MBPT Spotlight: For NBA TNT Exec, Social Media Is An Important League Slam Dunk

The NBA on TNT is the longest-running NBA-related studio show on television and the longest-running studio program among Turner Broadcasting’s programs, having first aired in 1988. The network’s postgame show, Inside the NBA, also tipped off that year.

Turner and the NBA have been partners for even longer than that, with 2014 marking the 30th anniversary of their alliance. The current contract runs through the 2015-16 season.

Ernie Johnson Jr. has been host of the NBA on TNT since its inception, where he’s joined by Kenny Smith (an analyst since joining the network in 1998); Charles Barkley, who joined in 2000; and Shaquille O’Neal starting last season.

Turner Sports also oversees the NBA’s digital properties, including nba.com (and siblings wnba.com and nba.com/dleague), NBA League Pass and NBA TV, as well as the league’s mobile platform.

In 2011, Christina Miller was named general manager for NBA Digital, also retaining her position as senior VP, programming, marketing and strategy for Turner Sports. With the 2013-14 NBA season now underway, Miller spoke about the growth of NBA Digital, incoming commissioner Adam Silver and the impact that NBA on TNT has on driving fans to other NBA platforms.

NBA commissioner David Stern will be retiring on Feb. 1, so how do you see the change to new commissioner Adam Silver affecting the league?
Commissioner Stern has had an amazing run over the past 30 years, when you look at how the league has grown and, from our perspective, how its role on TV and among its media partners has grown. There are [lots of] players in the league who were born after he became commissioner. But with Adam Silver moving from deputy commissioner, a position he has had for [seven] years, we see a seamless changeover. He has learned from commissioner Stern, and he has had an active role in the growth of the league. You have to give the NBA a ton of credit when you see how smooth the transition has been.

How will the change impact your relationship with the league?
From where I sit on the digital side, I believe he sees the vision for the business of technology, the Internet, mobile and all the other growing and emerging elements as continuing to be very important to the expansion of the NBA. He has a vision of where the NBA will be next, and he has the full support of commissioner Stern as well as the leaders in the league who selected him to succeed commissioner Stern. So the future looks bright.

Do you see the NBA as being among the most progressive sports leagues as far as its use of the Internet, social media and emerging technologies?
Absolutely. We are very fortunate to have been working with the NBA and want to continue to work with the league. The generation of talent now in the league, the fact that so many players are so recognizable, the way the league connects with its fans enables us to grow our business and to connect with our viewers. It amplifies our business. We are coming off of our best year ever in terms of video views, viewing time, app engagement and other interactive platforms. So you will continue to see us build and evolve in these and in new areas.

What stands out most for you regarding the NBA and social media?
The NBA has created a great environment in which its teams and players can work within social media and in using technology to help grow the league. They haven’t over-regulated. They haven’t put too many rules in place. Do they have the right rules? Yes. But not rules just for the sake of regulation. The NBA has really shown a willingness to be the first to use new technology, to look at where things are evolving and to constantly be on the front line. And that has paid dividends. It has made the NBA what I see as being the most socially active sports league in the marketplace. And when you couple that with their growing global reach, that’s a pretty big amplification of what they are doing.

What are the challenges in getting out Turner’s NBA message?
First, you have to give credit to NBA management for the league’s growth in China, Europe and in the global landscape. We are managing the league’s digital operation on a domestic basis, which includes NBA TV, the nba.com network and NBA League Pass. There is a constant challenge to have the best content, to have the best talent available, which addresses universal appeal. Ultimately, the management of it and the growth of it resides with the league and the commissioner.

What response have you gotten from marketing partners regarding the NBA’s digital elements?
Their expectations are to be fully integrated across the board. The goal of the partnerships here is to appeal to an NBA audience. If you look at NBA TV, for example, we have the youngest average audience in all of sports TV, with 35-year-old males. That is a prime target demographic for marketers, but it is not an easy audience to reach. The NBA reaches them in a very immersive way in an ongoing basis. So the attraction for marketers is there.

How does that translate from concept to action?
When you look at marketing as a whole, it works best when you are integrating and taking action. So when you see that we have so many platforms and that the integration goes so deep, it really puts the NBA in a position to be a great partner to a lot of companies. When you talk about layered experiences, the NBA offers that. So there is a lot of connective tissue for a partner to come on board and integrate. And that is a major reason why companies such as Samsung, which just signed a deal, come to the NBA, because they can activate across so many platforms.

Are you finding that people are becoming more engaged with the NBA when the games themselves are not in progress?
The consumption habits of people have changed. And the good news is that consumption of the NBA is growing. And they’re doing it on different devices. The NBA is a perfect example of how that can work. Obviously, the game itself is at the core of everything. But we are seeing a growth in end-to-end engagement among fans. Mobile, social, NBA TV, the shows and personalities we put on-air, such as Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal. That all adds to and enhances the experience before the games, during the games, after the games and when the games are not in progress.

How important is it that players themselves are involved in the digital and social aspects of the NBA?
That is very important. Social media offers the opportunity for players and the league to speak to fans on a one-to-one platform. You don’t always get that in sports. But social media provides that, be it with Instagram, Twitter or other platforms. Players are providing a running commentary on their lives, what they are doing, how hard they are training, what they are doing on off-days or before and after games. Giving fans a window into their lives really provides fans with a strong connection to players and teams.

You mentioned the guys from NBA on TNT. What impact have they had and will they continue to have on reaching fans and growing the NBA viewership?
TV is important in driving fans to all our other platforms. And we are always looking for ways in which we can connect them with fans and viewers. The first broadcast of the year of the NBA on TNT [was] live from Flatiron Plaza in New York. When you talk about Ernie Johnson and the NBA on TNT guys, these are incredible people. They work well together; they like each other. They are who they are on-screen and off-screen. They provide great insights into the game and they are fun to be around. People want to watch what they are doing and listen to their observations about the game, the players and the NBA. It’s a winning combination.

What else should viewers be aware of this season?

 We are enhancing our Inside Stuff show and Open Court series. We have a new series, The Starters [a revamped version of The Basketball Jones] in which fans can engage with [the hosts] about all things NBA. So there are many more ways for fans and viewers to become immersed in the NBA through the platforms that we are providing and will continue to provide and develop [with] the NBA.

This interview was reprinted with permission of NYSportsJournalism.com.