The National Basketball Association (NBA) is the preeminent men’s professional basketball league in North America, and it’s widely considered to be the premier men’s professional basketball league in the world. According to Tubular, the NBA is also one of the most watched video publishers on Facebook, Vine, YouTube, and Instagram, so if marketers want to pick up a few tips for a winning social video marketing strategy, then they should take a closer look at the NBA.

NBA: A Loyal Following on YouTube

So, how did the youngest of the four major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada become a multi-platform video all-star? Practice, practice, practice. The oldest video on the NBA YouTube channel was uploaded in February 2007. By comparison, the oldest video on the National Hockey League (NHL) channel was uploaded in November 2006. The oldest video on the Major League Baseball (MLB) channel was uploaded in November 2010. And the oldest video on the National Football League (NFL) channel was published in January 2015. So, you could say that the NBA was one of the two players that turned up early for practice. How are they doing today? Here is the latest data:

  • The NBA’s YouTube channel has 20,800 videos with 3.4 billion views for an average of 164,000 views per video. It also has 6.9 million subscribers.
  • The NFL’s YouTube channel has 6,417 videos with 461 million views for an average of 71,900 views per video. It also has 959,000 subscribers.
  • The NHL’s YouTube channel has 33,800 videos with 433 million views for an average of 12,800 views per video. It also has 651,000 subscribers.
  • And MLB’s YouTube channel has 148,000 videos with 550 million views for an average of 3,700 views per video. It also has 626,000 subscribers.

So, turning up early has paid off nicely for the professional sports league that plays roundball. But, the NHL also turned up early, but hasn’t fared as well. So, something else played an important role. What was it? Well, based on a review of its channel, the NBA mastered a number of best practices to build a loyal and engaged audience on YouTube. For example, the NBA paid close attention to its thumbnails.

  • For action-based content, it choose high contrast close-ups of players.
  • It avoided pixelated images.
  • It added subtle branding to the thumbnail so viewers know it was the NBA’s content.
  • It also realised that professional sports marketers have one chance to get their thumbnail right from the initial upload. If the NBA had waited to create a custom thumbnail, it would have already missed out on the spike in interest right after a game had ended. To see an example, do a YouTube search for “Top 5 Plays of the Night: NBA Finals Game 5.”

The NBA also used playlists to help viewers navigate through its content as well as help extend the lifespan of its content by packaging older videos with more current videos. The league also used links in the description and annotations to direct viewers to relevant playlists. For an example, check out “Blake Griffin`s Big-Time Slam.”

The NBA also kept its channel active – even during the off-season – in order to maintain viewership and audience interest all year round. It created playlists that repurposed season and player highlights such as “LeBron James’ Top 10 Plays of his Career.”

Now, the NBA might have been tempted to sit on its lead on YouTube – but it didn’t. In January 2009, the NBA uploaded “They Dunk. You Decide” to Facebook. and, in June 2013, it published a Vine of Chris Bosh practicing three-pointers during the NBA Finals. In April 2015, the NBA became the first sports league to reach one million Vine followers. And by December 2015, the NBA became the first organization to surpass one billion loops on Vine.

The NBA uploaded its first video to its Instagram account in October 2013. Okay, “The @chicagobulls take the floor for Fan Appreciation Day in Rio. #nbaglobalgames” may suffer from bad lighting, but the Instavid was the start of something significant. In March 2016, the NBA’s videos on Facebook, Vine, Instagram and YouTube amassed 615.8 million views. And Facebook accounted for 47%, Vine added 24%, Instagram contributed 18%, and YouTube chipped in 11%, according to Tubular.

NBA video views march 2016

NBA cross-platform video views March 2016 – data via Tubular

Now, we all know that these different video platforms count “views” different ways. So, let’s look at “engagements,” which includes likes, comments, and shares, in order to get an apples-to-apples comparison of the contributions made by each of the video platforms. Over the last 30 days, the NBA’s videos on Facebook, Vine, Instagram and YouTube amassed 54.8 million engagements. And Instagram contributed 77%, Facebook accounted for 20%, YouTube chipped in 2%, and Vine added 1%.

NBA video engagements

Engagements (likes, shares, comments) on NBA video uploads Mar 17 – Apr 17 2016. Data via Tubular

Now, that’s an even bigger comeback than the one last Wednesday night, which saw the Boston Celtics overcome a 26-point deficit to defeat the Miami Heat. What could possible explain these results?

NBA Videos Attract Huge Fan Engagement

Well, the NBA’s videos on Instagram get a 33% engagement rate. In other words, about one out of every three viewers either likes or comments on an Instavid. By comparison, the NBA’s engagement rate on Facebook videos is 3.5%. It’s 2.5% for YouTube videos. And it’s 0.5% for Vines. For example, check out “65-7” on the NBA’s Instagram account. It has 771,000 views and 257,000 engagements. This extraordinary level of fan engagement shows how the NBA leveraged the history-making run by the Golden State Warriors, who ended the 2015-16 season with a 73-9 record, breaking the record set by the Chicago Bulls, who had finished the 1995-96 season with a 72-10 record.

Other Instavids on the NBA’s Instagram account with equally high levels of engagement compare Stephen Curry with Michael Jordan. Now, that’s a hypothetical match-up that engages fans across different generations and major metropolitan areas.

Now, you might never have learned this lesson – unless you had a multi-platform video strategy. And you’ll never become a multi-platform video all-star like the NBA unless you practice, practice, practice.