The most followed teams aren’t in the NBA Finals. Does it matter?

Social Analytics Perspective by Mike Metzler

July 9, 2021

The NBA finals are here. Only two teams remain—and neither one of them the Lakers or the Warriors. Against all odds, while still in the midst of a pandemic, the last two NBA playoffs have gone off almost flawlessly. 2020 saw the league’s biggest star, on the most followed NBA team in the league, engage in a dominant performance that finished with them as World Champions. This year, two teams that do not even crack the top 15 most followed teams in the league are in the finals.

This is the first NBA Finals to not have a top 10 most followed team on social playing in the Finals ever – or at least in the modern era of social media. We were curious to see what impact this would have the overall leagues performance on social. Would engagement numbers be abysmal or would the team’s fans rise to meet the occasion? We analyzed the social performance of this year’s NBA playoffs (May 18, 2021 – July 3, 2021) and compare it to last year’s unusual bubble playoffs (Aug 15, 2020 – Sept 28, 2020) to see what it looks like when the most followed teams don’t end up on top.

On first glance, there is good news. The average team’s cross-platform engagement rate was 20.9% higher than last year’s playoffs. This means more fans from more teams were engaged on social across the board. It is a great time to be a fan for many teams that aren’t the top 10 most followed teams in the league.

Total Cross Platform Audience Ranking -All Teams (FB, IG, TW, YT)

As of July 3, 2021

Not a single team in the top 10 made it past the first round of the playoffs. Here are the followings of the eight teams that made it to the conference semi-finals. Add them up and you barely have more followers than the Lakers.

Total Cross Platform Audience Ranking – Conference Semi-Finals Teams (FB, IG, TW, YT) As of July 3, 2021

Rank NBA Team Total Cross-platform Audience
12 Los Angeles Clippers     9,354,618
16 Brooklyn Nets     7,695,749
17 Milwaukee Bucks     7,153,211
18 Philadelphia 76ers     6,618,655
23 Phoenix Suns     5,317,072
25 Denver Nuggets     4,876,048
26 Atlanta Hawks     4,768,944
28 Utah Jazz     4,409,999

Now for the seemingly not so great news. If you look at the total cross-platform social engagements during the 2021 NBA Playoffs, this year didn’t beat last year. This year all teams accumulatively put up 220.3 million cross-platform engagements during the play-in tournament leading up to the playoffs. This was a 12.8% decrease from last year. Total views on Facebook and YouTube this year was 208.3 million, down 27.9% from 2020.

But should the NBA be disappointed in these numbers?

Average Cross-platform Engagement Rate (FB, IG, TW, YT)

May 18, 2021 – July 3, 2021

If you’re looking at engagement rate, there is plenty to be excited about. As mentioned above, the average cross-platform engagement rate per team increased by 20.9% compared to the 2020 NBA playoffs. The Suns edged out the Nets to claim the most engaged fans on social during the NBA playoffs. But this begs the question, if engagement rate is up on average, why are the totals still down?

Last year’s historic Lakers’ run, netted them 97 million cross-platform engagements and 89 million video views on Facebook and YouTube during the 2020 NBA playoffs leading up to the NBA finals. This year, despite a loss in the first round to the Suns, the Lakers still had more cross-platform engagements than any other team in the tournament.

Total Cross-platform Engagements – All Teams (FB, IG, TW, YT)  

May 18, 2021 – July 3, 2021

Simply put, the Lakers are in a league of their own. Win or lose, this Lakers team with LeBron James, will top the charts in almost every category regardless of their performance. But what happens if you remove the Lakers from the equation?

If you remove the Lakers engagement stats from the equation and look at the 2020 and 2021 NBA playoffs, you get a completely different picture. Without the Lakers, teams increased their average engagements during the playoffs by 21% in 2021. From this new view, the total average cross-platform engagements per team increased by over 1 million engagements in 2021 vs 2020. While the numbers might be down overall, if you’re looking at the bigger picture, the NBA should be ecstatic.

Percentage Increase in Total Engagements 2021 NBA Playoffs compared to 2020 NBA Playoffs (FB, IG, TW, YT)

(May 18, 2021 – July 3, 2021) vs (Aug 15, 2020 – Sept 28, 2020)

Dynasties in sports accumulate more than just rings. They allow teams like the Lakers, Warriors, Bulls and Heat to build the most followed teams in the league.  But as the mid-market teams thrived in 2021, so did the fans. More fans were engaged in more areas of the country than ever before. 11 teams saw a triple digit percentage increases in total engagements from this year’s playoffs to last years.  You always expect a strong fan presence from the most followed teams but to get it from all over, is great news for the NBA.  This excitement will certainly carry over to the 2022 season where it will ultimately benefit the teams, league, sponsors, and most importantly, the fans.

As they say, a rising tide lifts all boats.

This data was sourced from the Conviva Social Insights – NBA Teams Leaderboard. Our cross-platform social leaderboard ranks social accounts based on industry using various social metrics across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.