It's Good! How the NBA Is Winning at Social Media

Traditional PR is dead. Witty, tech-savvy Millennials are changing public perception of teams, one tweet, Instagram, and Snap at a time.

It’s a Monday night in March in Brooklyn, N.Y. I’m standing at the opening of a short tunnel that leads out to the Barclays Center court next to Nets Social Media Coordinators Kat Przybyla and Kari Culver, who work rapidly on their phones as we wait for the Nets players to come out from the locker room. Behind us is the Calvin Klein Courtside Club, a luxury restaurant with customers who look like they should be focused on a Wall Street Journal or Bloomberg app, only now they all seem very focused on mini sliders and crab legs. As time drags on, it starts to feel as if we’re cops on a stakeout—cameras drawn, ready to shoot—waiting intently on whoever’s inside.

I’m told shooting guard Alan Anderson likes to “beat the other guys up” on their way through the tunnel. When the Nets finally emerge, the team’s (somewhat labored) pre-game pump-up hollering is only quieted when a pass between teammates goes astray and onlookers in the tunnel have to duck. “Oh shit!” one of the players yells, but nobody is hit, and Anderson playfully shoves and roughs up a couple of the guys as they jog towards the court.

To my left, Przybyla is on her iPhone, editing out the errant ball that nearly became a “Nets Player Decapitates Child with Pre-Game Chest Pass” headline on Complex Sports.

Only two years removed from college when she accepted the position in 2013, Przybyla, 25, is an example of a current trend in the NBA (and perhaps the business world as a whole) when it comes to social media: Let the kids handle it. In an age where most copy gets the TL;DR treatment, a funny headline equals news, and something as innocent as a basketball player’s natural reaction to a wild pass can be spun to create the headline “NBA Thug Curses in Front of Hero Marine’s Children,” people like Przybyla and Culver are unassumingly powerful. Having their job is like being the president with a finger on the Button—if only the president had to press the Button dozens of times per day to maintain world peace while hoping not to push it hard enough to nuke everything.

Brooklyn Nets Social Media Coordinator Kat Przybyla shooting and sharing the action. / Photo by Andy Hur

You know those Vines of players dunking in warm-ups that your favorite team posts before each game? (If you’re scratching your head, your team probably needs to hire a designated social media person.) Przybyla and Culver capture those moments for the Nets. Today, Przybyla is pacing up and down the baseline with one of her two phones out either shooting or editing something. Culver, who started doing social media work for Brooklyn last February, spends most of the game perched in the media section with her eyes glued to a Macbook, monitoring fan reactions and Internet buzz while surrounded by a dozen or so basic blogger/newspaper types.

Przybyla and Culver fly on charter jets and interact personally with the players. They get better than front-row seats to every game. They have press conference and locker room access before and after the games. They even get a food voucher worth enough to buy organic chocolate smoothies and (shockingly delicious) vegan brownies from the juice cart outside section 116 at Barclays.

There is a lot more on their plates besides these delicious benefits, however. The season never ends for a social media coordinator, and while the players will soon be on summer vacation, the social media folks will still be in the office liaising with departments while creating and monitoring content across half a dozen social media platforms. Their job? To keep a voice consistent with the fans while steadily pushing season ticket sales, merchandise, apps, promotional giveaways, corporate partners, original content, celebrity spots, charity functions, and social engagement figures north. They are their organization’s virtual ambassador to the fans, taking every opportunity to sell the team’s positives while also trying not to look like a sellout. In a way, they’re a funnier version of a political campaign’s chief of staff.

“I’ve never been someone who has wanted a 9-to-5 job,” Przybyla says. “I’ve always had jobs with crazy hours, ridiculous, all-over-the-place [schedules], and pressure.”

Brooklyn Nets Social Media Coordinator Kari Culver interacting with the Nets' 555k Twitter followers. / Photo by Andy Hur

Carving a positive local, national, and international perception from a piece of re-branded old New Jersey pinewood? That’s pressure. Though the Brooklyn Nets are now one of the league’s most stylish brands, it matters little how many black and white Nets snapbacks are sold in Milan when your team is eighth in the East. That final playoff slot is perhaps the last place any NBA organization wants to be. It’s on the “Mediocrity Treadmill”: Too good to land a franchise-altering lottery draft pick yet not good enough to seriously contend for a championship. And, in Brooklyn’s case, having so few marketable assets can make even a choice location appear unattractive.

Pair those on-court stresses with the permanency of the Internet and our culture’s increasingly insatiable desire for outrage, and this group of mostly 20-something social media specialists are one bad auto-correct, mildly-offensive brick tweet, or the slightest of jabs at a fan base away from SportsCenter, national news coverage, and tattooing fugly stoner Pokémon characters all over these billion-dollar brands.

“Having that kind of pressure is something I usually thrive under,” Przybyla says. “It’s something I get pumped up for. I mean, I listen to pre-game music, too.”

Kari Culver editing a sideline photo of Brooklyn Nets players before a game for their 336k Instagram followers. / Photo by Andy Hur

With teams like the Atlanta Hawks selling for $850 million (precisely double Forbes valuation from just one year ago) and larger-market teams selling for $2 billion or perhaps even $3 billion, you’d think these organizations would leave final tweet-sending power solely to a small circle of expert consultants. Or only allow Instagram​ posts that have been vetted by top marketing agencies with a decades worth of social behavioral information.

Nope. It’s mostly just a few Millennials. And their iPhones.

Although their departments have some of that big data available, when it comes down to it—when the pressure is on and hot takes must be tweeted—it’s the social media coordinators who are responsible for finding that nexus of humor, truth, and branding.

On the yet-to-be-erected Mount Rushmore of great NBA team tweets, Przybyla’s rebuttal to a fan back in January will be carved into granite eternity. In response to a fan who asked why the Nets couldn’t “be like the Hawks & have a Tinder night,” @BrooklynNets responded with the perfect Jay Z lyric:

The Brooklyn Nets, once fractionally-owned and still frequented by hometown son Jay Z, answered the troll-ish jab with a Sharkeisha haymaker, landing the tweet on ESPN and nearly every sports blog in the game. It’s a Hall of Fame “Jerk Store”-level comeback that should get hung up in the Twitter rafters while misty-eyed fans give a Standing O. And it was only possible because Przybyla and Culver were granted the freedom to think more about creativity than caution.

“We’ll just put that on my resumé,” Przybyla says with a laugh of her famous rebuttal.

Backed by organizations that trust in their abilities and by a league that empowers them (and fans) to share game video and photo assets freely, these social pioneers are helping transform how sports are digested. Instagram grew by 24 million users this year. Twitter by 47 million. By January of this year, 58 percent of everyone in the U.S. was on Facebook. This is where people are getting their information, and unlike the purposefully-opaque NFL and monopolistic MLB, the NBA and its teams have been progressive when it comes to social. Instead of fearing repercussions, they’ve bet on possibilities.

“Everybody in the organization understands the importance of social,” Culver says. “[General Manager] Billy King actually follows every player and every player’s wife. He’s talked about it before. [Everyone is] on top of it.”

Kari Culver staying above the action and engaging with fans beyond just the game's broadcast. / Photo by Andy Hur

In fact, much of the NBA’s brass are on top of it. They understand that these social media professionals are transforming how fans experience sports and have given them the proper backing. What was once watched solely on a television screen is now often viewed on a phone, and with the NBA’s HD-quality video being freely shared on Vine, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube, there’s little reason to believe we’ll ever totally move back to TV. The 2014–15 season was the first the Association allowed teams to post video directly on their social networks without having to link to it from the team’s official website. Very helpful, especially when the league provides near real-time photo and video assets to the social teams through its internal NBA Media Archive.

“Across the board—at the league level, at the team level, across all social media channels—the NBA is miles ahead of any other sports league in the country,” says Jaryd Wilson, the voice behind @ATLHawks, the Atlanta Hawks’ No. 2 ranked Twitter account. “Video...is just one of many examples of how the NBA has had a vision and looked [ahead].”

The game is not only more accessible than ever, it’s more quickly digestible, too. While baseball struggles to speed up its game in an effort to appeal to Millennials, the NBA already has them in spades and is running a three-on-none fast break across social media.

“IT WON’T BE LONG BEFORE WE START TO SEE [NBA] TEAMS BEEFING UP THEIR SOCIAL TEAMS IN LIEU OF STAFFING TRADITIONAL CONTENT CREATORS.”
—PHILADELPHIA 76ERS’ MAX RAPPAPORT

Which is not to say that every NBA team has been quick to adapt socially. There are still a handful of clubs that do not have a designated social media coordinator, and almost all of them suffer for it in one way or another. Even some of the teams that do have a point person to handle Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook seem to have made it their mission to be as agreeable and mild as possible, thus rendering their social platforms as mere public relations mouthpieces as opposed to a voice the fans can recognize.

While the Nets and Hawks playfully jawed at each other during their first-round playoffs matchup, teams like the Boston Celtics got swept both on the court and on social, with the Cleveland Cavaliers providing far more exclusive social content for fans. For example, on the day of Game 4, Cleveland posted dozens of photos on Twitter and seven videos on Instagram compared to Boston’s Twitter stream of post-game presser quotes and single Instagram video—Jared Sullinger shooting during warm-ups.

Teams like the Celtics and Indiana Pacers (see their tweet below if you’re having difficulty sleeping) were almost all near the bottom of Complex’s NBA Twitter Accounts Rankings, and with good reason.

Teams at the bottom of that list are either too good or too historically significant to burden their social media people this way. It’s like buying thousands of dollars worth of skiing equipment only to use it exclusively on the bunny hill. Yeah, you’ve avoided the devastating spills that’ll come with trying your luck on the Black Diamond course, but you’ve also stifled your brand’s growth and lacked the confidence necessary to think bigger. To quote my favorite theologian whom I just Googled, William G.T. Shedd: “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”

The Philadelphia 76ers do not play it safe.

Philadelphia 76ers Social Media Coordinator Sandro Gasparro attempting to give Sixers fans something to enjoy. / Photo by Andy Hur

Frankly, the organization can’t afford to. Going into the season with full knowledge that it would be one of the worst teams in the NBA, the team desperately needed its public face to be lighthearted, exciting, witty, and tastefully self-deprecating, among many other things.

Imagine the scenario: You’re the social media person for a basketball team that is expected to be the worst in the league. The city that you’re representing, though multiple generations removed from its snowballs-at-Santa stereotype, is still home to a notoriously scrutinizing and vicious fan base. Sam Hinkie—your reclusive, analytics-driven general manager—is despised nationally for openly accepting short-term losing (“tanking”) for the chance at long-term success. The worst venom from every Philly fan who still goes to Wawa in an Allen Iverson caricature T-shirt and Eagles pajama pants floods your mentions on a daily basis. Tweeting score updates with
“¯\_(ツ)_/¯” probably isn’t going to work for 82 games. What do you do?

“That’s the thing: You have to empathize with your fans to an extent,” says Sixers Social Media Coordinator Alessandro “Sandro” Gasparro. “There’s obviously a certain line you can’t cross, but you have to feel what they feel. You can’t sugarcoat everything.”

With such a dismal season on the court, the 76ers Social Media Coordinators finesse their approach to documenting each game. / Photo by Andy Hur

It’s two weeks after my Nets experience and I’m at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia standing next to Gasparro and Max Rappaport, a web content coordinator who now spends much of his time doing social. These are the two main guys behind @Sixers. Gasparro is filming an impromptu three-point competition between injured rookie center Joel Embiid and rehabilitated rookie center Nerlens Noel to post on Twitter, trying to record a clip where a shot actually falls. Embiid at long last nails several corner treys in a row, takes a few verbal jabs at Noel’s effort, and a smirk creeps across Gasparro’s face. Rappaport, not long earlier, was using a $20 stylus on his iPhone to totally dominate the rest of the professional sports world’s official accounts on Snapchat, this time drawing a goose head atop a 76ers player’s hand to show his perfect form. As an Internet blogger dork and die-hard Philly fan, I am in all-access heaven and the game hasn’t even started.

The game starts and five seconds later the Clippers are up by something like 45 points. Moments ago it was all loud introductions and court projections and flames and now it’s just a double-digit deficit and Chris Paul doing Chris Paul stuff to my favorite team. The no-chill fan inside of me has already drafted several tweets about Clippers center and world’s tallest conservative Spencer Hawes playing 1-on-1 against President Obama and which of the Sixers could beat up Matt Barnes. The professionals to my right, meanwhile, are biding their time. Which can’t be easy when your Tweetdeck mentions are flying like the loosest slots in Vegas and your brain is already filled with fire comebacks.

“The hardest part of the job is tempering our desire to be the voice of our fans and be a little edgy with a voice that is also brand-focused and appropriate,” Rappaport says. “Have there been bumps in the road? Of course. But those are inevitable if you’re trying to straddle that line.”

Besides, both Rappaport and Gasparro understand that their bread and butter is in carefully crafted content published at the right moments, not in snarky subtweets or G-checking trolls. Rappaport has a folder of Seinfeld reaction GIFs ready after the team’s first big dunk. Gasparro is looking through the responses to #SixersKicks to change the narrative from the score to sneakers. Neither seems particularly concerned with the Sixers being down a billion points. Instead, they’re frustrated that Nerlens Noel has been held all game without a block, thus ruining their chance to post a Noel/Breaking Bad mash-up:

These are the types of clever pop culture connections that every NBA team should be looking to make with its fan base. The people of San Antonio may not be as excited to see Nas references and “Look at the flick of the wrist” Vines as people on the East Coast, but there are surely enough How I Met Your Mother and Big Bang Theory memes out there to keep everybody happy, no?

Jaryd Wilson runs the incredibly popular Atlanta Hawks social media presence. / Image via Atlanta Hawks

Not everyone believes the differences in location matter when it comes to NBA teams’ social content. Wilson, who runs the hugely-successful @ATLHawks handle in the middle of college football country, doesn’t believe that “different values” in different regions are an acceptable excuse to avoid urban themes.

“The market and the demographics play a little bit of a role but I don’t think it’s a major role,” Wilson says. “The main thing is, regardless of where you are, if you’re working for an NBA team, your social demo is going to be about the same, right? Age [is] going to be about the same. The gender split is going to be relatively the same. Regardless of market, fans are the same. Basketball fans—we know each other, generally speaking. So while markets may be a little bit of [an issue], it’s not a major [issue].”

Some teams continue to leave their accounts on PR garbage autopilot, but for those looking to actively engage with the new generation of fans, hiring young people to lead their social media charge has paid off tremendously. Particularly in terms of public perception. The Sixers were a horrific product on the basketball court, yet came across as lovable young underdogs to most people—and media outlets—that followed them on social. The Nets could be described as “painfully mediocre” or “low effort” had you only watched them on television, yet that view was softened on social by Przybyla and Culver’s ability to paint them as a veteran club trying hard to grind out a playoff spot. The Hawks—this year’s NBA surprise success story that secured the No. 1 spot in the East with a team of relatively unknown players—made multiple off-the-court splashes this season by coupling creative and groundbreaking social initiatives with real-world applications. The “Swipe Right” Tinder night, 2 Chainz taking over as CEO for a day, and adding a “W” to “Hawks” for every win of their 19-game streak all earned national coverage for @ATLHawks and helped raise the team’s profile. Far more than “playing it safe” and tweeting like a supportive grandmother ever could.

All of these benefits only make it that much more shameful how underutilized some official team social media accounts continue to be to this day. In the near future, having a 10-person social team may be the norm. There may be someone whose job it is to walk through the stands with a live Periscope feed to show fans watching at home what they’re missing by not attending live. There may be someone whose sole responsibility is to handle the stadium food account, tweeting deals that fans can purchase/win via an app depending on certain events that happen in the game. There may be another idea for a team-specific social media person that I choose not to share here and give away for free. The probability of social media expansion is almost 100 percent, and the reality of most teams having only one person with a social media job title should soon prove laughable.

“More and more, we’re seeing teams transition from hosting their content primarily on their websites to using their social channels for that purpose instead,” Rappaport says. “When I started with the Sixers, sharing a video from your phone to Twitter required you to upload it to YouTube and share the link. But now, with Vine, Snapchat, native video on Twitter and Facebook, Instagram video, etc., the process is not only incredibly simple, but it’s also way more effective.

“It won’t be long before we start to see [NBA] teams beefing up their social teams in lieu of staffing traditional content creators.”

Max Rappaport and Sandro Gasparro run one of the most acclaimed social media properties in the league. / Photo by Andy Hur

Hell, it wouldn’t be shocking to soon see individual players starting to hire their own social media coordinators instead of entrusting their PR or marketing agencies with those duties. If you follow a professional athlete on Twitter, eventually you’re going to come across a tweet (or dozens of tweets) from their account that were clearly written by someone other than that person. Examples range from DeSean Jackson suddenly using perfect grammar to promote Nike+Kinect, to Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval’s left-field use of English to push his brand when the majority of his tweets are written en Español. Agencies with a multitude of other responsibilities can occasionally be ham-fisted in their approach. It takes a bit more savvy to incorporate these branding messages in a voice consistent with the athlete.

Put in broad strokes, the NBA is a league where old people (owners, coaches, C-level suits) make billions off of the efforts of young people (the players). Today, there is a new group of young people poised to help flood their revenue streams. By social media professionals boosting the league’s popularity and profile, sales of tickets, merchandise, ads, and even television broadcasting rights may all increase.

“It’s a missed opportunity for anyone who doesn’t take social media seriously,” says Wilson. “Social media is a powerful marketing tool that can reach a lot of people [with] a little budget.”

“ACROSS THE BOARD—AT THE LEAGUE LEVEL, AT THE TEAM LEVEL, ACROSS ALL SOCIAL MEDIA CHANNELS—THE NBA IS MILES AHEAD OF ANY OTHER SPORTS LEAGUE IN THE COUNTRY.”
—ATLANTA HAWKS’ JARYD WILSON

It’s not as if teams need to pay remarkable salaries to lure in a bunch of grad school journalists to handle the job, either. With journalism schools struggling to keep up with rapid developments in the editorial business, the paths leading to jobs like these are increasingly diverse. Typically they require some type of writing background, sure, but simply being able to craft an accurate “inverted pyramid” newspaper article about a game won’t land you the gig. Przybyla got her feet wet by writing for the Buffalo News, but before joining @BrooklynNets, Culver was doing social media work for a New Jersey animal refuge. Gasparro was handling social media and marketing for his alma mater, the University of Michigan, but Rappaport graduated from American University with a bachelors degree in Psychology. Wilson, the man championing the Hawks’ #TrueToAtlanta hashtag, was managing a local FOX television website in Colorado before becoming the team’s first social media coordinator two and a half years ago. The rules are being written and rewritten on the fly.

Which college class was Rappaport expected to learn the craft of sports-related Snapchat art without getting in trouble?

With newspaper and magazine jobs suddenly disappearing like a Tootsie Roll pop after Mr. Owl’s third lick, media competition is stiff. But the cream always rises to the top, and the cutthroat raw statistical democracy of social media (either you get the likes/retweets or you don’t) generally allows for the best and brand-iest to make a name for themselves. Just as Desus and Mero—who Gasparro lists as influences, along with @DragonflyJones—turned funny Twitter accounts into on-camera MTV gigs, the best basketball accounts on Twitter and Instagram may soon make their way into respected positions with the teams. Either you’re quick enough to hit a troll back with the perfect Jay Z lyric or you’re not. Either you’re clever enough to add a “W” to your team’s Twitter handle for every win during a hot streak or you’re not. Either you’re knowledgeable enough about hip-hop and understand your demographic well enough to come up with It Was Wroten or you’re not. This is not a job for the predictable or thin-skinned, but if you can find a voice—whether that’s created in lengthy marketing meetings, like with the Nets, spelled out in detail in an internal “Brand Voice Document,” like with the Hawks, or learned slowly through rap-reference trial and error, like with the Sixers—you may be able to shape the future of sports reporting.

Kat Przybyla staying near the action and providing access to Brooklyn Nets fans. / Photo by Andy Hur

Because, frankly, social media is a major part of the future of sports journalism. The further the world gets from taking in sports through the long-form effort of watching three-hour games or even through three-minute SportsCenter highlights, the closer we get to these iMovie editors on the sidelines being our primary sources for content. We’re almost there already. On draft day and during the NBA trade deadline, people like Adrian “Woj” Wojnarowski transform from mild-mannered NBA insiders to social media gods, dwarfing the importance of any news not coming from Twitter. If you’ve ever been cruising the timeline during any of these moments, you’ve already felt the winds of change in sports reporting.

Not long from now, it’s entirely possible that the Hawks shock everyone but themselves, win the NBA title, and transform Jaryd from “Twitter guy” into a bona fide Atlanta media celebrity. Or that the Sixers experiment works, the team hoards (and hits on) enough lottery picks to become a contender, and Sandro becomes the voice for a new generation of Philly sports fans. Or that the Nets...in the next few years...umm—maybe Kevin Durant enjoys brunch in Fort Greene?

Point is, contrary to what some fans may think, these storytellers with quick-twitch thumbs aren’t interns or volunteers or score-keeping Twitter bots. And, as technology continues to change the way we interact with our world, it’s become increasingly clear that these people aren’t going anywhere. They’re the present and the future of sports reporting, the young pathfinders who will soon define the next era of online media. One fire emoji at a time.

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