Sports Leagues Helping Fans Escape Through TikTok

    • With few live sports events going on, the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB are each using TikTok to distract fans from their uncertain realities.
    • An emphasis on challenge-driven content has helped entertain the Big Four leagues’ fans as they await the return of live sports.

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Even without content from live action, sports leagues have focused on the accessibility and interaction of their social media platforms, especially TikTok.

Those have been the driving principles for MLB as the league awaits the start of its season, according to Barbara McHugh, its senior vice president of marketing.

“We do focus on trying to follow, comment on, and like our followers’ post as much as we can – when of course, when it makes sense,” she said. “Even for our followers who aren’t necessarily part of our core like baseball or softball communities, meaning like the major league level or minor league level, but we’re paying a lot of attention to high school teams and players as well as the younger audience that is engaging with baseball and softball.”

Engaging and interacting with TikTok users has helped MLB’s metrics on the platform rise in recent months. As of May 26, MLB follows 593 people on TikTok, the most of any of the biggest five U.S. sports leagues. McHugh believes this has helped the league attract more than 1.4 million followers and 55 million likes. It also boasts a 6% engagement rate on the ByteDance-owned platform.

Following along TikTok’s latest trends has also served MLB well on the app. At the start of the spring training and youth baseball seasons, the league launched its #BaseballLife challenge, which has generated more than 681.6 million views for the content with the hashtag.

As MLB continues to find new content opportunities, McHugh sees the league leaning into players and its sub-brands. 

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Before the season was postponed, one of baseball’s first stars to join TikTok was slugger Yasiel Puig. Since then, roughly 20 other players have created accounts, including Mike Trout, Alex Bregman, and Freddie Freeman, whose Halloween video of a kid dressing up as him is still one of MLB’s most-popular posts ever. As of May 21, the video has drawn more than 10.4 million views and 1.8 million likes – one of only seven MLB posts to eclipse the one-million milestone. 

MLB has also launched a TikTok profile for its Cut4 brand. It is developing one for its Play Ball initiative, which focuses on attracting a youthful audience to baseball. 

“Our goal is to be additive and to supply additional, fun content for our fans and our future fans on the platform,” McHugh said.

Like MLB, the NBA has leaned into TikTok’s challenges and used it to engage with fans craving live basketball. Around the time that the NBA shut down its season on March, it created the #NBAMoments challenge, which was inspired by a growing trend on TikTok of fans publishing basketball-related content without the NBA prompting them. 

After seeing what fans were producing, Bob Carney, NBA senior vice president of digital and social content, decided to use #NBAMoments as a way for fans to recreate their favorite plays in NBA history on TikTok. As of May 21, the initiative – with one popular video seeing a fan recreate LeBron James’ infamous pregame chalk toss – has garnered more than 300,000 submissions and been viewed more than 1.4 billion times on TikTok.

The NBA used the success of #NBAMoments as the stepping stone for a subsequent challenge: #HoopsAtHome. Asking fans to showcase their at-home basketball skills, it has more than 3.7 billion views and 814,000 user submissions to date. 

Seeing the success of its TikTok challenges has helped the NBA participate in other challenge-oriented trends like #WorkoutWednesday, #TalentTuesday, and #WorkoutWednesday, Carney said. Along with archival footage to utilize, Carney sees no problem with appeasing the NBA’s audience of 10.9 million TikTok followers – the most of any sports property.

“We have a massive library of content to pull from, whether it’s this year or previous years,” he said. “We can always find ways to attach our content to any of these trending hashtags that are happening every day, so we’ve been able to keep the account incredibly active even though we’re not in season.”

If one were to look through the NFL’s Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter presences, they would find a distinctly different voice on each platform, AJ Curry, the league’s senior manager of social content, said. On TikTok, she attributes the league’s success – which, according to a third-party source, has produced a roughly 7.3% engagement rate – to an emphasis on community involvement.

“You look at our TikTok posts, and just the voice that we have is entirely different,” she said. “It’s because we wanted to not just post content to TikTok, but we wanted to make TikTok. I think inherently that helps us build this community within the platform.”

One example of the NFL’s community-building efforts on TikTok is its #StayHomeStayStrong challenge. While it lived across the league’s other social media profiles, it became one of the TikTok’s featured hashtags on its discover page, and one of the league’s best-performing hashtags on the platform. 

READ MORE: NHL Slides Back Onto TikTok, With Teams Following Suit

The NFL has also become interested in a recent but potentially impactful TikTok feature: live streams. It began livestreaming on the app during the 2020 NFL Draft, drawing roughly 80,000 concurrent viewers to the NFL’s profile, quickly helping the league’s TikTok account to become one of its best-performing platforms in terms of concurrent viewers. 

“Rather than seeming like a league that posts on TikTok, I think we try and make it feel like we’re just another friend who loves football a lot that’s also posting on TikTok,” Curry said. “By doing that, we’re forming this sort of community where we reply to fans on TikTok, which is something that we don’t do anywhere else. That’s helping to build that one-on-one connection with our fans.”

Since the NFL launched on TikTok in September 2019, vice president of social marketing Dave Feldman attributes the league’s growth – from 1.7 million followers on December 1 to 3.9 million on May 26 – as approaching the platform from a fan-first perspective, rather than as a business. 

“I think our audience is just very much more open and wants that type of intimate conversation with a brand like ours,” he added. “I also think that as we dive into new types of platforms, showcasing a personality along the way that’s much more personal can be much more effective as far as helping manifest that community.”

In the NHL, players are taking notice of other athletes joining TikTok and have since incorporated it into their social media portfolio. That, along with a focused effort on more content and timely posts during high-traffic hours, has helped the league increase its followership 2,854% – from 30,000 at the start of the season to more than 886,200 on May 26. According to a third-party source, its engagement rate is about 9.5%, which is the most of any Big Four league on TikTok. 

Instead of prioritizing highlights, Browning says that the NHL’s TikTok feed is heavily derived from user-generated content from its fans. The league’s #HockeyAtHome hashtag not only includes videos from the league’s skaters but also fans on TikTok who are trying to keep their hockey interests alive. 

Another challenge-driven series, the Greatest Moments Bracket, has seen the NHL call upon its social media followers – especially on TikTok – to recreate the greatest moments from the 2019-2020 season. 

Browning is also watching more NHL mascots take to TikTok. Not only has the NBA’s Benny The Bull found international success on the platform, but hockey figures like Gritty, New Jersey Devil, and Louie are looking to stake their claim as compelling TikTok mascots.

But more importantly, the level of participation from the NHL’s 31 teams has Browning optimistic about the league’s TikTok future. When it reactivated its TikTok account on November 12, 2019, 16 of its teams followed suit. As of May 21, the number of NHL teams on TikTok has grown to 25, with 18 players joining since the league’s pause began on March 12.

The widespread expansion of the NHL world’s TikTok interests puts Browning and the league in a good spot as it looks to join its Big Four counterparts in the one-million follower mark.

“It’s like a whole range of really fun and engaging content [on TikTok],” Browning said. “It’s become robust, and it’s now become a really important part of our strategy. We’ve seen both our players and teams participate as well as our fans. We’re expecting to see a lot more growth and development of the channel in the years to come.”