At this point, it may seem like the National Football League’s always been omnipresent. But at one point, the NFL wasn’t a year-round enterprise, constantly driving news and conversation on television and online.
However, that all changed with increased draft and training camp coverage in the early 2000s, the formation of the NFL Network in 2003 (in over 60% of households as of 2015), and online communities formed by team-specific blogs, Facebook and Twitter.
The National Basketball Association may not have the same level of popularity in the United States, but the last decade’s crop of stars have led to a Golden Age in the NBA only rivaled by the height of Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame career. And unlike the NFL, the NBA’s built it’s growing legion of U.S. fans (#NBATwitter is legend at this point) and millions of supporters abroad by way of engaging media personalities and a smart streaming product which prioritized digital distribution over everything else.
To little surprise, fans responded well to the experience — as its League Pass product has numerous streaming and linear options customizable to countless viewing styles. This couldn’t happen without networks willing to pay, though — and they have. In 2014, the league signed a $24 billion deal with ESPN and Turner that runs through the 2024-25 season. For as much as the NBA was seemingly “everywhere” before, that trend has only continued since the deal was signed.
When you look at today’s NBA, the season just simply never ends. The regular season schedule now begins in mid-October (versus its old late October/early November start). National games are fixtures on ESPN networks, NBATV and TNT through December, and then those options grow considerably once college football moves off the calendar (key for ESPN’s available time slots). The NBA All-Star weekend has become a three-day event. And despite the recent perceived monotony of four straight Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers Finals matchups, people are still watching by the millions — and at rates they haven’t in the preceding decade.
At the conclusion of the NBA Finals in June, we move right into the draft; itself an event covered wall-to-wall on every platform and owning headlines as the primary sports happening on the calendar in non-World Cup years. Then the draft opens up into the theater of free agency, courtesy of a LeBron James-led focus on the league’s talent as performer. That moves onto Summer League, then the remainder of the summer shifts to lingering free agency concerns, rookie development, training camp and then suddenly it’s preseason again and the process starts anew.
Summer League is probably the largest proof point of all of just how much the NBA’s grown into a juggernaut of its own. Ratings ballooned last year on ESPN, and figure to grow even more during this season’s first-ever showcase of all 30 teams in Las Vegas. Games are still in progress on NBATV, ESPN, ESPNU and ESPN2. But they’re essentially preseason games with a bunch of young players who’ve never played in an NBA game… and yet, they’re drawing plenty of reactions from fans worldwide.
The model that the NFL pioneered was thought to be tough to replicate. Yet the NBA may have perfected it by focusing on digital, fan engagement and a seemingly endless supply of actual games. Football’s limited in how many actual games you can broadcast. Basketball isn’t hampered by the same issue. Between the preseason, regular season, postseason and Summer League, an individual team could play well over 100 games. And each and every one of those can be found on digital platforms.
Sure, the NBA may not supplant the NFL as America’s favorite league any time soon. But among its fans, it’s delivering an experience that’s native to how they want to watch and virtually year-round at this point. Live content remains a recipe for success for leagues and networks, and the NBA is simply able to capitalize on that better than most.