NBA All-Stars won’t be the only stars in Indianapolis this weekend. The league has also invited more than 100 digital content creators and influencers to town, taking over a comedy club for a series of invite-only events and collaboration opportunities.
The goal is simple: to keep some of the internet’s biggest personalities within what executives call “the NBA family,” ensuring that they’re closely connected to the game—and therefore so are their followers. But sports leagues also face a risk as they embrace the web’s celebs: What if, one day, fans care more about the faces in the stands than those on the floor?
The NBA’s official creator program is now nearly a decade old, encompassing work with more than 1,000 individuals that has generated more than 10 billion video views. There are fewer than eight billion human beings living today.
NBA officials were early to democratize fan expression, giving at-home viewers the tools and freedom to post clips and commentary online, fueling a generation’s worth of social media discussion and the erstwhile NBA Twitter community. Today though, the relationship can go even deeper.
At December’s inaugural In-Season Tournament, the NBA rolled out the red carpet for creators—literally—letting them walk the same path LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo took to the court in Las Vegas. Influencers even got on that court for the first-ever Creator Cup, a game featuring 12 basketball culture personalities put on in partnership with YouTube. The Hoopers beat the Ballers, 87-86, in overtime, and the NBA came away with more than 200 million social video views from their time in Las Vegas.
Hoopers head coach Kristopher London, who entertains 3.6 million YouTube subscribers when he’s not patrolling exhibition game sidelines, has since gotten a promotion. He’s one of four “Creator GMs” who drafted squads of pro players for Sunday’s G League Up Next Game. NBA G League head coaches will be left to manage the in-game decisions. Other notable All-Star Weekend attendees include TikTok food reviewer Keith Lee, shooting coach Lethal Shooter, comedian Funny Marco and streamer Kai Cenat, who will play in the Celebrity Game Friday night. TikTok star Air Corgi (AKA Steph Furry) will be around as well.
“The NBA has been the most proactive in leveraging digital creators and influencers to help get the word out about the league,” said Long Haul Management CEO and founder Dan Levitt, who represents digital-first sports talent.
Creators’ position vis-a-vis pro players has evolved over the last 10 years, too. NBA SVP and head of social, digital & original content Andrew Yaffe has noticed NBA stars walking over to YouTubers like Jesse “Jesser” Riedel, wanting to shake his hand. “It’s created this whole new dynamic,” Yaffe said.
Every basketball player wants to be a rapper is so 2010. Now many want to be influencers.
In fact, a 2019 poll of 8-to-12 year-olds in the U.S. and U.K. found 30% of young’uns wanted to be YouTubers or vloggers, compared to 21% who identified pro athletics as their dream job. Some of those respondents are now just a couple years away from NBA Draft eligibility—and likely already trying to go viral online.
Of course, it’s also a false choice. Just ask Flau’jae Johnson, LSU women’s basketball player, rapper and one of college’s top NIL earners thanks to her massive social media following (close to 3.5 million across Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and X).
NBA CMO Tammy Henault has referred to the NBA’s 450 players as “the best influencers in the world on our platforms.” They’ll be invited to the NBA House, naturally, while they produce their own content throughout the weekend, navigating the typical challenge of any clout accruer looking to collaborate with colleagues while also competing for eyeballs.
The NBA has clearly been smart in its strategy of elevating its players as personalities, while also bringing hundreds of others into its orbit. Outsider entertainers are particularly valuable as the NBA seeks to sink its teeth deeper into related communities ranging from gaming and betting to fashion and food. Training and travel represent two additional potential areas for growth. The league has the ability to create clips serving consumers interested in those categories, but partnering with a creator already embedded in one of those worlds generally represents a more fruitful shortcut.
Over time, the group responsible for identifying and working with creators has expanded, from an Influencer Content group to include marketing experts and more within the new NBA Creator Content Workstream.
“It’s a critical part of our overall marketing strategy, especially to be able to touch all fans across the spectrum,” Henault said of the NBA’s creator strategy in an interview. “It helps us get reach and scale and helps us deepen our engagement. And ultimately, it helps us to get our fans closer to the game.”
And the league isn’t alone. The NFL is already experimenting with adding a Creator Row to its more traditional Radio version. NBA media partners ESPN and TNT Sports have their own creator connection efforts too. Creator Cup, for instance, clearly took at least some inspiration from House of Highlights’ Creator League series.
The programs are here to stay. The only question left is just how big they’ll get. Will digital video makers remain a symbiotic growth vehicle for sports, or are they more of a predator in thumbnail camouflage?
Think back 100 years to when movie houses used sports stars of the day, like Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey, to lure young viewers into the theater only to watch sports emerge as a massive cultural force via other media such as radio or television. Journalists prospered by making athletes stars too, until they were largely forced to cede their role as conduits in the modern era as the internet reached massive scale.
It shouldn’t be taken for granted that kids will continue growing up idolizing and imitating team sport stars. Today’s video platforms have an all-encompassing and flattening effect: Highlights generated from a multimillion dollar production assembled to capitalize on a multibillion dollar rights deal sit next to a clip made on a smartphone in someone’s backyard (as well as YouTubers’ own massive productions). Or, it’s possible a user doesn’t even see the former option at all– if their personalized recommendation engine doesn’t deem it worthy. If anything, televised sports are at a disadvantage here, forced to adapt in order to outcompete homegrown talent.
In a potential best case scenario for traditional sports, young viewers could be exposed to the games via social personalities before becoming fully invested in the league as they age.
Tech has brought its own advantages. New tools help leagues find up-and-coming creators and offer introductions. Creators have been particularly valuable to the NBA’s international efforts. In Brazil, for example, YouTubers have been tapped to translate the league’s whiparound Crunchtime show.
Some of them will be among the Indy invitees. The NBA launched a similar concept during the 2021 NBA Finals, bringing it to All-Star Weekend for the first time last season in Salt Lake City. The league is “taking it up a notch this year,” Henault said, bringing in new partners and adding additional programming elements to inspire its guests. NBA House is quickly becoming creators’ home court.