How the NBA is trying to lure viewers back for its unusual season start date
In a normal year, the National Basketball Association would be nearly two months into its regular season by now and set to begin marketing hype for its usual high-profile Christmas Day games. But this being 2020, nothing is normal—and the league must find a way to generate interest for its unusual season start date of Dec. 22.
That work begins today with a new campaign called “Only Here” that attempts to define what makes the NBA different from other sporting events. It comes from Cartwright, the Los Angeles-based, WPP-backed shop launched in June by Keith Cartwright that recently won increased creative duties for the league.
The lead ad is narrated by real fans touting different aspects of the league. “Where else is your own city home to your biggest rival?” says a Los Angeles Clippers fan, in a nod to the team’s budding rivalry with the Los Angeles Lakers. Other scenes tout long-distance three-point shooting (by Steph Curry) and the league’s history (courtesy of a Boston Celtics fan bragging about the team’s championship banners hanging from arena rafters.)
The fact that the league is taking pains to differentiate itself from other sports is telling: The pandemic has jumbled the sports calendar so much that it puts pressure on leagues to draw viewers in an atmosphere where individual sports have cannibalized each other when it comes to ratings. This was especially true over the summer, when the NBA restarted its season in the Orlando bubble with games being played much later in the year than usual—it had to compete with the National Football League in the fall, rather than owning the mid- and late-summer period as it usually does. The competition was a factor that led to depressed TV ratings.
If there is an upside in starting the new season in late December, it’s that at least the NBA is back to playing games when fans are normally used to watching hoops. Also, by staging the restart close to Christmas, the league is banking on recapturing fans used to tuning in over the holidays. The ad serves a dual purpose of plugging the restart and the Christmastime viewing, at least subtly: The soundtrack uses holiday-themed music.
“As we started to look at planning the season, we knew it was an atypical time for us to tip off our season,” says NBA Chief Marketing Officer Kate Jhaveri. “Our goal is to really generate awareness around the start of the season and drive tune-in to that first week during Christmas week,” she says, adding that “we really wanted to lean into all of the ways the NBA is absolutely unique and unlike anywhere else—whether that is the best drama anywhere, the big rivalries new and old, or on-court battles … and of course the fact is our players are back.”
And while players are back (except those that test COVID-positive), the fans are not—at least they won’t be in arenas in most NBA cities, where the league will once again play games instead of using another bubble. (Most teams are starting the season without fans; here is a complete team-by-team rundown of attendance policies.) In the Orlando bubble, the league erected huge screens around the court that beamed in live shots of fans watching from home using Microsoft Teams technology. It also used some artificial fan noise. The use of so-called virtual fans or artificial noise this season will be determined by individual teams, and plans are still in flux, according to the league.
Jhaveri shared more insights on running marketing during the pandemic in an appearance this week at the Ad Age Next: CMO conference. The former Twitch CMO also discussed the NBA’s use of social media. Watch below for the full interview.