In an interview, commissioner Adam Silver explains how the league has embraced its social-media revolution.
I’m paying more attention to early season basketball, and it feels super weird.
Look: I enjoy the NBA just fine, but I belong to that portion of the NBA audience for whom the serious watching doesn’t really commence until, you know, later. Maybe a lot later. Eighty-two games is a long haul. I have stuff to do. My mother’s birthday is Friday. I still haven’t bought her a present.
Sorry, mom. How would you like a Kristaps Porzingis jersey?
Please know I’m not just another New York resident spellbound by Porzingis, a 7-foot-3 Knicks rookie who has transformed in five months from Dear Heaven Who Is This Generation-Defining Mistake to nothing less than the Latvian Joe Namath. I’m also hooked on the sublime highlights of Steph Curry, champion Golden State’s MVP, who appears to glide like a water bug across the court.
Also the Minnesota Timberwolves, paced by a pair of young stars, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Also LeBron James doing LeBron James things. Also Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. Also the San Antonio Spurs.
And it’s not just me. It’s lots of us.
“We are, too,” the NBA’s commissioner, Adam Silver, said on a recent morning in a conference room at the league headquarters on Fifth Avenue. He wore a suit and navy tie with an NBA logo in the lower corner, and he placed his phone politely upside down on the table.
I wanted to talk to Silver because the NBA has made a very conscious decision to let basketball social media—including amateur videos of in-game highlights—fly free. Like, really free. Don’t misinterpret: if you try to sit courtside at the Staples Center and try to Periscope the entire contest, the commissioner wants to shut you down. But mostly they’re letting the party continue.
Every game night on Basketball Twitter you can find a loud airport Chili’s worth of fans, critics, quants and comics who care deeply about the game. (Silver is following along, too—on a stealth account; He uses the NBA Twitter when he wants to send a tweet.) The action is chronicled in real time: Basketball Twitter wants —no, it needs—you to know that Steph did this and now he’s doing that.
But they’ll also show you: by posting do-it-yourself clips or GIFs online, usually by doing nothing more than pointing a phone at the TV in their living room. This has made it stupendously easy to follow action around the league. Highlights, blunders, inside jokes, bad sideline outfits, everything. If GIFs and highlights aren’t enough, there’s also NBA League Pass, basketball’s version of NFL Sunday Ticket, and a new option of buying a single game a la carte.
“If someone’s tweeting that, for example, ‘Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, you got to check them out, they’re on right now playing San Antonio, it’s click—instantaneous,” Silver said. “For $6.99, you now buy that game— it’s yours.”
This is not just a matter of superfans and their phones. The commissioner believes this tech is effectively redrawing the NBA map—where the attention and power is, and more important, where it can go, which is basically anywhere. Silver maintains other factors are contributing to this evolution, including a revised collective bargaining agreement in 2011 which imposed a dramatic luxury tax upon big-spending teams.
But the social media may be the biggest factor, he said.
“In the same way the Internet has disrupted every industry, it’s disrupted the sports industry as well,” Silver said.
For me, it’s brought the NBA closer. When I was a little kid, significant tracts of the basketball landscape were unfamiliar to me. I could read about it, and occasionally see highlights, but some of the best NBA stars resembled distant celestial events—George Gervin in San Antonio, for example.
“You never saw them,” Silver said.
Now everyone can see nearly everything, around the planet, in close to real time. Where you play has been rendered much less significant. The classification of markets as “big” or “small” seems like hoary thinking; an audience can find you anywhere. (A late West Coast game can be a challenge on the East Coast—the Journal’s Ben Cohen, a regular Warriors chronicler, wanders into the office looking like he worked the prior night at a disco.)
Players have recognized this change. The year before, James (25.2 million Twitter followers, 15.4 on Instagram) didn’t hesitate at returning to Cleveland; he remains perhaps the most popular active player in the world, (just narrowly ahead of Porzingis).
This past off-season we saw top-tier free agent LaMarcus Aldridge ignore the Los Angeles Lakers for a chance to be a Spur, and everyone agreed it was the right move (probably even the Lakers). Greg Monroe passed on the Knicks to join the Milwaukee Bucks. (He wound up missing an opportunity to play with the great Porzingis, which he will regret for life.)
Silver mentions Kevin Durant (12.3 million Twitter followers, 5.9 million Instagram), who plays in Oklahoma City. “Kevin Durant received one of the largest shoe deals in the history of the league,” he said, referring to Durant’s deal with Nike , which the Journal reported could be worth as much as $350 million over 20 years. “And there was no suggestion from anyone that somehow Kevin Durant as a player would be more valuable to that company in a different market.”
Of course, the NBA has media partners paying many billions to broadcast games, and Silver is clear that he wants social media to supplement but not replace the live-watching experience. (The NBA also has a new partnership with Verizon in which clip-sharing can be done with high-grade video.) “The games are the meals and the highlights are the snacks,” Silver said. “And we encourage our fans to snack before meals. But the meals are pristine and the meals live behind a paywall.”
Nothing beats live, Silver thinks. “The Porzingis ‘almost buzzer beater,’” he said, referring to Basketball’s Most Important Player’s near 3-point winner last week against Charlotte, “I missed it live.” The commissioner then watched a clip on his phone. “It’s incredible, but part of my reaction was: ‘I wish I had been watching that.’ (I saw Porzingis’s shot live; it was very close to being the Greatest NBA Moment of All Time.)
It should be emphasized that nearly every sport is experiencing a form of social media revolution—NFL Twitter is bonkers every Sunday. But it’s clear there’s something going on in basketball, where the action seems ideally suited to a cut-and-paste environment. In the same way Saturday Night Live skits were the perfect length for the YouTube revolution, Steph Curry appears built for the GIFs.
And the NBA has chosen to embrace it. “It is completely beyond our hands,” Silver said, “but at the same time, we can help facilitate it.”
Fine by me. Now I need to go find mom that Porzingis jersey.