Thanks to social media, the golden era of basketball wasn’t the 90s – it’s now
Sports fans often look back at a certain area of their chosen sport with rose-tinted spectacles. Zach Brown, senior context planner at at Translation (part of UnitedMasters), tells us that basketball fans overfocus on the 90s. For our Sports Marketing Deep Dive, he argues that we’re living in basketball’s greatest era right now thanks to a joyful explosion of content on social media and beyond.
Growing up, my elementary school classmates and I would constantly talk about the greatness of Michael Jordan. There was a (long) time when I truly believed that Michael Jordan had never missed a shot in his life. My parents struggled to convince me otherwise. There was no Google to tell me to chill.
To many, 90s basketball is the game in its purest form. The Tim Duncan backboard shots; the midrange game. We always hear from pundits: “They played defense! No one today plays any defense!” (For what it’s worth, do you think that anyone can stop this?)
Social media has ushered in basketball’s golden age, argues Zach Brown / Image courtesy of Translation
The true golden era
What if I told you about an era of basketball that is better than the 90s?
The greatest era of basketball is happening right before our eyes. While working on the set of NBA Lane, the NBA’s flagship campaign to celebrate its 75th anniversary, in the summer of 2021 my thoughts were validated.
Being in the presence of the players and their impact on everyone was something to behold. I worked with Donovan Mitchell to properly push a lawn mower; ensured Carmelo Anthony didn’t ruin a jacket that probably cost as much as my student loans; and watched Gary Payton get swarmed by adoring fans who recalled some of his best moments.
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I have a unique role within a strategic yet creative discipline at Translation: context planning. As a senior context planner, I examine the timing, talent and technology that activate brands in the moments within culture that matter to audiences most. For the NBA, we have no shortage of moments and anniversaries to push off to create impactful, resonant work.
Before anyone comes for me, basketball has evolved well beyond the confines of the court. Social media made this possible.
Three social media plays that reshaped basketball
Social media’s impact has undeniably reshaped how we connect with and experience today’s game.
1. Social media puts the lives of the players front and center
What if I told you the most major move this off-season wasn’t a trade? It’s not Jalen Brunson to the Knicks, Rudy Gobert to the Timberwolves, or anything from Woj. It happened in a restaurant in Florida, when Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies paid the bill. Upon receiving the check after finishing a meal with friends and family, Ja pays and tips the server $500. The server, shocked, asks who Ja is. He replies: “Black Jesus.” Everyone laughs and continues the conversation; Ja reveals who he is; the server leaves with her tip.
The video is part of a YouTube content series from TM x MBNO x WTTD. The players in today’s league understand that their brand far transcends the court, and fans anxiously await behind-the-scenes content. These moments make players relatable; their generous actions further deepen their engagement with fans.
2. Social media keeps the receipts to display how this generation of players impacts fans
Being a fan of basketball means more than clinging to one team. As much as I enjoy watching and cheering for the New York Knicks, I greatly admire players including Steph Curry, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Donovan Mitchell (please come to the Knicks).
The impact these players create pre- and post-game touches an entire generation of younger fans.
Social media offers proof points to differentiate the game from generations past. With Steph Curry and Kevin Durant embracing young fans courtside, these stories demonstrate true impact and show the regard that fans have for the players. Social media exemplifies the breadth of influence the game has on entire communities.
We also see these touching moments being ripped from screen recordings to make YouTube Shorts, Instagram Reels and TikToks that make moments into iconic memories.
3. Social media helps us connect with the game and players more than ever before
Soccer, basketball and football are my holy trinity of sports. The summer is when I learn more about the squads, read trade gossip and listen to some of the worst takes of all time. But I love watching players’ offseason moves, like the random moments when LeBron pulls up to a Drew League game. Demar DeRozan and LeBron combined for 72 points this week in their Drew League match-up.
From Overtime, I learned about another pro-am match-up that didn’t catch all of the headlines. Malachi Flynn of the Toronto Raptors put up 73 points in his summer league match-up. I would have never known about this if it weren’t for those uncovering stories from around the league. Handles such as Overtime and House of Highlights, fan accounts and even individual re-shares highlight the desire for unlimited player content. This content underscores fan desire and drives brand love for the NBA even higher.
Someone will read this and say: “Well, if social media existed in the 90s, we would have so many more stories! You would think the 90s was the best era by far.” We will never know, just like we’ll never agree who is the GOAT – Michael Jordan, LeBron or Kobe.
Check out The Drum’s latest Deep Dive, The New Sports Marketing Playbook, and learn the tactics employed by the world’s biggest sports organizations and their star athletes to stay at the top of their game.
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Translation is the creative arm of UnitedMasters Inc. UnitedMasters Inc. is the combination of the leading music creator platform UnitedMasters and the creative agency Translation, both founded by industry veteran Steve Stoute. We empower brands and artists to thrive in contemporary culture through a unique mix of actionable insights, technology, and storytelling. Translation was founded on the power of culture to propel discourses, trends, and movements. For over 15 years, we’ve leaned into this belief to build disruptive platforms that enable ambitious brands and the next generation of artists to forge authentic connections with audiences at scale.Find out more