How NBA Players Became the Kings of American Social Media

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How NBA Players Became the Kings of American Social Media
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When it comes to the intersection between North American professional sports and social media, the NBA has almost always been ahead of the curve. The league, its coaches and its players (past and present) are among the most active participants on Facebook, Twitter and the like from the world of high-profile athletics.

Which makes plenty of sense. After all, Twitter's official mascot—"Larry the Bird"—was named after Boston Celtics great Larry Bird.

Symbols aside, the NBA has done remarkably well to capitalize on the power of Twitter as a means of connecting and communicating with fans and viewers across the globe. The NBA's is the most-followed Twitter feed of any that belongs to a major pro sports league.

The Association is also home to the single-most followed team in American pro sports (the Los Angeles Lakers). At present, more than 90 percent of the league's players are currently active on Twitter, some more than others.

The most followed of those players also happens to be considered the best on the planet. I'm talking, of course, about LeBron James. The three-time MVP and 2012 champion with the Miami Heat leads all NBA affiliates with more than 7.1 million followers.

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Which is remarkable, considering that LeBron has only been on Twitter (@kingjames) since July 6th, 2010—just two days before he announced on national television that he'd be taking his talents to South Beach.

According to Adam Ostrow of Mashable, James racked up more than 25,000 followers within his first hour in the Twittersphere, without so much as sending out a single character's worth of content. He was well past 1.6 million followers by March of 2011 and has seen that total skyrocket in the nearly two years since.

Not exactly a surprise, considering that he's won a title, an Olympic gold medal, a regular-season MVP and an NBA Finals MVP in that span. On-court success has always had a way of catalyzing affairs off of it.

To be sure, James has been maligned at times for being a follower himself. He was supposedly lured to the Heat by long-time friends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. During the summer of 2012, LeBron hosted a celebrity flag football tournament, but only after Kevin Durant, his rival and workout buddy, played an impromptu game of his own in an intramural league at Oklahoma State.

LBJ's foray into Twitter was no different. Fellow high school class of 2003 star and current Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul (@cp3) claimed that he pushed LeBron to join Twitter and was actually the first to advertise his friend's arrival: 

Paul, too, has seen a relatively massive uptick in follows since March of 2011, when Mediaite put together its first NBA Social Media All-Star Game. He's surpassed 1.7 million followers, which is impressive considering his total stood at around 300,000 22 months ago.

If Paul needs some advice regarding non-basketball means of building his following, he could do worse than consult current teammate Lamar Odom. Mr. Khloe Kardashian (@RealLamarOdom) still boasts the fifth-most Twitter acolytes (3.65 million) among his peers, despite struggling through another career low point (as far as individual productivity is concerned) in 2012-13.

It certainly helps Odom's case that he's so well-known in the world of pop culture, thanks in no small part to his matrimonial association with the First Family of reality television.

That aside, the Clips' overall uptick in performance this season figures to boost Paul's online presence in this regard, and a trophy of some sort on his mantle (i.e. an MVP, a championship) would only expand CP3's digital footprint.

Dwyane Wade should know. Two rings (one with LeBron), an NBA Finals MVP and a partnership with a Chinese shoe brand (Li-Ning) have all helped to make Wade (@DwyaneWade) a global social media commodity. He had shot past a million followers by the spring of 2011 and now stands less than 100,000 shy of the four-million-followers mark.

What's more, Wade's current girlfriend, actress Gabrielle Union (@itsgabrielleu), has more than a million Twitter followers of her own.

But Wade wouldn't likely be where he is today—as a superstar athlete or an Internet sensation—without the help of former Heat teammate Shaquille O'Neal. The Big Diesel (@SHAQ) was among the NBA's original Twitter pioneers, joining the social media service in November of 2008.

Shaq was far and away the league's most followed personality until LeBron surpassed him in 2012. Even so, O'Neal still stands as the second-most popular NBA tweeter, with more than 6.6 million followers on his rolls.

This, despite announcing his retirement via Twitter (how else?) in June of 2011:

Ironically enough, Dwight Howard actually beat Shaq to the Twitter punch by a month.

Ironic, because O'Neal has long lambasted Howard for being a follower himself—from being drafted first overall by the Orlando Magic and adopting "Superman" as a nickname to leading the Magic to the NBA Finals before bolting for brighter lights in a bigger city with the Los Angeles Lakers. Yet, it's Howard who first set down roots in the Twittersphere.

Not that temporal primacy has helped Howard at all in this regard. Dwight's nearly 3.8 million followers make him the fourth-most followed NBA superstar, but still leave him well behind the current TNT personality. Again, the power of championship credentials in fueling a superstar's popularity at home and abroad can't be understated.

Just ask Kobe Bryant. He joined Twitter this past January 4th (as @kobebryant) after a few days spent dabbling in the medium via @nikebasketball. In less than a month, the Black Mamba has amassed more than 1.1 million followers (15th-most among NBAers) while earning a reputation for social media mastery.

And for good reason. With tweets like this...

...this...

...and this...

 

...the Los Angeles Lakers legend already established himself as one of the more entertaining follows in all of sports. He may have fallen behind Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony in the NBA scoring race, but it's only a matter of time until Bryant catches (and surpasses) both of them in the Twittersphere.

At present, Durant is the sixth-most followed NBA personality on Twitter, with upwards of 3.5 million followers. He was well under a million back in July of 2010, when he quietly announced the signing of a five-year, $86 million extension amidst the hoopla that was the Summer of LeBron:

In the two-and-a-half years since, Durant (@KDTrey5) has racked up two more scoring titles, two more first-team All-NBA selections, three more All-Star starts, an All-Star Game MVP and a trip to the NBA Finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder. It stands to reason, then, that his online popularity has skyrocketed right along with his own profile within the NBA, where he now stands as arguably the second-best player behind only LeBron.

'Melo (@carmeloanthony) sits just behind the Durantula among the NBA's Twitter ranks with nearly 2.86 million followers of his own. The switch from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks has evidently done him plenty of good in the world of social media—he's added more than two million to his following since that fateful swap in March of 2011.

On the whole, the NBA's stars far outpace their peers in the NFL and MLB in Twitter significance. According to Fan Page List, LeBron and Shaq are the two most followed disciples of North American professional sports.

If more individualistic sports (i.e. boxing, wrestling, tennis, golf, cycling, etc.) are withheld from the discussion, then the NBA is/was home to eight of the top-10 tweeting athletes in America, with Chad Ochocinco and Reggie Bush of the NFL as the lone interlopers.

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Internationally, though, the NBA still has some catching-up to do. A whopping seven of the 10 most followed athletes in the world have gained notoriety through soccer/football (per Fan Page List). That includes Real Madrid teammates Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka, who are currently the two most popular athletes on Twitter, with nearly 30 million followers combined. Neymar, the 20-year-old Brazilian sensation, is closing in on six million followers, despite having yet to make the jump to a European club.

The gap between soccer/football and basketball in the world of social media seems to mirror the void that exists in the world at large. Soccer/football is, has long been and likely will remain the most popular game on planet Earth for the foreseeable future. The FIFA World Cup and the UEFA Champions League are arguably the two top team competitions in all of sports. The English Premier League is home to the most valuable sports franchise of all (Manchester United) and a lucrative TV deal that beams content to nearly every corner of the globe.

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But basketball, by way of the NBA, isn't that far behind. Say what you want about long-time commissioner David Stern, but the guy has done a masterful job of expanding his game's global footprint during his 30 years on the job. He was among those who pushed for pros to play in the Olympics, promoted the game's stars as a means of popularizing the NBA and revamped (if not outright revolutionized) the league's TV and media apparatus.

That same interest in, and foresight when it comes to, technology and star power on Stern's part has served the NBA well in solidifying itself as the most social media-savvy sports league in the US and challenging soccer's Twitter oligarchy. As Stern told Richard Nieva of Fortune back in July, he and the league have encouraged the players to engage their fans on Twitter:

"We said, go ahead guys. Go at it."

So far and for the most part (aside from the occasional blip from Stephen Jackson or JR Smith), it's worked exceedingly well for the NBA. The NFL owns a strangle-hold over the American sports audience, but remains something of an international novelty, one whose players haven't quite become social media moguls.

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Not surprisingly, MLB is stuck in the dark ages in the Twittersphere. Only one Major Leaguer—Cleveland Indians outfielder Nick Swisher—can boast more than a million followers. In fact, according to Fan Page List, Jose Canseco, who hasn't played in the Majors since 2001 and remains a pariah for his role in perpetrating baseball's "Steroid Era," sports the second-most followers among those associated with America's pastime.

The NBA, on the other hand, has no such borders with which to concern itself and no antiquated approach to hold it back. Basketball is a global game, one whose ever-growing popularity at home and abroad has only been augmented and confirmed by the Internet, 140 characters at a time. 

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