10 Insights from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver at SXSports

On March 11-13, 2016, thought leaders and innovators in the sports industry were among those in attendance at the South By Southwest Interactive annual festival. Certainly one of the tallest, and perhaps the most influential, was Commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA), Adam Silver.

Silver straddles the era of traditional and modern content consumption and has been instrumental in helping the NBA adapt to modern technology and growing the NBA brand all over the world. Here are 10 insights from his talk at SXSports that represents not just what has helped propel the NBA’s success, but also what other sports business leaders can heed to thrive in this new and ever-evolving era, too:

  1. The value of sports content comes from its “perishable programming” 

    In a world in which top sports events can elicit hundreds of thousands of tweets per minute and Snapchat stories last only 24 hours before (mostly) disappearing, there is more acknowledgement than ever that content that is “perishable” and fleeting captures attention unlike any other. It’s why live sports is such valuable property and why the sports business bubble is far from bursting. It may be to the chagrin of many that today’s buzzer-beater is quickly displaced by tomorrow’s triple-double, but  it’s not about lamenting the limited lifespan of live sports; it’s about being prepared, with ways to amplify, disseminate, and re-purpose content, before it’s forgotten or displaced by what happens next. It is the perishable nature of live sports, coupled now with the communal experience enabled by social media, that has, and will continue to, uphold the value of live sports.

  2. A generation of kids fell in love with basketball because they grew up watching NBA player home videos

    There have been tons of stories about NBA and college basketball stars spending childhood nights watching YouTube clips (and now Vines) of star players showcasing incredible moves. Such experiences even inspired by the likes of Dirk Nowitzki in Germany, Yao Ming in China, Andrew Bogut in Australia, and beyond. It’s incredible to think there was a day not long ago when Major League Baseball and some other sports leagues suppressed clips from being spread on the web. But as more studies confirm what we already knew – that fans become fervent fans of a sport in their pre-pubescent years, getting as much exposure to young fans is paramount. This is where the NBA has been international leaders for years.

  3. Clips are the snacks, games on TV are the meal

    Related to the point above, the NBA never thought show that sick LeBron dunk or that Steph Curry half-court three pointer meant fans would not watch games or visit digital properties because they got their fill from this endless array of quick clips. The mass consumption of GIFs, Vines, and clips do not just whet the appetite, but sets up the NBA to serve a panoply of programming and full games. It is why the NBA recently unveiled their pay-per-view model for games, in which fans mesmerized by a back-and-forth battle between the Warriors and Spurs can snack on clips, until they crave the full meal. (Anyone hungry now?)

  4. There have been 35 million  downloads of NBA app this season alone 

    There are so many key performance indicators (KPI’s) to track now and TV ratings and unique web visitors can’t come close to telling a complete story. Mobile is now top-of-mind for many, including the NBA. It is why Silver is so proud, and watchful, of the 35 million downloads of the NBA app. With opportunity to consumes NBA content and games 24/7/365, and a thirst to do so, getting fans all around the world on their app (and collecting data to further personalize the app experience) is a key concern for all sports leagues.

  5. 1 out of 7 people in the world have been exposed to NBA content 

    The National Football League may be king in the United States, but Tom Brady could likely walk the street of China without getting too hounded (besides the fact he is white and is married to a supermodel). Kobe, LeBron James, and Steph Curry? They’re not getting far without feverish fans begging or selfies and autographs. No sport has been more proactive, and successful in their efforts, in truly taking advantage of the globalization of, well, everything. They’ve embraced international distribution channels, sent players overseas to be ambassadors, benefited from NBA players coming from (and going) abroad, and have help foster fans all around the world. It is astounding to think that, if you pull 100 random people from all around the world into room, that at least 14 or 15 of them will have been exposed to NBA content. And that number will certainly grow quickly in the months and years to come. [Just wait til the NBA breaks through big in India!]

  6. Millennials will pay for good content, but don’t like (cable) bundles

    It’s not that Millennials (and, disclaimer, I hate any generalization of a marketing segment based solely on years they were born) have come to expect free content.  It’s that this generation is more aware (and analytical) of the value of, well, everything. And, therefore, understand that when something has value, the provider of said value is justified in charging for it. We’re also more aware (and weary and vigilant) of the tricks of the trade; in the case of cable, for the dozens of hundreds of channels they feel they are paying to get, despite only consuming a few of them. Silver was not signaling impending doom for sports property value. It may just be more a la carte than it is today. And part of a far different distribution paradigm. Millennials pay for what they want and value; simple as that.

  7. VR has potential, but not for a full game; but huge potential to ‘humanize’ players

    Setting aside the limited penetration of VR hardware, Silver made a key point about the future of virtual reality for the NBA, as it pertains to fans. Anyone that experiences VR is wow-ed, but, in its current state, is simply not ideal to watch an entire 2.5 hour game. The user experience is not built for it. Besides that, it, for now, isolates from other interaction, a hallmark of live sports and fans that high-five every dunk or trey.
    Silver also made clear his  belief in the power of VR to help fans better relate to their giant, athletic players in their lives off the court by, well, seeing it through their eyes. Experiencing  life at home, working out, practicing, getting stretched and massaged, watching film, etc. It’s raw, uncut, experiential video content. But it’s not ready to sit back and get lost in for hours at a time.

  8. The best ticket/way to experience a game is still a courtside seat and it’s not scalable

    Even the best technology can’t re-create the experience of a courtside seat, limited to the capacity of each arena for 41 regular season games per year. This is not just relevant to the ceiling of VR discussed above, but also to the lasting value of live attendance. Of seeing the speed and size, feeling the atmosphere, and sometimes being victim to the stench of sweat or a stumble of a player into your lap. While marketers are focused on monetization and scaling products of the highest value, some experiences are special. And that’s okay. Its’ a good thing.

  9. Fans everywhere should have access to same stats and feeds as media

    Silver spoke of some smh moments when he looks at all of the content – stats, camera feeds and replays, and official announcements that the reporters on receive. This is where leagues and teams can improve the experience for fans — at the game, at home, all around the world. So many fans now turn to Twitter when an in-game injury occurs, to Vine for a quick replay, and Snapchat for a peek inside the huddle or stands. Much to the chagrin of the ebbing generation of (still very talented) sports writers, teams’ and leagues’ content and communications teams need no longer exist solely to serve them, the media — but, instead the real moneymakers – the fans. They’re the ones that ultimately pay the bills and deserve at least that which is provided to the local beat guy.

  10. The league is partners with players (not their boss)

    It’s no secret the NBA thrives on marketing its stars. The NBA is perhaps more known for its handful of individual headline and highlight grabbers than any other sports league in the world. This is clearly the thought and insight behind this statement from Silver. When a tweet from LeBron can set off an entire agenda and series of columns and a “decision” can alter owners’ checkbooks and franchise bottom lines so significantly, the power is necessarily more balanced than ever before.  The league has to approach the players as partners, but it has been a blessing, too. The NBA is also among the best leagues in the world in which those individual star players truly serve as ambassadors for their league and their sport. They have been a part of the growth in popularity and value just as much as the suits upstairs establishing strategy and signing mega media deals.

In his relatively short time as NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver has proven to be one of the most honest, outspoken leaders in the sports world. He’s not only willing,to change, but ready to seek and embrace change and innovation, for the better.

Check out more insights in the SXSports recap deck.

Posted by Neil Horowitz

Follow me on Twitter @njh287   Connect on LinkedIn

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