons and, more recently, Luka Doncic.
Nimble brands like Fanatics are leveraging their connections to the NBA community to give back and stay a step ahead during these times. Fanatics kicked off their shelter-in-place response by creating NBA-themed masks, with proceeds going to charity. They took it up a notch with a massive fundraising push called #AllIn that featured participation from Kevin Durant, Charles Barkley, Aaron Gordon, Zach Randolph, and more.
One thing is certain; when [sports] do return, the athletes who have spent this period doubling down on their own digital content businesses will find themselves in control like never before.
We still don’t know when sports will return – estimates range from this summer to 2021 (gulp). But one thing is certain; when they do return, the athletes who have spent this period doubling down on their own digital content businesses will find themselves in control like never before, with the ability to reshape how brands allocate their dollars and how fans spend their time.
The stadiums may be dark, but the activity during this period will be felt for many years to come.