“If it wasn’t for social media, I might not be signing this Puma deal,” admitted Chris Brickley after announcing a partnership with the sneaker company last winter. Brickley came to the basketball consciousness through posting offseason workout videos of NBA players on Instagram, including documenting Carmelo Anthony’s “Hoodie Melo” persona that fans used as evidence as to why the forward should still be in the league. Brickley contextualizes himself not as an NBA trainer but an NBA influencer, providing digital spaces where Anthony and rapper J. Cole could seamlessly co-exist on the same court. The abundance of smartphones, shaping our expectations of an always-on digital world, demands this style of character and world-building. Boundaries blend and disappear through our smartphone screen.
Other sports took note of the popularity of social media driven, offseason basketball content. Andrea Agnelli, chairman of Italian soccer club Juventus, warned the soccer world that its “competitors are not clubs next door but League of Legends, e-sports, Fortnite” at a recent business leadership summit. Agnelli addressed the importance of freshening up Europe’s signature Champions League competition for a new generation of digital natives. That competition for screen real estate redefined an audience’s relationship with basketball over the offseason, creating contained storylines taking place between the end of the playoffs and the start of a new season, separate from the actual game itself.
As the ephemeral nature of Instagram videos favors behind the scenes content, it makes sense that the gatekeepers of offseason workouts carved a role to become the gatekeepers of our attention. One can debate whether Anthony’s workout videos will ever rival Fortnite, but at least it shows up on the same screen. In expanding Agnelli’s thought, the NBA’s competition isn’t just soccer or Fortnite, or the NFL, but Netflix, Hulu, Instagram stories, YouTube channels, and anywhere else our eyes can look. Whereas the internet democratized information, smartphone screens democratized attention, where topics ranging from European soccer, gaming, and offseason basketball workout videos appear on the same timeline. Sports - whether basketball, soccer, or beyond - are battling a 12-month, 24/7 competition, at the risk of being forgotten in a digital world.
While Damian Lillard parodied offseason workout videos last summer, that’s not to say that Lillard is immune to offseason storytelling through his rap career. New mediums and technologies create new methods of audience building. How many people are currently employed in roles that didn’t exist a decade ago? Spotify launched in the U.S. less than a year before Lillard was drafted by the Blazers in 2012. 27% of Americans had listened to a podcast when teammate CJ McCollum was drafted the following year. Spotify currently ranks as the 20th largest internet company seven years later. More than 50% of Americans have listened to a podcast. Could both players then have imagined a side career in music streaming or podcasting? Cometh the streaming units, cometh the creative.
But it’s not only the player who sees value in that content improvisation. Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai hired ex-Turner president David Levy as team’s new CEO, who then suggested that Kevin Durant document comeback from an Achilles injury for content.
“We’ll figure out ways to monetize this team,” Levy insisted.
The desire for monetization extends to the amateur level. It was for that reason why Mark Cuban insisted high school prospects join the G League instead of going to college. Cuban gave viral high school basketball star Julian Newman as an example, observing that “he’s got a few hundred thousand followers on Instagram, and after every one of his games, he’s selling merchandise.”
But Cuban did hit out against the quality of AAU-influenced American basketball players compared to their Slovenian counterparts last season, saying “they just learn how to play basketball while our guys learn how to taunt and make mixtapes.” Could a fight for user attention and screen real estate influence the evolution of the player, or the game itself?
Cuban gave credit to Big Baller Brand for innovating the practice of players building their individual brands. Lamelo Ball’s recent debut in Australia’s NBL netted 1 million streams on Facebook, making it the most viewed game in league history. NBL owner Larry Kesterman expressed his joy in the analytics that confirmed that the league, which had doubled its Instagram following since last season, was as a “global entertainment product.” The success positions the league not only as a group of teams and players, but of social media influencers and their branding partners.
Though according to Houston Rockets front office members, the real reason why Anthony got cut from the team was due to his inability to pick up the team’s aggressive defensive scheme. The downside of Instagram and social media is that it’s a curated collection of our perfections. What’s left out are the mundane yet essential moments of life, of the boringness, imperfections, and the defensive drills centered around closing out three-point shooters.
Leave it to former Rockets teammate James Harden to find the seamless transition between social media streams and the real world. In teasing a one-footed three-pointer in an offseason video, then unveiling it in a preseason game, Harden may be the first athlete to break down the fourth wall between summer workout character and on-court player.
Harden had a busy summer of content. He was the subject of a documentary called From 6th Man to MVP made by the daughter of general manager Daryl Morey, centered around the days leading up to the Rockets trade for their franchise player. In the film’s climax, Morey recounts receiving a phone call from Sam Presti while at his son’s soccer game on the morning of the deal. Likewise, Donovan Mitchell’s documentary takes on a classic shape of a character starting from his lowest point of almost quitting basketball, to the triumph of becoming one of the best young scorers in the league. That documentary structure, with multiple narrators, made by a filmmaking vision, is what we’ve come to expect from past athlete storytelling and myth-making.
In adding to the summer of athlete storytelling, HBO recently premiered a documentary on Argentine striker Diego Maradona. One could imagine the home videos of Maradona juggling the ball in between practice, as well as the quieter moments between player and family, uploaded on Instagram stories in the present today. All we knew back then of Maradona was what television showed us, of the on-field genius and spontaneous outbursts. One wonders how differently his story would have been told in 2019. Or maybe, that lack of access only added to his legend. Will there ever be such thing as knowing too much of the magic trick?
Or does knowing the magic trick only enhance our appetite for the act? And technology will only continue to evolve. Spencer Dinwiddie’s investment plan points to another evolution in the breaking of the barrier and seamless blend between athlete, fan, and a digital space. Basketball is slowly becoming both the medium and the message. The neverending videos made it feel as though there was no offseason at all, while simultaneously whetting our appetite for the official tip-off. All that’s left now are the 82 games of the regular season.