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NBA on its post-pandemic rebound and expanding basketball’s global footprint

The Bucks’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is helping to stoke the flames of international fervor (NBAE/Getty Images)

After facing the unprecedented hurdles of months-long suspended play, stadium closures and declining viewership rates, the NBA is back and ready for a major rebound ahead of its 75th anniversary. As part of The Drum’s Sports Marketing Deep Dive, the NBA’s vice-president, head of fan engagement and DTC Europe & Middle East George Aivazoglou opens up about how the league is bouncing back post-pandemic and expanding its global reach.

With the National Basketball League finals in full swing, the organization is in the midst of a much-needed rebound. Last year it saw an $84m drop in revenue, but gained significant digital learnings.

It is leaning into the NFT movement, investing deeply in digital-first outreach programs in European markets and recently kicked off a global campaign featuring its stars from around the world as it eyes its 75th anniversary season in 2022.

“The pandemic, while presenting its challenges, has made us re-evaluate our priorities,” says George Aivazoglou, vice-president, head of fan engagement and DTC for the NBA, Europe and Middle East. “It has definitely helped us accelerate certain aspects of the overall fan experience as well as pivot to a digital-first, direct-to-consumer approach. We have also seen how habits and consumption patterns have continued to evolve, which we have taken into account as we push the boundaries in terms of innovation and the fan experience.”

The league has seen growing interest in NBA Top Shot, its first-ever initiative focused on digital collectibles and NFTs. At the same time, the league saw subscriptions to its streaming service NBA League Pass jump by 30% in Europe during the 2020-2021 season.

Another key initiative that has helped the league adapt has been an investment in digital activations. The NBA has partnered with digital platform OWQLO in Europe, which has helped create digital experiences and promote various programs, including Jr. NBA at Home, an interactive exercise-focused content series for children, and Her Time to Play online, which includes programming and resources to get girls involved in the game and help them build confidence and leadership skills.

The Jr. NBA program, in partnership with Basketball England, aims to get more young Britons involved in the game, which is consistent with the league’s investment in expanding its global reach.

“The misconception is that the NBA is purely an American league,” says Aivazoglou. “We have a team in Canada, 14 offices around the world, have staged close to 100 games in Europe alone and this past season counted 107 international players – so we are a truly global brand.”

He points to the success of the league’s global brand campaign ‘That’s Game’, which launched in May just in time for the 2021 playoffs, as a good example. The hero film looks back on some of the sport’s most iconic moments of the last few years, including the Golden State Warriors being crowned 2018 champions, Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell reenacting Vince Carter’s unforgettable 360-windmill dunk and Boston Celtics’s Jaylen Brown sporting a jersey embroidered with the word ‘Liberation’ to call attention to the Black Lives Matter movement.

But the spot doesn’t just feature American stars; it is “centered around local heroes like Giannis Antetokounmpo in Greece and Luka Doncic in Spain,” Aivazoglou says. Furthermore, the league ran various versions of the spot in different markets across Europe, including one in the UK narrated by popular London-based recording artist AJ Tracey.

Europe and the Middle East are especially well-positioned for growth, according to Aivazoglou, due to the region’s flourishing media market and already-strong fanbase. “Fans outside the US represent the biggest opportunity for the league to grow,” he says. “We know that 99% of NBA fans will never go to a live game, so the digital experience and meeting our fans wherever they are is a key part of our strategy. Our fans consume the NBA in a multitude of different ways, which is why we are increasing our focus on pivoting to a direct-to-consumer-first approach and launching many new products, services and experiences for them.”

One of these services is the OTT streaming service NBA League Pass, which may be especially useful to European and Middle Eastern fans, since games are generally broadcast late at night in their respective time zones. With NBA League Pass, international fans can tune in whenever they want.

“For us it is paramount to continue to find engaging ways to curate local content and stories that bring the NBA to life no matter where our fans are,” says Aivazoglou. “As we approach our 75th anniversary season in 2021-22, we are laser-focused on offering a portfolio of digital innovations and hyper-local activations that will continue to push the boundaries in regard to how our fans experience the game. And, of course when it is allowed, we are looking very much forward to bringing even more live games to cities and countries across Europe and the Middle East.”

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