‘On call day and night’: balancing creativity and uncertainty during the NBA playoffs

The NBA turned players like Stephen Curry into superheroes for its playoff campaign

Tomorrow (5 June) will be the 79th game of the NBA playoffs, yet fans and marketers alike are still wading in uncertainty.

With the final, best-of-seven series between the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors gridlocked at a game apiece, marketers at the NBA and its broadcast partners ESPN and Turner are still grappling with the unpredictability of planning their media during the postseason.

Kevin Best, the NBA’s vice-president of brand and advertising, said the league started reviewing creative concepts for its playoff campaign in January and began developing assets in earnest after February’s All-Star game through March.

Best said the NBA used social listening tools to build a campaign from the conversations of its fans. Out of that came the ‘Heroes’ campaign.

The league and its creative agency Translation combined NBA players’ athletic prowess with the comic book craze currently dominating box offices and resonating with the NBA’s core young male demographic.

“We created heroic illustrations… for 28 players heading into the playoffs,” said Best. “We populated those versions for all the different matchups, and we amplified that throughout our social platforms so that ultimately there were multiple individual stories that could be featured in this comic illustration style… giving us the flexibility to speak to the unpredictability of what's going to happen on the court.”

While the NBA armed itself against unpredictability with a warchest of pre-made assets, ESPN leaned into postseason uncertainty with its ‘If’ campaign, developed by R/GA.

ESPN’s vice-president of sports marketing Emeka Ofodile said the network wanted to focus its campaign around the idea that anything is possible come playoff time.

“We're on-call day and night planning or reacting to what is happening,” said Ofodile. “The key thing is always to have the most topical and up-to-date narrative to tell fans what's happening.”

ESPN is doubling down on that always-on approach on social media, where Ofodile said investment helps drive consumption of ancillary content surrounding the game and boost fan engagement.

“We get to hold fans accountable to the wages they put out there,” added Ofodile, as part of ESPN’s playoff plan is to engage with fans directly on Twitter.

The NBA is also taking a digital-first approach, with Best saying that online accounts for around 84% of playoff media spend.

The NBA splits playoff broadcasting between Turner Sports (TNT and NBA TV) and Disney (ESPN and ABC), and must coordinate everyone's marketing plans all without a chief marketing officer, as Pam El retired from the post in late 2018 after four years in the position.

While all marketing material must ultimately be approved by commissioner Adam Silver and deputy commissioner Mark Tatum, Best said led the creative ideation and execution of the 'Heroes' campaign.

Absent a head marketer, the NBA has constructed an integrated marketing operation. For example, while Best worked with Translation to develop the creative aspect of the 'Heroes' campaign, he also worked closely with the the league's strategy and social teams on delivering the campaign.

“From a very functional standpoint [we] make sure we're not duplicating how we're investing and where we're appearing so we're not bidding against the same impressions in the same locations at the same time,” said Best, explaining how the NBA facilitates communication between its broadcast partners.

“We work very closely together... as we're in the planning stages to make sure there's not that redundancy and that duplication, so that we are truly maximizing our impressions.”

Anya Johnson, director of marketing for Turner Sports’ NBA properties, said planning “sports within sports” helps drive performance, so Turner began promoting the playoffs during broadcasts of the college basketball postseason and the UEFA Champions League.

Turner can insert its promotional spots into these different channels, such as TBS and truTV, because they’re all apart of the larger WarnerMedia family. So too is sports content platform Bleacher Report.

Johnson said both Turner and Bleacher Report leverage each other’s assets to cross-promote content. For example, Bleacher Report will leverage it's sister network's on-air inventory and Turner will takeover the outlet’s homepage.

ESPN too takes advantage of its footing within Disney’s media empire. While ABC does air the NBA finals, Ofodile said the network’s generally less sports-focused audience opens ESPN up to a new class of perspective consumers.

“A great part about the [Disney] integration is we've had really great discussions with FX,” added Ofodile, referring to Disney’s recent acquisition of some Fox assets.

“All of these channels bring a different viewer that [we can] reach with our NBA message. We're starting to plug all of that stuff in when it comes to promoting the NBA.”

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