Follow the Tweeter: NBA and players score with Twitter

Q/A with Twitter’s Andrew Barge

By Peter Dawson

Even in the world of Twitter, LeBron James is still the King. James’ 28.2 million followers (@KingJames) are the most of any athlete in the country, the second most of any athlete in the world (soccer star Christiano Ronaldo is first at 40.6 million), and the 24th highest total on the planet. He is a basketball icon, a marketing force and a role model for young athletes everywhere. Yet, James, along with many of the game’s top players have used Twitter as an additional asset to help craft their image and promote their personal brand.

Even after doing post-game interviews following Cleveland’s win over Oklahoma City on Sunday, the four-time league MVP took the time to post a tweet, finishing with “#StriveForGreatness”.

The relationship the NBA and Twitter goes beyond James. The league, along with TV partner Turner Sports, have a far-reaching deal with Twitter that is designed to maximize their digital platforms. That collaboration was on full display throughout NBA All-Star Weekend. For three days, players, celebrities, teams and fans across the world were all able to share the moments and their experiences through social media.

In an edited Q&A, Andrew Barge (@abarge), Twitter’s sports partnerships manager, discussed the company’s association with the NBA and Turner Sports; its use of expanding technologies; and how it was able to introduce event-specific digital promotions into this year’s festivities.

Q: What makes the NBA and its players such a unique league for your platforms?
Basketball players are among the most followed and engaged with athletes on our platform. LeBron James is the most followed athlete in the United States and Kevin Durant (13.3 million followers @KDTrey5) is the second most followed athlete in the United States. At a very high level the athletes make the games a big deal, but if you look closer, the NBA is as genuinely invested in their fans’ experience and access to their games and its superstars as any league out there. I think there is a genuine respect between the players, the teams and the leagues and that allows for really cool collaborations to happen in a streamlined manner.

Q: The Three-Point Contest had all of that hype and the Dunk Contest made a bit of a comeback this year. What type of impact does that have on Twitter?
It’s fantastic. Twitter serves as the ultimate complement to live and culturally significant moments. The dunk contest was a fantastic manifestation of that close-knit dynamic between us and TV. Vine and the NBA have formed this undercurrent of fan expression through highlights and moments that happen on the court, and fans are able to see that over and over again. There really isn’t a better way to consume a highlight then to see it in such an abbreviated format.

Different angles Zach LaVine executing his dunks at the 2016 NBA All-Star Game.(Zach LaVine/Vine).

Q: How big was the spectacle around Kobe Bryant’s swan song  on Twitter?
It took a few years for him to really warm up to it, but since then he’s used (Twitter) as an invaluable mechanism to engage his fans and express himself. Twitter obviously loves Kobe the way domestic and international fans love Kobe. The “black mamba” obviously required its own set of sensitivity because he is such a huge iconic presence within the league. #KobeBryant was used more so than any other player hashtag throughout the weekend, and that wasn’t surprising.

Q: You also created custom emojis for the players and some members of the media. What was that process like?
It was a very collaborative, multi-faceted campaign between us, the NBA and Turner in product design and engineering. I think the Turner and NBA involvement is key because we recognize that our partners know our product better than anyone else since we are dealing with very valuable IP as well as massive fan bases. If we don’t work closely with them throughout the process, we’re limiting our own success. It was very clear that the players loved them.

Q: This was the first year that the MVP of the game was voted on by fans exclusively through Twitter. How did that come about?
We had a successful trial run during the NBA Finals with the Golden State Warriors logo, the Cleveland Cavaliers logo, and we had the Larry O’Brien Trophy attached to NBA Finals, all as emojis. So, we saw a great opportunity to take that limited experiment and inject it into a live vote, this mechanism that has worked so well across other verticals, which has allowed Twitter to be directly integrated into a broadcast.

Q: What other platforms have you added to Twitter?
We’ve now added Periscope to our arsenal. Which is live and you can broadcast as long as you want and play it within your Twitter timeline. The NBA was actually able to Periscope Zach LaVine’s press conference after the fact, the weekend was their first foray into Periscope. After two years of experiencing the Dunk Contest on Twitter, you were pretty limited. Now with Twitter, Vine and Periscope you can see it from every angle. It’s an awesome reflection of the product the NBA has helped build and their willingness to help distribute on our platform.

Q: There are so many big names, and that isn’t limited to basketball players. Do the players tweeting and retweeting one another have the most hits, or do the celebrities watching and/or in attendance have a wider reaching audience?
Whether you are Kevin Hart playing in the Celebrity Game, or you’re Drake accepting the key to the city on Friday night, or you’re Jon Stewart sitting courtside during the Dunk Contest; everyone is a basketball fan during NBA All-Star Weekend. We do value our influential users that carry significant scale, but what makes this fun is that they are just basketball fans too. We want to make sure that they are considered within the same vein as other basketball fans on Twitter, because we don’t cater specifically to influencers, we think of them as a byproduct of larger basketball fan base.

As an aside, they way our team is organized, we have a separate group that is focuses specifically on television and television talent, where as I sit in sports vertical. So there is a lot of really good cross-functional collaboration going on too. The music vertical within my team is aware of Drake’s presence and works with his camp specifically to ensure he’s aligned with what we have going. The same goes for television stars. It’s an all hands on deck situation. But from my singular sports vantage point everyone is a fan, and that frame of mind works well for us.

Q: How do you quantify or qualify your success for the weekend?
We measure impressions and the amount of eyeballs that are on Twitter content about the All-Star Game that weekend. And that number was 1.7 billion. That’s 1.7 billion impressions of NBA All-Star-specific Tweets throughout the weekend, both on Twitter and off Twitter in syndication. What makes Twitter unique is the live and widely published and distributed nature of our content. You don’t have to be logged in or in front of the computer to consume Twitter. So, the syndicated value is there whether it is integrated into the live broadcast, an app, or a Bleacher Report article. Twitter content lives everywhere.

Photo at top: LeBron James Twitter Homepage.(Peter Dawson/MEDILL)