Is the NBA's jump in ratings caused by Twitter?

The NBA opened its schedule on TNT to its highest rated opening night in the last 26 years; the question now is why? Is it because of the NBA’s presence on Twitter and in other social media—unmatched by any other professional sports league—has brought in completely new fans? Close, but not exactly right.

While its been swirling in the consciences of many, I first saw this question asked by Nate Jones of Goodwin Sports. The specific question asked to his Twitter followers: “ do you guys think that the increased interaction on social media by NBA is helping with ratings?” From there, the responses varied, but one that jumped out at me was Chriss Littmann’s: “Unlikely. People who took the time to find NBA players/teams on social media were probably already fans.” Littman does work on blogs and other social media for sportingnews.com.

It would’ve been fun to embrace the notion that more people are watching the NBA simply because Shaq, Dwight Howard and others are keeping everyone up-to-date with their daily actions and occasionally interacting with their fans. While Jones does point out that Howard has received several comments indicating that there are those who wouldn’t be fans of his or basketball if it weren’t for his presence on Twitter. However, it isn’t reasonable to assume these people are going to sit down and watch a full basketball game or even enjoy what the league has to offer for an extended period of time.

In a post on his blog, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban comes close to hitting it exactly.

Every type of content has some quotient of participation value...At the top of the scale are games/shows/movies/events that potential viewers have predicted to have high participation value.  These are events that we look forward to not only watching or attending, but that we plan in advance how we are going to extend our participation.  We may plan on tweeting about it or posting a facebook update because we know our friends are there and we are bragging to each other, while at the same time showing off to friends who cant be there. Think going to the opening of Cowboys stadium, or going to a concert or opening night of a movie, or watching the big game.

Cuban strays a bit and states that “You may watch a Magic game just to be able to tweet to Dwight Howard what you saw while watching the game.” If you’re doing this, you’re delusional. Dwight Howard does just about as good a job of any professional athlete when it comes to interacting with fans but the odds of you being one of the miniscule number of people he does get a chance to reply to are slim.

Before I go any further, let me state that I have never been an NBA diehard. I was a huge fan of Jordan’s Bulls in the 90s and have always been well-versed in the sport—knew the best teams, players etc. while being sure to tune-in for the playoffs—but I never would’ve considered myself an absolute fanatic of the league as a whole. My city, Seattle, lost its NBA team and when they were here I went to less than five games a season. However, this season I purchased NBA League Pass and am attempting to watch as many games as possible.

I can say with absolute certainty that I wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for the amount of NBA discussion on Twitter. However, this isn’t caused by likes of Dwight Howards and Shaquille O’Neal. It’s people like Nate Jones and Chris Littmann, Bethlehem Shoasl, J.E. Skeets and Russ Bengtson.

I’ve been on Twitter for a couple years but it wasn’t until last year’s Finals that I realized its value to a sports fan. I created a ‘Sports’ column on Tweetdeck comprised of the most insightful sports fans, bloggers and writers I could find and followed that as I watched the games. Much better than relying on Tirico, Van Gundy and Breen alone for analysis. On top of that, the analysis isn’t one way. I can reply and interact with these writers as well as other fans.

This is how the NBA has gained in popularity via social media. The players and their interaction with fans certainly has a hand in it, but more credit goes to the ongoing discussion amongst the league’s outstanding writers and fans. The line between writers and fans is blurring. This isn’t due to an increase in biases amongst writers, but more fans being knowledgeable on the league and sharing their opinions by way of social media.

These fans, writers and even the athletes to an extent have created an online environment where casual basketball fans are transforming into hoops enthusiasts. Good news for TNT and the NBA.

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