NBA Markets 2023 Finals Like a Movie, With Cameos Galore

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While this year’s NBA Finals lack an A-list star on the court, the league is marketing the series like a blockbuster. In November the NBA hired then-Paramount executive Tammy Henault as CMO, and she leaned on her Hollywood experience while building this year’s “We Are All In The Finals” campaign.

“Coming from the entertainment space, I really wanted to figure out, ‘How do we have a longer lead to promote the Finals?’” Henault said in an interview. “How do we eventize it like a launch, like a premiere, get the date in people’s minds and try to drive that appointment viewing?”

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The NBA also invested more in increasing awareness of the playoffs overall, expanding its budget for ad inventory on social platforms, connected TVs and linear networks. Data played a key role in the process, even as marketers identified the celebrities who would make a cameo in the league’s commercials.

Using market research data, the NBA created a shortlist of personalities who had particularly high affinities to fans in various demographics. That’s how 55-year-old action sports star Tony Hawk earned a spot in the ad, as well as 30-year-old South Korean rapper Suga. Adele was tapped to lend her vocals, in part due to her own NBA connections (she is reportedly engaged to agent Rich Paul). Comedian Jimmy Kimmel and NBA legends Magic Johnson and Larry Bird also make appearances, along with Eli and Peyton Manning.

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“We were able to have our overarching spot that pulled all of these personalities together, but also cut really specific, unique vignettes with different pairs of the talent and we’re able to target those digitally to specific segments,” Henault said.

As an entertainment marketer, Henault leaned on affinity audience data—if she was promoting a sci-fi show, for instance, she’d look for similar programs’ viewers to pitch. “What is interesting in my role here is I feel like almost anything is kind of an affinity to the NBA,” she said.

The NBA sent its Larry O’Brien Trophy on a tour that included stops at other sporting events, but also meetups with the cast of Hamilton, K-pop band TXT, Miss America and the Stanley Cup. The interactions have garnered more than 75 million video views online, in addition to coverage in a range of sports and entertainment outlets (including this one, I guess.)

In a home-stretch push, the NBA has created branded food trucks for select markets, offering coffees with a reminder about how to watch the Finals. “That’s sort of a tried-and-true entertainment tactic as well,” Henault said. The trucks will also be sharing QR codes for drinkers to download the NBA app, as the league drives towards a direct-to-consumer future.

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For Henault, the transition feels familiar; she was at Paramount as it made a big move into streaming. Before then, she helped guide magazines and The New York Times as they became digital businesses.

“Ultimately, we’re going to have to be in a lot of different places and allow our fans to really consume us wherever they want, however they want,” Henault said. “We are in the middle of a massive media landscape transformation. And I think sports rights are in a big way kind of in the center of it. … I could see how my background and experience could really translate and make an impact on where we’re headed.”

The early returns have been strong. Buoyed by the Heat and Celtics’ seven-game series, TNT had its most watched NBA Playoffs in five years, with an average of 4.7 million viewers. Monday’s Eastern Conference finale was the network’s third most-watched NBA game ever. Across channels, the NBA boasted its most watched playoffs in 11 seasons.

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The league’s recently rebuilt app, meanwhile, saw a 40% increase in downloads during the regular season. Following a price reduction to $99 annually, NBA League Pass’ subscriber base grew 50% this year, according to the league.

One priority on the redeveloped platform has been spotlighting younger stars, especially as the LeBrons and Stephs of the world grow older. A digital “Pass the Rock” series this year, for instance, focused on up-and-comers, including Denver’s Jamal Murray. With the Nuggets in their first Finals, the league also has the opportunity to spotlight Nikola Jokic, who was the 31st most famous basketball player this season, according to YouGov polling, despite being a two-time MVP.

“Because of who he sort of is just as a person—a bit more shy and reserved,” Henault said, “it is more on us to make sure we can help tell his story in a bigger way.”

If Jokic and the Nuggets continue their dominant run, the league might be thinking about how to market a sequel soon enough.

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