Foul mouths? How NBA referees got into the content and social game

Often cast as ‘the bad guys’ of sport, and nowhere more so than in the hostile close quarters of the basketball court, the arbiters of the rules – the referees – have been finding their own voice in the NBA of late, with the game’s most hated adopting a human touch.

For National Basketball Association (NBA) referees, life does not necessarily imitate art, as depicted in the 1995 romantic comedy Forget Paris where star Billy Crystal, as top NBA ref Mickey Gordon, gets into the mix with a number of the sport’s stars on the court.

In the penultimate scene, featuring various players of the time, Gordon (who lets his personal life into his work life) goes ballistic and ejects Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from a game during his last season in the league after an on-court argument.

Abdul-Jabbar: “What are you, nuts? This is my farewell game!”

Gordon: “Oh yeah? Well, let me be the first to say, ‘farewell!’”

Bleacher Buzz on Bleacher Report deemed Gordon as number one in its ‘top five referee and umpire movie characters’ and it is likely with good reason, as NBA referees are part of a highly intimate and visible sport, where officials are mere feet from fans and those with a courtside seat are treated to the banter between players, coaches and officials.

“The majority of confrontations I’ve had between players and officials, although from the outside may appear to be aggressive, generally aren’t,” says Marc Davis, longtime NBA ref and National Basketball Referees Association (NBRA) board member.

“There are some things that happen from time to time, but generally the fans in the closer seats are there to enjoy that game experience. They really do enjoy it. Their fanaticism is what drives our business, so it’s not as intense as what you think. They just want their team to win by any means necessary.”

NBA referees are more high-profile than in other sports and are sometimes (unfairly) cast as ‘the bad guys’ when a call doesn’t go a team’s way. But they have the commensurate personalities and personas that weave nicely into the entire experience. As opposed to being arbiters of the rules, they are part of the fabric and, to that end, the NBRA hired Dallas agency Commerce House to build a brand and its voice for the referees.

“As an agency, we love getting involved in opportunities and projects that are very much uncharted space,” notes Mark Denesuk, Commerce House’s chief executive. “It just seems like it’s so natural to be hostile and angry towards the refs as fans and people viewing the game. They’re kind of in a no-win situation. While I don’t know if we can ever change that, I think what’s important is we want to make sure that there’s this inherent respect for the referees and the professionals that they bring to the game. Our job is really to help people appreciate how difficult it is to do what these guys do.”

To that end, the agency has begun to gain traction with an immersive and broad range of content that tells the NBRA’s story — from increased activity on social to original content including ‘Foul Language’, a lighthearted look at NBA refs reading not-so-flattering tweets about refs from NBA fans. By rule, refs are not allowed to have personal Twitter accounts and the NRBA feed allows for refs to unify their voices. A riff off of the popular Jimmy Kimmel bit, ‘Foul Language’ has been popular, resulting in 90 per cent positive sentiment and a 20 per cent lift in the NRBA’s Twitter audience.

Though the NBRA and the program is adjacent to the league, it is meant to work as a standalone by design and has yet to receive any input from the league — but it would be welcome.

“We would be more than happy to hear from them,” says Davis. “I think we’re all working towards the same thing. I don’t see us as at odds with the NBA at all. Part of what we’re doing here is just adding a dimension to the way that people can engage with the game of basketball. We’re adding another perspective, another voice and, ultimately, that to me enhances the basketball experience that the fans get to enjoy. There’s a whole other narrative and storyline coming from our perspective, and I think it adds interest and engagement.”

The ‘day job’ (or ‘night job’ since most games are in the evening) is one thing, but Denesuk points out that there is much more to the refs than what happens on the hardwood at each game.

“They’re not just these robots out there doing what they do. Their humanity is important to push through on what we do. In fact, some of the highest performing social media posts we do are involved with the philanthropic activity of the NBRA.”

The charitable side of the equation, long a bastion of success for the league and its individual franchises, is something that the NBRA and Davis, who knew from a young age that he wanted to be a professional referee, take very seriously. From book clubs with Scholastic America to working with underserved communities, NBA referees have long contributed in a positive way.

“We have a 40-year history of being in the community,” notes Davis. “Just recently, and very uncomfortably so, we’ve started to see the value in promoting those things, not just for ourselves but to promote those causes and to promote our voice so that impact can even be stronger. That is something that all NBA employees, not just the NBRA, have tapped into because that is, without question, one of the biggest, most impactful things that the NBA does in the community. We’re just an offshoot of that and have always done it kind of over to the side, on our own with no aplomb.”

Commerce House, for its part, sees continued content evolution — and doesn’t necessarily see big ‘moments’, but rather a continuing and evolving ‘playbook’, venturing into new territories. In the final analysis, though, it’s about NBA refs and the NBRA becoming even more comfortable in their collective skins, in an entertaining and informative way, never losing sight of what’s most important.

“We are starting to learn that marketing NBA referees is not something you do for your own self benefit to pat yourself on the back,” says Davis. “It’s something that you do to increase your command and your reach for those who you’re trying to help.”

This feature was first published in The Drum's second US print edition. Subscribe to The Drum here.

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