Social media has been a marketing lifeline for sports teams during the coronavirus pandemic.
Without live games, teams like the Philadelphia 76ers have no product to sell, televise, or advertise. They’ve had to rely mostly on fans’ connection to the team and players.
Luckily, the 76ers boast young, 20-something stars like Ben Simmons, Joel Embid, and Matisse Thybulle who are as enthusiastic about social media as the club’s Gen Z fans, according to Chief Marketing Officer Katie O’Reilly.
The 76ers boast nearly 6 million followers across Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, plus another 212,000 on TikTok. Since the suspension of the NBA season in March, the team’s engagement rate on Instagram is up 10%.
With no games, that’s an impressive number compared to the normal 12% engagement rate for Instagram at the peak of the season and the typical 6.75% in the off-season. O’Reilly gives a lot of credit to the players.
“Having our players be so young, they get it. They understand how to organically connect with our fans,” she said.
As an example, she points to Thybulle’s funny videos on TikTok. Quarantined in his apartment, Thybulle’s TikTok trick shot and dribbling videos have generated 1.1 million likes on the growing social media platform.
With nearly 136,000 followers on TikTok, Thybulle has become “all the rage” during the quarantine, said O’Reilly, who grew up in the Philadelphia area.
“He’s one of them. He knows what to do – and where to reach them,” she said. “It’s their job to be the best basketball players they can be on the court. It’s my job, and it’s our job, to make this city fall in love with them. To do that, we tell their stories. We humanize them. That’s what our goal is. Of course, the content has led the way.”
During the current pandemic, “social media is the avenue for professional teams to engage fans,” said Joseph Mahan, chairman of the department of sports & recreation management at Temple University in Philadelphia.
“Going forward, it would behoove teams, and individuals, to continue on this path. Social has shown to be a fruitful method for growing a younger fanbase. It is only more pronounced during the current pandemic,” Mahan said.
Moving forward, the 76ers want to build up their female and youth fan bases.
Overall, the three-time NBA champions boast 5.4 million fans nationwide, putting them among the top 10 fan bases in the league. Roughly 40% of 76ers fans nationally are female, a number that is even higher in the Philadelphia metro market at 43%.
“We’re proud of those numbers, to begin with. But we’re always looking to grow beyond that. And we really believe the way to do that is to capture the hearts and minds of the youth. Catch them while they’re young,” said O’Reilly. “So youth programming and youth marketing have been a huge priority of ours as we grow that over the past couple of years.”
The marketing department recently posted a 3 ½ minute-long video for the team’s kids club on Twitter.
The 76ers invited grammar school-age kids to send in videos about their favorite stars. To the delight of these young fans, quarantined players like Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Josh Richardson answered with their own video messages. The club then posted videos of the kids dancing with delight.
“Even though it’s hard not being together, we feel your support, we miss you and you’re on our minds every day,” noted the video, which was sponsored by youth-focused retailer Five Below.
Meanwhile, the 76ers recently hosted their first-ever “Virtual Girls Summit” on YouTube, which was aimed at young female 76ers fans.
Sponsored by Rothman Orthopaedics, the panel featured female players and executives, including 76ers Performance Director Lorena Torres, WNBA stars Natasha Cloud of the Washington Mystic, and Kahleah Copper of the Chicago Sky, and ex- WNBA player Maggie Lucas.
Eighth-grade girls from the Philadelphia area submitted questions to the panel. As an additional marketing element, 76ers mascot “Franklin” has been making virtual visits to local schools via Zoom.
“We believe the real sweet spot is with the youth,” said O’Reilly, who’s one of the youngest female C-Suite executives in the NBA.
On Mother’s Day, O’Reilly’s marketing team focused on story-telling to reach female fans. The club posted videos on its team web site of players like Al Horford explaining the significance of his mom, Arelis Reynoso, a successful sports journalist who relocated to the city from the Dominican Republic in 2001.
“She exposed me to a lot of different areas. I think it helped shape me as a player,” says Horford in the story posted to the team website. The Horford’s were also highlighted in a 25-minute podcast on the 76ers Podcast Network.
With a team value of $2 billion, 76ers are the 11th most-valuable NBA franchise, according to Forbes, just behind the Toronto Raptors and ahead of the Miami Heat.
After missing the playoffs for five straight years, they’ve made the NBA Playoffs two seasons in a row. That success is paying off at the box office.
Before the coronavirus shutdown, the 76ers led the league in attendance for the 2019/2020 season, with average home game attendance of 20,628. The team also led the NBA in attendance for the full 2018/2019 season.
During the current NBA shut down, the team’s social channels went from being part of a robust marketing/media platform to one of the “only” connections to fans, according to O’Reilly.
“Engagement is through the roof. Across the board, no matter if you’re a sports team or whatever, social engagement has probably doubled or tripled during this pandemic,” she said. “It’s fascinating. Everyone’s just home on their phones. So we’re looking for ways to connect with our fans and provide unique engagement.”