The continued growth of online video consumption is staggering and well documented. You'd think that sports leagues, with their built-in fan base and a product that is experienced almost entirely on television, would be especially well positioned to take advantage of the technology.
Yet, of the two most popular U.S. sports leagues, one has embraced online video, and the other has dropped the ball entirely. Surprisingly, the industry-leading online video presence belongs to the National Basketball Association, which finishes behind the National Football League in nearly every other way. The NFL, whose preseason starts Sunday when the Dallas Cowboys play the Miami Dolphins, has trailed inexplicably.
With more than four million subscribers, the NBA boasts one of the most popular YouTube channels in the world (ranked 39th according to VidStatsX). It uploads videos at a blistering pace, offering as many as a dozen new ones every day. This guarantees fans a premiere destination for a steady stream of exclusive content.
Basketball's robust video offerings are driven by game highlights, but the league has cleverly used press conferences, player interviews, bloopers, archival footage, TV commercials and celebrity appearances to round out an extremely varied content lineup. It has played brilliantly to the goofy Internet culture with videos like "Best Bench Reactions," a compilation of outlandish and endearing dances and celebrations from around the league.
In stark contrast, the NFL has no YouTube presence, though if it did, success would be virtually guaranteed. The video content on its own website notwithstanding, take one look at NFL.com and it's clear that video is not the focus.
Having already conquered the landscape for domestic sports and television, the NFL has made no secret of its desire to expand outside the United States. The league has staged one regular season game in London's Wembley arena in each of the past six seasons, and even maintained a (forgettable) European professional football league for 17 years until 2007.
While it clearly hopes to drum up popularity for American football amongst a global audience, the NFL is turning its back on the most ubiquitous and far-reaching global marketing tool that has ever existed. YouTube reports receiving 1 billion unique visitors per month, 70% of whom come from outside the United States.
Already the NBA has used its YouTube channel as a springboard to vastly expand its global sphere. Last summer Forbes reported that nearly half of all the NBA's fans on social media and YouTube were outside of the United States; this is extremely valuable to a brand that has prioritized expanding its footprint internationally.
Further, YouTube costs nothing (aside from production costs), and is the rare marketing tool that actually pays, not just through boosting sales and awareness (which it does), but by generating revenue of its own.
The NBA has more than 1.5 billion video views on YouTube. By the most conservative of estimates, YouTube channels earn roughly $1 to $2 per thousand views. Without getting into the complicated and sometimes hazy methods by which YouTube views convert to dollars, the NBA probably has earned between $15 million and $30 million in ad revenue from its YouTube channel.
Why has the NFL resisted? Without any word from the league, we're left to speculate. Does it see YouTube as a threat to its lucrative TV distribution? Perhaps it's worried that an endless supply of bone-crunching football clips available 24/7 for viewing and replay will feed into the growing movement that accuses the game of being too dangerous.
Although it's a slim possibility, considering the league's immaculate track record, the NFL's business brass simply may have made a poor judgment. When YouTube was proliferating but not yet the juggernaut it is today, is it possible that the bigwigs decided that it would be economically foolish to post content online for free when they were doing so well selling it to TV networks?
In any case, for an organization that is highly esteemed and generally lauded for being on-point in every aspect of its business and marketing operations, ignoring YouTube seems decidedly off point. For better or, more likely worse, the NFL seems happy trudging along, hosting videos on its official website. Meanwhile the NBA is leveraging the behemoth that is YouTube to engage fans year-round, maintain a loyal fan base, expand globally and reap impressive financial rewards. What kind of business would deny itself those potential benefits?