How the NBA can learn from the NFL when it comes to social media in the UK

As the NBA grows extensively in popularity in the United States, it makes sense for the association to maximise that momentum by attempting to grow its brand in the United Kingdom, too.

The NFL is far ahead of the three other major sports leagues in the states in terms of international popularity — four games are already played in London each season — and the NBA is following suit in trying to reach that market.

But there are just so many challenges.

The most glaring one is trying to popularise a foreign sport in a nation that has never found it to be particularly interesting. The UK has never really latched onto basketball, and this struggle is only compounded by the fact that the games start no earlier than 1am UK time on any given night. In the NFL, most games start a little earlier at 12 or 3.30 pm in the US, so fans in the UK can catch those games in the evening.

On Monday night, the Golden State Warriors played the Houston Rockets in the most important game of the season’s most highly-anticipated series. If one were to pick any game of the season to represent the significance and drama of the NBA, this would be it. The Western Confernce game was a winner-takes-all, final game of a series between the league’s two best teams. Viewers in the UK had to tune in at 2am.

The NBA’s U.K. Twitter account is quite popular with 65.7k followers, but prior to the game, it ran a rather dreary poll:

56% of their own respondents said they would not stay up to watch the game. Of course, 354 votes is hardly a good representation of the UK population as a whole, but this is still a demographic that you’d expect to be followers of the NBA. You have to imagine that 56% would go even further up when considering all of the U.K., and it’s hard to blame them when considering the sun would be rising by the time the game concluded.

Despite this, basketball in the UK is certainly gaining in some popularity. The NBA has joined the NFL in scheduling games in London, and British fans had a chance last January to see one of the best rivalries in basketball between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics at The O2 Arena in London.

Where once it was nearly impossible for fans outside the US to watch NBA games due to the late-night start times and lack of a reliable streaming service, now the league offers an international version of League Pass, a website and app that allows fans to stream games, much like the NFL.

Even though things have gotten easier for British NBA fans, the challenges still persist. In the current era where digital platforms thrive and professional sports teams rely heavily on a social media presence to cultivate fan engagement, the NBA realises this, but more could certainly be done to reach the UK population.

As mentioned earlier, the NFL is ahead of the NBA in the race for the UK market. The NBA’s US Twitter account has more than two million more followers than the NFL’s, but in the UK it’s a different story – the NFL has almost 100k more than their NBA counterparts. Part of this is because the NFL has always had a natural following across the sea, but their strategy hints at another reason why they’re ahead.

When comparing the NFL’s UK Twitter to its primary account, there is a clear differentiation. NFL UK know their audience and how to relate to it, and which is why their engagement is so palpable. The account tweets about the upcoming London games and the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium where NFL games are set to be played. It even has the Union flag behind the shield logo in its avatar!

The NBA could learn from this.

The association’s UK account is basically a copy of its primary US one, aside from the fact they’ll tweet with a time difference. It has the updates, videos and highlight reels down, but it provides no real reason to follow the alternative. Why listen to two accounts saying the same things?

The individual Twitter accounts of each team in the association have their own flair and fervor, and the online NBA culture is very strong, so it’s surprising to see it fall behind in this area. With the Cleveland Cavaliers meeting the Warriors for the fourth straight time in the Finals, now would be a good time for the NBA to find its UK groove.

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