There’s a good chance you have not yet come across the #nbahandshakes challenge, so let me introduce you. To commemorate the start of the season, the NBA asked fans to “show off your coolest handshakes,” with the top responses being rebroadcast by the league account. Entries flooded in from around the world, collectively viewed 11 million times. A clip from two German twins earned top billing.
How did you miss all this? Because the contest was held not on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat, but on Musical.ly, and because it was two years ago, before the start of the 2016-17 season. You’ve missed a lot more since then. Musical.ly was acquired by a Chinese company and turned into TikTok. Those twins, still teens, now have 32 million followers on TikTok, an agent and a fashion brand. Meanwhile, the NBA has continued to post daily on the app, growing its own following to 3.5 million strong (with 2.3 million more in China)—one of the biggest corporate presences on the platform. Basketball still sits far behind the NFL in popularity among any age demographic but #nbahandshakes and its ilk could one day change that.
“Two years ago we saw an opportunity to grow our fan base and reach a unique audience,” NBA vice president for emerging media Bob Carney said. “It was very young, the platform skewed female and the content was substantially different than what we were doing on other platforms. It ticked a lot of boxes and made sense for us to add to our portfolio.”
Now, the NBA is expanding again. Last month, TikTok owner Bytedance signed a deal with the league that will bring custom highlights to the app, with local language clips posted in Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, and the Republic of Korea. Most of the content will still be created at the NBA’s Secaucus, N.J., headquarters, though on-the-ground employees will also help ensure that the content is keeping with regional trends.
Without earlier forebears to model after, Carney said the account’s content strategy has largely been formed through trial and error. One social producer runs the account day-to-day, with a small group of TikTok-dedicated content producers flagging moments as they happen and creating clips for the site. “Any content that involved music or dancing, or any sort of fun moment surrounding our game, we sort of used that content for two years to gain success,” Carney said. “We have a data strategy team that we work with every minute of every day, obsessing over every post on every platform.” Seven-foot rookies DeAndre Ayton and Mo Bamba dancing to “Call Me Maybe” garnered 180,000 hearts and over 1,000 comments earlier this year.
The addition of more traditional game highlights represents a shift. “It’s early days, but so far, highlights are not underperforming,” Carney said. “They’ve been about what we would expect, similar to how other content on the platform performs.”
On Christmas Day, five NBA games will dominate televisions across the country. But before then, teenage followers are already tuning in.