LeBron Fuels Digital Boon for the NBA

The knock on LeBron James is  he’s no Michael Jordan, but it appears his run to the an NBA championship could have a similar affect as his Airness when it comes to popularizing the sport. Most notably, James is playing at a time when the NBA is leaning more and more on its digital channels.

Currently, the Miami Heat, featuring stars/villains LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, have a two-games-to-one lead on the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals. Driven by several rounds of exciting playoff series, as well as the Heat’s star-studded lineup and drama-filled season, James and crew have delivered not just TV ratings. They’ve also helped NBA.com generate 2.5 billion video views, double that of last season, while attracting 8 million unique users a day. Social media has proven to be a huge driver of the site’s traffic this season, said Bryan Perez, svp and gm for the NBA’s digital unit. Facebook is now the site’s second-largest traffic driver behind Google, with the number of referrals increasingly hundredfold since 2008.

On the mobile front, the NBA’s app now averages 11-minute usage sessions, added Perez, who noted the league’s recent partnership with Microsoft Windows Mobile. Since the playoffs started, the app has been downloaded over 680,000 times, a surge of 75 percent versus last year. Perez didn’t have traffic numbers available for the NBA’s iPad application (it hasn’t launched on any Android tablets yet), but he did note that tablet users are exhibiting different habits than mobile users.

Fans have taken to using iPads while watching games, which is what they have been designed for, said Perez. For example, the app allows a user to tap on a particular player and in an instant pull up stats — is LeBron close to a triple double?

“You can’t get that on a phone,” said Perez. “A shot chart doesn’t work on a 3.5-inch screen like it does on a 10-inch screen. Inside what we’ve seen is that mobile is about substitute viewing.”

While several sports leagues have begun to agressively cater to tablet users (MSG Network even produced original video commentary during the New York Knicks’ brief playoff run earlier this year), Perez said the NBA was unlikely to follow suit.

“Part of our philosophy is that we put our best content possible and put it on every device, across as many distribution channels as possible,” said Perez. “We’re just producing content. You don’t want to produce Webisodes or something that only lives in one place. We won’t limit our product to any one platform.”

Perez also cautioned against over estimating the tablet market, making the point that the majority of Web/TV co-viewing is still fans using laptops and PCs, which explains the huge growth in NBA.com traffic.

“Our video numbers are staggeringly huge,” he said. “Outside of YouTube and Hulu were are close to becoming one of the publishers in the world. This is the second year in a row we’ve had triple-digit growth.”

That’s paid off in advertiser interest. Perez explained that while roughly a third of the NBA’s ad deals are multiplatform, those generate roughly 75 percent of total ad reveneu. “Those tend to be bigger deals.” This year, Sprint and Lexus signed on as exclusive sponsors of the NBA’s iPad app.

As for social media, the NBA’s own page and its players’ pages account for 117 million likes and followers — or about 9 million fans on Facebook and 3 million on Twitter.

“It’s been a strong emphasis,” said Perez. “It’s starting to power our overall business.”

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