Artwork by Sophia Funk

Between the Lines

Garnering millions of viewers globally per game, the National Basketball Association (NBA) is the fourth largest sports league by revenue in the world. Most of the NBA’s fans hail from the U.S. and Canada since 29 of its 30 teams are concentrated in the U.S. However, less than one percent of all NBA fans worldwide have ever set foot in an arena. For this reason, the NBA is aiming to boost fan engagement and viewership by enhancing the fan experience outside of the physical venue. 

The NBA’s young fanbase—relative to other major North American sports leagues—proves to be both a blessing and a curse. A core audience predominantly under the age of 30 offers an opportunity to foster a long term relationship with fans. However, engaging them is difficult when intense competition for their attention exists not just from other sports leagues but social networking apps and video games as well. The average viewer watches just 48 minutes of the usual two and a half-hour game; a significant amount of viewers are lost during commercial breaks. This limits TV viewership and in turn, reduces revenue generated from advertisements.

To combat this, the league has several projects in progress, including the creation of an Augmented Reality (AR) headset that displays live player stats alongside a game. That being said, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has commented that within the next five years, conventional television will remain the main channel for viewership. This is partly attributed to the lengthy development span of these projects. Declining viewership this past season means that the NBA must capitalize on opportunities to capture its younger viewers until more advanced technologies are introduced.

Play it Back‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎

One engagement strategy that the NBA and other sports leagues are eyeing (if widespread legalization were achieved across the U.S.) is sports betting. Although it is projected to be highly lucrative, it doesn’t create a sustainable competitive advantage because it is sport-agnostic. Even with a first-mover advantage, the NBA would have to compete to maintain its share of the North American consumer’s appetite for betting.

Instead, the NBA should tap into its symbiotic relationship with the music industry. NBR’S NBA Music Index tracked pertinent details about songs associated with the NBA. It pinpointed over 241 current and former NBA players that have been mentioned in a song’s lyrics or title since 1984. To illustrate, the number of NBA players in songs is 1.9 times that of MLB players, and on average NBA players are mentioned more than once in a song, denoting the meaningfulness of the mentions. For example, Post Malone’s career launched after “White Iverson”; a song in which he related his struggles as an artist to his favourite NBA player, Allen Iverson, mentioning him more than four times. Similarly, Lil Wayne wrote “Kobe Byrant” in support of the Lakers after their loss to the Boston Celtics in the NBA 2008 Finals. The songs span a variety of genres but are predominantly hip-hop; a testament to the players’ and in turn the league’s prevalence and deep relationship with the genre. Drake emphasized in his 2010 song “You Can Thank Me Now” that “sports and music are so synonymous [because] we want to be them, and they want to be us.” This could not be more true; more than 17 NBA players have produced or made songs themselves.

Designed by Emily Nold. Source: NBR Music Index

Above all, Drake’s involvement with the Raptors, especially at the height of the 2019 Playoff Series, demonstrates how engagement is best cultivated by drawing upon the unique subculture of a team, which includes its music. Connecting with core fans through audio instead of visual mediums is even more important for the NBA as these fans are indicating signs of screen burnout after spending up to 11 hours a day with a screen. The NBA should partner with Spotify to leverage the game’s unique relationship with the music industry by creating a Music Trivia Game. This strategy, focused on team subcultures, active consumption, and co-creation, takes advantage of the projected growth of the music streaming industry.

Spotify Runs the Point

With Hip-hop dominating the music scene in the U.S. and Canada, the Music Trivia Game (MTG) would likely gain popularity among fans in these regions. Partnering with Spotify makes the NBA’s young fans more reachable; within the U.S., Spotify is the most popular streaming platform among those under 30. Moreover, Spotify’s total global listenership has experienced a 29 percent year-over-year increase, which is double the rate of other platforms like Apple Music. While Apple Music may have more subscribers in the U.S, Spotify still has more active users, further demonstrating the reach it offers the NBA.

Designed by Emily Nold. Source: Verto Analytics

Spotify’s growth is in part due to the popularity of the playlists it creates. It has a rich data trove and industry-leading streaming intelligence; it has utilized insights from its user data to create playlists in addition to bespoke campaigns for brands in the past. For example, it analyzed the moods of its users by age based on streaming of mood-themed playlists and found that those under 30 listen mostly to “lit” and “happy” playlists. Such terms could not be more synonymous with the hype that fans desire to cultivate within team subcultures. The need for such playlists exists; fans have already attempted to create team-specific playlists on Spotify. With its meticulous understanding of audio best practices, Spotify can help the NBA fill this gap most impactfully.

Three-Point Play

The foundation of an NBA-Spotify partnership should be the creation of an official NBA Spotify account to house curated team-centric playlists. By drawing upon insights from a model similar to NBR’s Music Index, Spotify could curate songs based on content. Specifically, it could select songs based on genre and relation to specific players and teams. Additionally, Spotify’s streaming intelligence would enable it to identify songs streamed after and near games. Selecting such songs based on context (event and mood) would leverage the regional culture surrounding a specific team and result in an original team playlist. Combining content and context songs in a playlist creates a hybrid playlist: the latest, most popular paradigm in music consumption that increases the likelihood of a large audience.

Additionally, player-centric playlists such as “Lebron’s Mix” should be utilized to further grow the account’s audience. Relative to other sports leagues, the NBA has increasingly supported players in utilizing fashion, celebrity, and music-related connections to extend their influence beyond the hardwood. Including such playlists would create another avenue for fans to identify with their favourite players.

Fans could also engage with players through exclusive commentary podcasts hosted on the NBA’s account. Spotify’s research indicates that podcasts are increasingly important to younger listeners within the streaming space: its podcast audience nearly doubled in 2019. The commentary podcasts would capitalize on listeners switching from screens to audio to meet their busy lifestyles. They should feature sports analysts discussing the latest NBA news and interviewing players and relevant artists to reinforce basketball’s connection to music. Ultimately, this could transition the NBA away from producing content purely for broadcasters to better meet the needs of its core fans. One of Spotify’s major focuses is on the emerging podcast streaming space; this would add to the growing number of exclusive podcasts it hosts and create greater value for its users.

The Fast Break

The second component of the partnership should be the MTG, which could appear once per game during a commercial break chosen at random. The screen should be split into sections: one half dedicated to the MTG, with a smaller section displaying an advertisement, and the other displaying the live game. The multiscreen mode caters to short attention spans by creating snackable content and the MTG enables participation, which is crucial to effectively engaging young consumers. Although advertisers may not be keen on the smaller advertising space, the multi screen mode and randomness of its occurrence could extend the time the average fan watches a game. Therefore, ads could experience increased overall exposure.

Artwork by Sophia Funk

To play, fans at home would launch a Spotify integration from the NBA mobile app and log into their Spotify accounts. The questions should be posed by a host—either an NBA player or artist with strong association to the league—on the TV screen. Questions should be based off of the NBA podcast or playlist content on Spotify. Coupling this with song specific information derived from a model similar to the Music Index could drive listenership of the NBA’s content. To progress through the game, users would have to correctly answer questions that gradually increase in difficulty by selecting an answer on their phone. Scores should be based off of the number of correct answers and speed of selection, and users could accumulate points over time. Winners could earn prizes such as exclusive merch, early access to new tech like the AR headset, or a VIP experience to a game. To incentivize Spotify subscribership, only premium subscribers would be eligible for prizes. The game could also enable co-creation: during shorter breaks, the screen could split into sections again to allow fans to vote for songs they feel best represent a team and should be placed on a team’s playlist. The song voting options would be drawn from Spotify’s streaming intelligence. 

To reinforce fan engagement, Spotify could create personalized social media “share cards” for MTG players similar to its enormously popular “Spotify Wrapped” campaign. These would highlight user MTG achievements such as prizes won, leaderboard positions, and points accumulated. Additionally, the promotion strategy should also entail players or artists featured in NBA podcasts leveraging their social media presence to promote the NBA’s Spotify account.

Spotify’s Secondary Break

Spotify actively seeks to connect with “micro-communities” across the world. It has identified that the Gen Z cohort celebrates and creates micro-communities that aren’t restrained by geographic boundaries. The NBA is perfect for leveraging micro-communities; each team has an international fanbase with a distinctive subculture and identity. Since a partnership with the NBA would be exclusive to its platform, Spotify would be able to further establish a unique cultural position and differentiate itself from its competitors. 

Spotify has a strong international subscriber base. However, it has more subscribers in Europe than North America. Since this partnership would have the most impact in the U.S. and Canada, it could enable Spotify to capture more users and subscribers in these regions. Coupled with the ability to house exclusive NBA podcasts and content, this partnership could ultimately allow Spotify to continue to solidify its strong foothold in the music streaming market.

The Baseline

Sports based businesses like the NBA thrive at the intersection of entertainment and tech. By partnering with Spotify to create the Music Trivia Game, the NBA creates a space for all fans, even those who aren’t stats diehards, to connect with the players and the game. Strengthening fan engagement extends game viewership which in turn increases exposure to advertisements. Similarly, with this partnership Spotify is able to generate exclusive content to continue building a loyal subscriber base in the U.S. and Canada. All the NBA and Spotify have to do is run the offense.