NBA marketing goes global with Idris Elba and Fortnite

The 'That's Game' campaign from Translation is set to air in 200 countries

Published On
May 24, 2021

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Idris Elba has a new gig—helping the National Basketball Association reach a global audience. The actor lends his voice to a new campaign for the league that will run in more than 200 countries, just as playoffs heat up and the league continues to welcome fans back to arenas across the U.S.

The effort, called “That’s Game,” comes from Translation and offers a poetic take on the game of basketball, while also setting up the league’s upcoming 75th anniversary season that will tip off in the fall. 

For now, all eyes are on the NBA Playoffs, which kicked off this week with a special play-in tournament in which four teams compete for the final two playoff spots. The league approved the format on a one-year basis. But if stellar TV ratings numbers continue, momentum could grow to make it a permanent feature of the league’s postseason.

Wednesday's Lakers-Warriors game drew more than 5.6 million viwers on ESPN, which the network says is its largest NBA audience since the 2019 Western Conference Finals. Tuesday night’s opening night double-header on TNT featuring the Celtics, Wizards, Pacers and Hornets drew ratings that were 60% above TNT’s regular season average, according to Deadline.

The league, which began the COVID-shortened season in December, has begun to slowly welcome fans back into arenas with rules determined on a city-by-city basis with several playoff teams operating under different capacity caps. The Brooklyn Nets are allowing 10% of normal capacity, for example, while the Milwaukee Bucks will allow its arena to be half full for the playoffs, according to an NBA tracker of the rules.

The attendance restriction easing allows the league to once-again turn on in-person marketing perks that have been missing since the pandemic started. (Last season was completed in the so-called Orlando bubble after the pandemic struck.) With the new campaign, the league is promoting a “catch the game” promotion that includes ticket giveaways for next season, including a trip to the NBA All-Star Game in Cleveland.

“This is a great time for us to really re-engage fans,” says NBA Chief Marketing Officer Kate Jhaveri. 

The lead TV ad includes some references to some of the league’s history, including Vince Carter’s famous 360-degree windmill dunk in the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest. It also leans into the NBA’s reputation as the most socially progressive U.S. pro sports league: One scene shows Celtics player Jaylen Brown wearing “Liberation” on his jersey during play in the Orlando bubble in a nod to how players responded to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of year’s police killing of George Floyd. 

Elba's global appeal

The TV ads—there will be four in total—were directed by Emmanuel Adjei (whose credits include Beyonce’s “Black is King”), while Jon Batiste recorded an original composition. Elba, who is from London, was chosen to voice the ads partly because of this global appeal, Jhaveri says. 

“We continue to build campaigns that are not just resonant here in the United States, but really reach all our fans no matter where they are, whether that is in a variety of different media channels or a variety of different countries,” she says. “Basketball is one of the most global games and we wanted to continue to represent that.”

The NBA has made a concerted effort to grow its reputation beyond the states in recent years. The NBA-affiliated Basketball Africa League recently tipped off its inaugural season in Kigali, Rwanda, after enduring a COVID-related delay.

The league also continues to experiment with different ways to reach young viewers. That includes a new partnership unveiled this week with Fortnite that incorporates NBA imagery into game play, including official jerseys. 


Also, in a move to step up its social media game, the league during the playoffs is touting the “NBA House” in which it will host influencers and social content creators at a house in Los Angeles that will act as a home base for them to create social content.

The league also has a deal with UnitedMasters, which connects emerging musical talent to brands. Houston rapper Tobe Nwigwe is among the talent that will create original songs related to the new campaign. UnitedMasters was founded by Steve Stoute, who also runs Translation. The agency has for years worked for the NBA, which of late has divided assignments on a project basis, including giving its regular season campaign to Cartwright.