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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Collins

The 2016 NBA Finals – How did the teams fare in China?

Updated: May 30, 2019

This year’s NBA Finals was a thrilling 7-game affair, in which the Cleveland Cavaliers pulled themselves back from the brink to take the series 4-3, having trailed 3-1 to the Golden State Warriors after the fourth game. While the contest became the second most watched Finals ever Stateside, on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean, a total of 133 million viewers tuned in to watch LeBron James lead the Cavs to their first ever Finals victory. This, despite the game starting just as the working week began – at 8am on Monday morning. But while Cleveland marched to victory on the court, what impact does their victory have here in China, and how did the second Finals series between these two sides in the past two years affect their standing on social media?

Within an hour of finishing, the NBA Finals owned two of the top three trending hashtags on Weibo.

If we examine the social followings of both Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, at first glance it seems that despite losing out on the court, the Warriors still lead in the popularity stakes, with nearly 600,000 more Weibo followers than the Cavs. However, by tracking follower growth throughout the entire playoff series, the Warriors’ 98,291 new followers are bettered by the Cavs’ additional 105,856 fans, suggesting that their Finals’ success has had a direct influence on their surge in popularity. Indeed in the 24 hours following their Finals win, the Cavs’ Weibo attracted nearly 20,000 new followers, whilst the Warriors’ fanbase increased by just half that number. A look at engagement over the Finals period also reveals an interesting disparity between the two teams, as the Warriors’ average engagement per post sits at well over double that of the Cavs, suggesting a more active and passionate following.

While the narrative of the Finals focused heavily on the matchup of the Warriors’ Stephen Curry and the Cavs’ LeBron James, there was no such competition to be had on social media, with two-time NBA MVP Curry the only one of the pair with a personalised Weibo account. Given James’ vast popularity in China, having dominated the NBA since his drafting back in 2006, and owning a hugely popular brand in partnership with Nike, it seems the 2016 Finals MVP is missing a trick with his absence from social media in China, both from an individual and team perspective.

Despite having just 600,000 more followers, Golden State’s fanbase is more than twice as engaged than that of Cleveland.

Tracking Weibo mentions of both teams throughout the Finals period also reveals another interesting, if unsurprising trend. In the week preceding the Finals, mentions of the Warriors peaked at almost 130,000 per day – more than double that of the Cavs. While this dropped once the Finals began, the Warriors were still winning the Weibo war until that pivotal 5th game in which the Cavs started to claw back the contest. By the time game six was over, mentions of the Cavs had surged to 223,000, compared to the Warriors 151,000, and once LeBron’s side had claimed the Championship trophy, these numbers skyrocketed to 523,000 and 281,000 respectively. Such a shift in focus, combined with the heavy upswing in Cavs’ follower numbers, affirms the traditional view that basketball fans in China are less partisan than their American counterparts.

Having witnessed a 900% increase in Weibo mentions, as well as nearly a 5% follower increase over the course of the 7 game Finals, the Cavs’ popularity online in China has certainly been aided by their success on the court. But while success on the court will more often than not translate to success online, the Cleveland side clearly still have a way to go to catch up to their Golden State counterparts. For starters, launching LeBron on Weibo would inevitably bring with it a surge in followers, however it is the engagement gap which is most concerning for the Cavs. Whereas in recent weeks, the Warriors Weibo account has been tailoring content specifically for its Chinese audience, featuring local KOL-driven campaigns throughout the Finals, the Cavs more basic translation-only output means there is work still to be done if they are to claim another title – that of Chinese social media champions.

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