The Fans and Social Media Propel NBATV’s The Starters

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NBA TV shows unit coverage photographed on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017 in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by John Nowak/Turner Sports)

The worst-kept secret when you work in professional sports is that rarely are decisions made with the fans’ best interest solely in mind. Rather, they are made with one thing primarily in mind, the almighty dollar. As it is with every rule though, there are exceptions. One of those exceptions is NBA TV’s The Starters.

The show was born in part because of the fans and equally importantly due to the emergence of social media. This won’t, however, be your typical look at how Trey Kerby, Leigh Ellis, Tas Melas and JE Skeets joined forces to form the quartet that is now known as The Starters. That’s a story that has been written plenty of times before. Instead, the heroes of this story are actually the fans who have supported a show that started from humble beginnings as a podcast in Toronto, to Canadian television on The Score, all the way to NBA TV in Atlanta.

When the show launched in 2006 as The Basketball Jones there was no fancy set, no full-time salaries, no perfectly crafted format, no cameras and for that matter no Trey or Leigh. The show, which started the year Twitter came into existence and Facebook no longer required a .edu email to be part of, was simply Skeets, a basketball blogger, Melas, a story editor for a Canadian sports network and their producer Jason Doyle all recording audio for a half an hour at Doyle’s house. The three would wind up relying on social media in the early days to understand if what they were doing was even worth the time it was taking to record.

“I really think, if we didn’t have social media, as a part of our daily routine, we wouldn’t have a show,” Melas said. ”It provided real-time feedback, so we understood if our show was crappy, or if it was good, and how we could improve it. And that feedback also provided hope, which was important when you’re not getting paid and your kind of producing a passion project and you really had no idea or where it was going.”

That honest feedback coupled with the unique and passionate support would help forge a bond between the show’s content and the platforms that helped provide an early audience.

“We’ve always looked at our show as the fan is helping us build the show through either clips they’re sharing with us or things they want us to talk about,” Skeets reminisced. “That was huge because they could through Twitter, through Facebook, through all the social media channels, they could very easily get them in front of you, and you could have a back and forth with them. It was huge.”

A moment came early in the show’s history that taught Melas just how big of an impact a seemingly small podcast could have.

“I remember just doing it when we were really in our infancy and getting an email from Hong Kong,” the host told Front Office Sports. “And a guy was keeping up with the sport through us and I mean, that kind of hit home. That kind of made me realize that we were doing something that was worthwhile, and it also just sort of made me realize what we’re providing for people, and we’re providing sort of a daily update.”

Early on though none of this was a carefully calculated marketing plan. In fact, it was quite the contrary. The power of social media in its infancy wasn’t fully understood by many, Melas and Skeets included.

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“It was free advertising for us, and I think everybody sort of understands now that social media is free advertising, we didn’t know that it was doing that, but legitimately, if we were sort of just putting it out into the ether without understanding what we were doing, how it was going, and that social media was passing it around, it would’ve gone nowhere,” Melas said looking back at the early days. “Our show really would’ve gone nowhere. So it was important for feedback for hope and for just getting it out there.”

As the show transitioned from audio only to video in 2008 and eventually to television on The Score in 2010, Melas, Skeets and Doyle remained dedicated to the fans who helped them get there.

“You obviously want to grow your fan base, but you don’t want to alienate your fans that were already there either before The Score, with The Score, and now to NBA TV,” Skeets shared. “Again, it’s more just an open communication with not only even telling your fans when the show is on, and how to download it, and how to consume it, but again, that sense that you are the show, and we want you to be a part of the show, even to the point where we have a part on our television show where people are live tweeting it, and we’ve got the Twitter Show. People are sending in questions through Twitter for The Drop podcast and stuff like that. It’s like a back and forth all the time. It’s been pretty important.”

Shortly after the move to The Score, both Trey and Leigh would join the ensemble and the show we’re all now familiar with began to come together, including Trey on the “social desk” and Leigh’s “Tweet of the Week”. Both understood the power of social and the role it would play in making the show a success.

“Really, what the show is, is it’s we are fans of basketball, and the people who listen to the show, who watch the show, they’re also fans of basketball,” Ellis shared. “So they have great ideas and sometimes we get to utilize those ideas in our show. It’s great because it forms a real bond and a real connection with fans, knowing that they are not just watching the show, but they’re actually contributing to the show and participating in what we do.

“That’s what I love about it, is that we interact with our fans, but not just from a standpoint of, like, just watch us. We want them to contribute and to make the show … help make the show what it is.”

Finding a way to truly integrate the fans on social was an important thing for the entire group. Especially Trey who gets to share fans opinions with the other hosts as he plays a type of digital point guard.

“Fans on social media play a pretty big role in our show,” Kerby shared. “Every show starts with something trending online. Then we present what has kind of transpired on the internet, and then by the end of the show, they’re able to chime in and see their responses from just a few minutes earlier on TV, which is pretty big for us.”

As the group made its transition from north of the border to the NBA TV Studios in Georgia, they kept their connections to fans via social and also had a new and unique way of doing it thanks to their new home. Their set at Turner Studios is covered in basketball memorabilia. Where’d it come from? You guessed it, many of the items were actually donated from fans of the show thanks to the power of social.

“Every year at the beginning of the season, we kind of ask for the stuff that people don’t want in their houses anymore,” Kerby said. “We’ve got a ton of stuff here on the set. Memorabilia from fans and our own stuff growing up, and just stuff that has kind of been left over. One of my favorite things that ever happened was one of our fans caught Brad Miller’s armband years and years ago. He’s like my favorite random NBA player. So they mailed it in and now we have a game-worn Brad Miller armband somewhere around here. Pretty crazy. I’d never seen one in person before, and now we own one.”

So what’s the next logical step after you’ve conquered podcasting and television thanks in part to social media? Launching a show that airs exclusively on a social platform. That’s exactly what the guys did at the start of last season launching The Starters Twitter Show that airs live once a week. Just because they were pros on the platform doesn’t mean the show didn’t come with its challenges.

“Well we had screwed up before, thinking that we could make a television show and integrate our podcast into it as well, Melas said of building a seventh weekly show. “So, we realized that you have to make each sort of platform unique, make a show unique to that platform, and we understand a podcast is a podcast and we try and include visual elements into the Twitter Show, but still keeping it sort of better for the ears in audio form. We’ve learned from experience, by screwing up before.”

What can happen when you put fans first in sports and include them in the process? Something truly special. Just ask The Starters. They’ve built an entire thriving career off of it.