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NBA Twitter is Changing the Way We Watch Sports

The NBA is tailor-made for social media—will that help it supplant the NFL as America's game?

Ezra Shaw / Getty

On the front page of there is a section called NBA Pulse, which ranks the top three trending players on Twitter by “mentions per hour” in real-time. This prominent placement is no gimmick. None of the other American sports leagues put such an emphasis on the unfiltered, in the moment opinions of their players and fans as the NBA does, and for good reason.

Twitter has become the epicenter of basketball fandom, a beating heart and a central nervous system, a place where serious statistical analysis flows alongside highlights, jokes, exclamations, and inane trash talk from every conceivable corner of the world. The NBA Twitter ecosystem includes professional gamblers, math geniuses, journalists, front office insiders, superfans, team PR reps, massive athletic apparel brands, cable news anchors, rappers, heads of state, and the very players being discussed. For football and baseball the killer app second screen experience is fantasy sports; for basketball it is Twitter.

“It definitely has become a community,” Milwaukee based fan @rachaelhoops told me, “It’s become near impossible [for me] to not tweet during games. There is something comforting and just plain fun about looking at my timeline and seeing every single person I follow freaking out about a play. It’s as if you aren’t watching the game alone—you’re watching with thousands of other people. And I think the reason it continues to grow in popularity is because reporters, beat writers, and the players themselves, respond and react to tweets. That has probably been the funniest part for me and the reason I stay: Interacting with the players.”

According to the league, “87 percent of players are on at least one social media platform,” and the common estimate among people inside and outside of the league is that at least 70 percent of NBA players are on Twitter. Their spouses often have Twitter accounts and weigh in on the action. Their parents even have Twitter accounts. Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green’s mother tweets liberally, calling out both her son and his opponents with no filter. Players interact directly with fans, they tweet about games in which they aren’t even playing. Most of them are running their own handles. 

In the summer of 2015, Clippers center DeAndre Jordan initially agreed to a deal to sign with the Dallas Mavericks. Several days later, word began to leak out that he was considering changing his mind before free agency actually opened. What followed was dubbed “The Great NBA Emoji War of 2015,” where the rush of Clippers and Mavericks flying into Houston to try to persuade DeAndre to sign with their team was represented by a feverish duel of emoji transportation icons. Trains, planes, automobiles, culminating with elder statesman Paul Pierce tweeting out a rocket ship, except in screenshot form, as he apparently did not know how to actually use emoji. 

After DeAndre decided to stay with the Clippers, hours before the deadline, Blake Griffin effectively announced that Jordan was staying with the team by tweeting this photo from DeAndre’s house

“All it really takes to be part of [NBA Twitter] is to tweet about basketball and be followed by other people who are part of NBA Twitter,” said writer and prominent NBA Twitter voice Ezekiel Kweku. “This seems obvious but that makes it less nebulous and more accessible than some other Twitter subcultures. During games, it’s like watching in a dive bar that’s got the funniest and most insightful fans available,” said Keweku, who tweets at @theshrillest, “The NBA has been an oasis for me both IRL and on social media. I have a basketball list that I’ve curated to click over to... when the barrage of bad news on my main timeline gets to be too much.”

On Twitter, each basketball fan gets to curate their own assemblage of voices, tailored to fandom of a particular team, the whole league, or ancillary facets of basketball culture. The fashion choices of NBA players, the collectively bargained vagaries of the salary cap, the details of sponsored sneaker deals, these all have their devotees and experts. NBA Twitter overlaps with music twitter, media twitter, black twitter, fashion twitter, media twitter, literary twitter—they all are here. NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguadala tweeting at Ta-Nehisi Coates. Poet Sherman Alexie picking his greatest players of all-time.

“I think it really creates a space for fair weather fans to feel feverish, to catch the bug even if they don’t have TVs or watch Sportscenter,” essayist Durga Chew-Bose said. “Twitter is an ideal place for people to express their multiple interests in brief and hysterical ways. Also I think sports for so long were actually not inclusive—I think the idea of fandom is screwed up in so many ways—but NBA Twitter fans, it’s almost… dare I say… it’s wholesome. It also feels like it’s closing the gap on gendered broadcasting. But really, more than anything, NBA Vine is a revolution.”

Almost every consequential basketball play can be distilled into the sort of short embeddable video that thrives on Twitter. Dunks, shots, behind-the-back passes, crossovers, glances at celebrities sitting courtside, these can all be easily turned into an animated gif or a six second loop. In early December, the NBA celebrated its billionth Vine loop, not just the first sports league, but the first organization of any sort to do so. Basketball stats are easily compressible into 140 characters, as is a photo of a player’s new sneakers.

All of this reveals information and detail that would not always be noticed just watching the game on TV. The way rookie Kristaps Pozingis smiled upon meeting and sharing the court with his idol Dirk Nowitzki for the first time. That during the 2014-2015 All Star Game, Stephen Curry wore sneakers sharpied with the name of Deah Shaddy Barakat, one of three Muslim students killed in a shooting in Chapel Hill.

Basketball is so inherently tailored to these platforms that the league promotes itself inevitably, a self-replicating monster.

Fashion writer Arabelle Sicardi holds that she “started watching and paying attention to the NBA because of basketball twitter, people like @theshrillest kept linking to things showing how great the warriors were, I was entertained by it. Even the charts were interesting.”

On most nights, NBA Twitter is a niche fandom revolving around the “League Pass” crowd, i.e. those who purchased the NBA’s premier package, which gives access to (nearly) the complete slate of games. But during the playoffs, All-Star Weekend, or a particularly important regular season game, NBA Twitter supernovas into something else, most of all on Christmas Day, the NBA’s premier regular season showcase.

By noon EST on Christmas day, #NBAxmas was already trending in the United States. By 4pm it was number one, surrounded by four other NBA related topics. By the end of the first quarter of the Golden State Warriors versus Cleveland Cavaliers game, Lebron James was being mentioned on Twitter 22,168 times an hour. By halftime, nine of the trending topics in the US were NBA-related. By the fourth quarter, ten NBA-related topics were trending. Only the massive technical difficulties video gaming client Steam was having could keep the NBA from total domination.

Professional basketball may be far less popular than professional football offline, but it’s more popular than it, and every other American professional sports league, online. The NBA’s official twitter feed has 3.6 million more followers than the NFL’s official twitter feed. The Los Angeles Lakers have 3 million more followers than the Dallas Cowboys. (Neither sport can compete with soccer’s popularity online or offline, however.)

I asked the NBA’s Senior Vice President of Digital Media, Melissa Rosenthal Brenner, how central Twitter had become to the league’s marketing and communication strategy. Her very first response was, “Twitter and social media are so important to the NBA that we added the @NBA handle to the official Spalding game ball at the beginning of the 2014-2015 season.”

NBA Twitter is literally etched into the leather on the ball.

“The league has a 24/7 social media presence,” she continued. “It’s pretty amazing when you realize that Twitter and many of these social platforms did not exist a few years ago.  Now, we have one of the largest social media communities in the world—more than 945 million likes and followers combined across all league, team, and player social platforms.”

I asked Brenner why she thought the NBA had been so successful online, how they facilitated this explosion.

“I feel there have been two key things that have been crucial to that growth. The first is a simple philosophy we have lived by since starting with Twitter in 2008—“listen.” Feedback from our fans on a daily basis has been invaluable in making sure we are providing them with the right content, on the right platform, at the right time.  The second is our great, longstanding relationship with Twitter. Through the years, we have been an early adopter of many of Twitter’s newest features, including Twitter TV Timeline, Twitter Amplify, Twitter Mirror, and Vine. I have to give credit to my mentors, David Stern and Adam Silver, who have always stressed that technology and innovation would enhance the game experience for our fans around the world. We are lucky to have young, tech-savvy players, passionate fans and a game that produces a tremendous amount of shareable highlights that are perfect for Twitter and social media.”

Kweku points out that there is an obvious initial reason for the NBA’s Twitter success, that both “their core audiences are younger and blacker than the general population.”

According to Michael Telis, a Hong Kong based corporate lawyer who has also written about legal issues in sports, “it definitely feels like the average NBA fan on Twitter is a lot smarter and more knowledgeable about the sport than in football. I think football has fallen too deep into fantasy, whereas NBA fans seem genuinely interested in every game, and the way the game is played.”

It is worth wondering what the long term future holds for the NBA and its online community. Can the NBA build on its internet success to the degree that it threatens the NFL’s stranglehold grip on the number one slot in American sports? Can it leverage the borderlessness of the web to become an even more international league? Will individual fanbases organize online to the point that they become real power brokers, where they can prevent team moves or demand organizational changes?

Both the nature of reporting and fandom have already been irrevocably changed by Twitter, as has the ability for an individual athlete to market themselves. Yet social media platforms can rise and fall with great speed and little warning. Several times this past year the future of Twitter was questioned by both tech journalists and investors. If technology changes or evolves into something not so inherently favorable to the NBA, it is reasonable to wonder whether the NBA will be able to adapt.

But for the moment, with a massive new TV deal pouring money into the league and a glut of charismatic young on-court talent, the league’s future looks bright, even with the threat of a possible labor dispute in 2017. The current state of NBA Twitter is one of two things: a golden age of collective sports discourse coinciding with a golden age of on-court talent, or the beginning of a new paradigm in how we consume sports. 

Those who work for the NBA use the word family a lot. Players, reporters, the commissioner himself, use the term “NBA family” or “basketball family” without abandon. And perhaps for the moment, on Twitter, maybe that’s becoming true for the rest of us.