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How social media turned the NBA into a made-for-tv drama

The league is thriving and ratings are up, despite what some see as a lack of competitive balance. There’s one good reason why.

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Last Christmas, the NBA did what it has done for the better part of two years now: thrive despite structural disadvantages.

Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, and Isaiah Thomas sat on the bench with injuries while their teammates laced up for the seasons first ABC matchups. The always-marquee slate was marred by a plague of bad ankles, legs and hips.

And yet, ratings on Christmas went up by 39 percent.

In the midst of widespread tanking, competitive imbalance, injuries, rebuilding teams in big cities — only one team in Nielsen’s five biggest media markets for 2017 (the 76ers) made the postseason last year — and cord-cutting that’s impacted TV ratings across the board, ratings have somehow escalated.

And no, the consolidation of starpower in Golden State and the masses that always follow LeBron James have not inflated the national ratings at the expense of the other 28 teams. Local ratings rose on the whole last year, and in fact, it was when those two entities collided in the Finals that fatigue finally set in: ratings for Warriors-Cavaliers IV were the lowest of the four.

Still, more than 17 million people tuned into Game 1, blurring the lines of the intrigue. Was the allure in the theatre or the competition? In LeBron James scoring 51 points or JR Smith dribbling the wrong way? In mid-January, when the Rockets faced the Clippers on ESPN, were people tuning in to see Chris Paul’s return to the Staples Center, or was the game’s popularity due more to what may or may not have happened in that secret tunnel after the game?

Nothing is as certain as this: it was good television. The NFL remains programming king, with regular season numbers that mirror playoff NBA viewership, but basketball is catching up. Thanks to a cocktail of social media and star power, the NBA has cultivated some of the best characters in professional sports. It’s looking more and more like a TV show every year.

It helped that the league accepted they couldn’t control every narrative, a shift that Ben Koo, the Editor-in-Chief and CEO of Awful Announcing and The Comeback, believes started with David Stern and was put into overdrive by Adam Silver.

“I think the NFL is the old-fashioned father and the NBA is like your chill mom,” Koo told SB Nation.

In 2016, while the NFL was banning its team accounts from posting videos and GIFs, the NBA was figuring out how to let fans vote for All Stars on Twitter.

“It starts with the league’s openness and willingness to innovate, their prioritization of encouraging players to be individuals, to be themselves,” said T.J. Adeshola, Twitter’s Head of Sports Content Partnerships.

Social media has gone from augmenting some of the NBA’s best moments to creating them. Joel Embiid, who Adeshola considers the platform’s master, manufactures new beefs every other week. Earlier this summer, he turned the heat on himself, referencing a missed point-blank shot that would have tied Game 5 of the 76ers’ playoff series against the Celtics.

While other leagues get lost in debates about the integrity of the game, NBA players go out of pocket on the regular and don’t hear a peep from the league. When asked — let’s take a moment here and consider the sentence I am about to write — about Giannis Antetokounmpo telling fans on Instagram Live that his girlfriend gave him a bell that says “Ring for a Blowjob” on Valentines Day, an NBA spokesman said they didn’t even remember hearing about it.

Even teammates sharing inside jokes are shrugged aside. Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma have been roasting each other online for the better part of a year now. The Lakers reportedly wanted them to tone things down for their own purposes, but the league-at-large seems unbothered. Rather than respond to online hoopla, it allows these moments to play out, redefining what and who qualifies as a ‘story’. As a result of players posting their offseason workouts on Instagram, for example, NBA trainers have become minor celebrities. Next year, you could read an article about the trainers’ new agents. Even an NBA player unfollowing his team account is an event.

If Nora Ephron were alive, she’d put it this way: everything is content.

“Fans want to understand who played well, who won and lost, but they also want to understand what LeBron is listening to,” Adeshola said. “They love knowing [Rockets forward] P.J. Tucker is a sneaker head. These lifestyle insights inform users in ways they haven’t been informed before. They’ve done a great job with lifting up the hood and giving users and fans a really unique perspective to the NBA lifestyle.”

Adam Petrick, PUMA’s Global Director of Brand and Marketing, agrees.

“The NBA is really a place where you have the intersection of sports and culture the likes of which you don’t see anywhere else,” he said. “Basketball culture of course happens on the court, but it’s also about sneaker culture, hip hop culture, car culture. It’s about haircuts and Twitter and Charles Barkley on TNT. It radiates out onto the court and gets as far as mom’s cooking. We have that opportunity to prove who we are as a brand through getting into basketball.”

2017 Las Vegas Summer League - Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

As a result, the personalities surrounding the NBA draw in a new demographic of sports fans. Seven NBA players ranked higher on ESPN’s Fame Index than Tom Brady. No hockey or baseball players made the list.

The NBA has grown on the pillars of its talent and personalities despite facing a barren structural landscape, and now the soil is about to get a lot more fertile. Big markets like Boston and Philadelphia are primed to field great teams for the next few years, and they could pose an honest challenge to the Warriors’ dynasty as early as this season. At the very least, the NBA Finals won’t be played between the Warriors and the Cavaliers now that LeBron is a Los Angeles Laker — which, by the way, should help matters.

“The platform will inevitably be on fire for the first game and really for the rest of the season,” Adeshola said of #LABron.

The early returns have been promising for the league. LeBron’s announcement triggered 55,000 tweets per minute, according to data Twitter provided to SB Nation. Compare that to the summer of 2016, when Kevin Durant’s announcement that he was signing with the Warriors garnered 15,000 tweets per minute.

Far from ruining the NBA, the Warriors’ dominance has compelled fans to lust even harder and louder for their downfall. Even DeMarcus Cousins’ decision to sign with the Warriors this summer generated 21,000 tweets per minute, more than Durant.

Can the NBA capitalize on the celebrity of its players and become the world’s most popular stage? The answer might fall squarely on LeBron James, the league’s most media-savvy player, and the Lakers, the team of Tinseltown.

You couldn’t have scripted it any better.