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  • Writer's pictureCharlie Beall

The NBA ‘first’ to 1bn. Does social media size matter?

The NBA is the first professional sports league to have more than ‘1bn likes’ across its global social media accounts says the league’s press release of 12 February 2016  - but where does that number come from, what does it mean and how do you measure real success on social platforms?

The NBA arrived at a figure of 1bn by summing a combination of league, team and player account followers and likes across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and China’s Tencent and Sina Weibo platforms. It’s an impressive figure and testament to an aggressive internationalisation strategy, spearheaded most notably by the recent digital partnership deal signed with Chinese media behemoth Tencent, owners of QQ (829m active accounts) and WeChat (650m active users with 70 million outside of China).

If you throw in a host of other platforms (Snapchat, YouTube and Vine to name three), some other regional social platforms (V Kontakte in Russia, QZone in China, CyWorld in South Korea and Mixi in Japan) and NBA followings on hugely popular messaging apps (WeChat, Line, WhatsApp) and it’s likely the NBA may even have understated their social figures.

Compared to its US competitors, the NBA has been hugely aggressive in its international expansion. The NBA's 28m+ Facebook likes is twice the NFL's 13 million, nearly 4.5 times that of Major League Baseball's following and seven times that of the National Hockey League.

Can this be compared with other global sports leagues and in particular, football? Seven League research applying the same methodology (combining global Facebook, Twitter and Instagram followers and likes) is revealing.

As a league, the NBA outperforms the two biggest global football competitions, the English Premier League (EPL) and UEFA’s European Champions League (UCL), because it has invested years in developing a presence on Chinese social platforms.

Take out the China factor and the numbers are about equal. Of course, any comparison needs to look at the fundamental structures of the leagues. The NBA is very centrally controlled in a way that the EPL and UCL are not, meaning the NBA can act much more cohesively as a central body to market itself.

When you factor in the activity and ambitions of individual clubs and players, as the NBA did in their counts, football is still bigger and we conclude, was more likely to have reached 1bn before the NBA. Not only do the top 10 UCL players have a following three times larger than their NBA counterparts, the NBA’s top 10 is eclipsed in its entirety by the UCL’s top two players, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

European clubs too have a greater global social reach, thanks in large part to the two clubs, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, who employ the UCL’s top two players. Leaving these Leviathan’s aside, even the EPL’s fifth biggest side, Manchester City is snapping very closely at the heals of top NBA team, the Los Angeles Lakers.

On the three counts mentioned above the UCL stood at 1.26bn - easily surpassing the magical 1bn mark  (vs 0.54bn for the NBA). That’s before we even explored the longer tail of all clubs, all players, and localized and multi-lingual social media accounts. With this in mind, despite reaching a massively impressive global total, we don’t think the NBA was first… but that’s not the point.

“Don’t focus on vanity metrics, focus on business metrics” some people say. Generally, this is good advice, particularly to do with social media. BUT, the NBA was doing PR when they put out their release. They will know all of the above about the size of their following. So does it matter who was first to 1bn? No, but they grabbed the PR headlines, which was the goal… and the fans, sponsors and broadcast partners might take note.

We chose not to drill down any further, on the grounds that there are too many differential variables to make this a meaningful study. The NBA has thirty teams from one nation that stay the same each year. The Champions League on the other hand, has 32 in the group stages that change to some degree every year and a whole qualifying process across many nations.

Each NBA team plays 82 games between October and April, representing a total league pool of between 1290 and 1335 games per season (depending on how the best-of-seven game playoff series pans out). With squad sizes between 12 and 15 players, there are likely to be between 360 and 450 NBA players. By contrast the Champions League group stages to final comprises 125 matches with squad sizes capped at 25 players. Clearly we can’t compare like with like…

…and who got to 1bn first is only really important in the distribution of bragging rights.

The real importance in these numbers is that they roughly show each league’s demonstrable and addressable audience and its ability to penetrate new markets. The numbers show nothing about the depth of passion or loyalty that these audiences feel for the sports brands they ‘like’ but they provide a basic yardstick for measuring digital reach, and that’s important because digital reach is central to leagues’ future monetisation strategies.

Why internationalise? – the emerging market prize

The vast sponsorship and media rights deals that leagues like the NBA and Champions League have been able to secure have been underpinned by those leagues’ sustained track record of delivering audiences to brands and television networks.

Growing the scale and engagement of the audience increases rights values, especially if that audience is drawn from increasingly affluent and connected emerging markets. It’s not a unique strategy - we’ve already seen that other great purveyor of mass audiences, Facebook, publicly stating that it sees its next 1bn users coming from Africa.

With global digital connectivity expected to double in the next five years*** and the outlook for growth in consumer spending due to come from emerging markets, anyone currently making money from delivering audiences should have a strategy for signing up fans in new regions at scale.

International expansion also has the happy side effect of opening up new commercial relationships, evidenced in 2014 when EPL club Liverpool signed a partnership deal with airline Garuda on the strength of its Indonesian following and more recently when they signed a deal with Chaokoh to be Liverpool’s ‘official coconut water sponsor’, due in part to the club’s presence in Thailand. Whether that expansion is driven by the desire to monetise multiple local sponsorship opportunities or to drive global audiences to add value to the core partner relationships is dependent on the club’s overarching strategy.

Football should be better placed than any other sport to undertake global expansion. The game currently is more widely played and supported than basketball. What matters is that the NBA has already invested in a co-ordinated and cohesive manner in a globally aggressive digital strategy. These leagues are dealing with an Attention Economy challenge – so it doesn’t matter who was first to 1bn followers – what matters is whether the potential fans, the sponsors and the broadcasters care.

For further thoughts on digital strategy in sports email


*NBA figures ** Seven League research ***

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