VidCon: David Denenberg Says Experimentation Is Key to NBA’s Online Success

Exec offers peek inside one of America's most digitally-innovative sports leagues

The rules are still being written. If any message came through from the 9th annual VidCon in Anaheim, California, it’s that content creators, brands, and platforms are trying everything they can and seeing what sticks.

Sports was in attendance at several sessions, with the highlight being a fireside chat with David Denenberg, senior vice president of global distribution and business affairs for NBA Entertainment.

Jocelyn Johnson (left), founder of VideoInk, chats with David Denenberg, SVP of Global Distribution and Business Affairs for NBA Entertainment, during a fireside chat at VidCon 2018.

The NBA experiments with online offerings more than any other league, and in his talk Denenberg guided the audience through those efforts. Try new things, listen to feedback, and respond quickly with changes, he advised.

“We were the first company to put a live stream of a game on Facebook,” Denenberg said. “We’re the marketing agent for USA Basketball, which is the Olympic team, so we did an exhibition game from the T-Mobile Arena in Vegas on Facebook. We’re experimenting. We got some comments: People didn’t like all the comment field coming up, so we adjusted as we went along. We really believe that it’s important to experiment.”

One of the NBA’s recent experiments was suggested by Facebook’s video team. They pointed out the NBA gets higher engagement from highlights that offer fans a closer view of the action. The NBA decided that was worth pursuing, and set up an additional camera in every arena just to capture close-up views for mobile viewers. Thanks to those cameras it was able to deliver highlights with much tighter shots, and those got two-and-a-half times the engagement as clips with the standard view, helping the NBA sell out the ad spots.

The NBA also experiments with platforms, never sure which will be the next to take off. It’s streaming its new esports league, NBA 2K, over Twitch. It streams its developmental G League on Eleven Sports, as well as on ESPN and Facebook.

“We’re definitely experimenting with all of the platforms, and we’ll see where the live rights go. At the same time, we have seven years left on our ESPN and Turner deals, so we’re very respectful of those as well,” Denenberg said.

The NBA’s experimentation extends to how fans experience games, as well. The NBA has a committee tasked with creating the optimal game telecast, which might include incorporating fantasy elements, different camera angles, or even different announcers. One test lets influencers call games and create their own streams for fans.

An experiment that’s paying off big is Instagram. The NBA recently topped 29 million followers on Insta, making that the league’s fastest-growing platform. No matter the social channel, the NBA is careful to program content for its strengths. It puts short, snackable content on Instagram, focusing on Stories. It created Instagram Stories that played like mini-movies during the Finals. When Facebook Watch debuted, the NBA pivoted its Facebook strategy and went long-form. It produces “The Starters” for Twitter, a show that’s slightly longer than its Instagram clips. Naturally, it posts lots of highlights to YouTube. Denenberg noted that the NBA has 9 million subscribers on YouTube, more than any other sports league. But it’s the personality-driven clips that do best: The NBA’s most-watched YouTube video shows an excited Lebron James tackling a fan who just sank a half-court shot during a halftime contest to win $75,000. Before that went viral, the NBA’s most-watched clip showed Shaquille O’Neal dancing at an all-star game.

Denenberg knows that the players’ personalities are one of the NBA’s great assets—they’re the world’s most-recognized athletes, he said—so it uses premium content to highlight those personalities. Podcasts are another avenue here: Richard Jefferson got 125,000 downloads for a podcast about off-hours socializing, and JJ Redick has a popular show, as well.

The NBA’s experimentation mindset extends to its linear partners. Denenberg noted that the league has a 40-year-long relationship with Turner, and it partners with TNT to create At that site, fans can enter the TNT Overtime area to choose from multiple camera angles during a game. That shows how partners are evolving with the NBA, he noted.

“It’s sort of a laboratory. We’re going to see what sticks,” Denenberg said. “We’re really embracing this opportunity to deal with new media, and you know not everything’s going to work. We know that going in, but the beauty of digital is that you get instant feedback, and you’re able to use that feedback to adapt accordingly.”

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