If you are a basketball fan, March 11th, 2020 is likely a day you will not forget.

The NBA has suspended the season.

– Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) March 12, 2020

That was the day the entire NBA closed after Utah Jazz Center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus ahead of their game against Oklahoma City. It was the start of a four-month hiatus during which fans and players wondered if the season would ever start again.


– Nathan Marzion (@nathanmarzion) March 12, 2020

Of course, when the league announced the formation of the NBA bubble to wrap up the season, there were doubts. Would the bladder actually work? How would journalists report on players with limited media availability? And how would the league keep the fans busy if nobody was allowed to see the games in person?

It turns out that many of those fears were allayed when the NBA resumed on July 30th. So far there have been no positive tests, the final is underway and some fans have been able to join seats via virtual courts. But what really sets the bubble experiment apart are its athletes, and NBA players with YouTube channels like JaVale McGee and Troy Daniels keep fans entertained both on and off the pitch.

What the NBA is getting right that so many other leagues fail to understand is they know how powerful player-generated content is to keep fans interested. People will watch out when JR Smith talks about hotel dining on his Instagram Live or when Mo Bamba posts a video of Tacko Fall Golf. And unlike other sports leagues, the NBA has a pretty straightforward approach to monitoring what their athletes can and can’t post. When it comes to building awareness and engaging fans, sometimes a brand’s best content strategy is to let others create the content for you.

Fans give what they want now

One quick look at the Los Angeles Lakers’ social feeds and it’s clear that all of their content was created by a professional. The logos are in the right places and the camera work is as even as possible.

On the other hand, Laker’s Center’s YouTube channel JaVale McGee is showing all the signs of a first-time vlogger. His videos are rougher around the edges, with the occasional blur and muffled audio. But McGee’s User Generated Content (UGC) also attracts more views than his team’s official profiles. A highlight role on the Lakers channel has 59,000 views so far, while McGee’s first bubble vlog has over a million views.

Another successful basketball vlogger, Matisse Thybulle of the Philadelphia 76ers also draws millions of viewers to his channel where he shares team golf outings, candid talks about Black Lives Matter, and a boat ride with Kyle O’Quinn who went wrong. Thybulle, also a first-time vlogger, openly admits that he’s still learning to edit and that viewers can spot the occasional flaw in his vlogs.

In other words, content doesn’t have to be particularly polished to be very engaging. What’s even more important is how quickly you can deliver the content your fans want while the interest is still high. NBA players entered the bubble between July 7th and 9th, and Thybulle and McGee both posted their first vlogs on July 11th and 12th, respectively. For context, the Milwaukee Bucks released their own bubble episode two weeks later. When it comes to engaging your audience, getting UGC right when they want it will be more successful than keeping fans waiting for a highly produced version.

Keep all eyes on the bladder

NBA teams have millions of followers on social media. The Chicago Bulls have nearly six million fans on Instagram, while the Miami Heat has around five million followers on Twitter.

However, individual players can reach a niche audience that may or may not be interested in basketball at all. Meyers Leonard’s Warmth Center, for example, is an avid gamer with a respectable following on Twitch. Portland Shooting Guard CJ McCollum is a podcaster and wine lover. In addition to being a security guard for the Sixers, Thybulle is an aspiring photographer who recently received a request for collaboration from YouTuber Casey Neistat. Neistat, a stand-alone vlogger, eventually tweeted one of Thybulle’s vlogs to his two million Twitter followers because he was impressed with the athlete’s video skills.

Player-generated excitement also caught the attention of several talk show hosts and news outlets just wanting to find out more about what’s going on on the Disney World campus. Pelican keeper JJ Redick appeared with James Corden on the Late Late Show, where he talked about gambling in unusual circumstances, the launch of his new podcast, and his wine consumption in the bubble.

Instead of trying to reach new audiences yourself, use your industry stars to dig into untapped demographic data. The version of an industry veteran and a fresh-faced newcomer to your industry brings different audiences to the table and gives your brand the opportunity to speak to as many people as possible. McCollum and Leonard, for example, share a similar fan base interested in basketball, but Leonard also has followers in the gaming community, McColllum does not. With their videos, stories, tweets, and podcasts, players were able to captivate an even larger audience than just the typical NBA fan.

Pull back the curtain

Like any other brand, NBA teams have their own style when it comes to creating content and guidelines on what to post.

However, players are subject to a less stringent standard and are able to capture the content that team officials behind the scenes cannot post or access. While Bucks’ Twitter feed is filled with videos of team exercises and interviews, Center Robin Lopez’s feed includes images of the player’s lounge and answers to fan questions on all Disney topics.

UGC allows users to access unique content that is not available on an official branded account. For example, fans had the opportunity to see some of their favorite stars interact with other teams. In his vlog, Troy Daniels invited fans to watch the team prepare for game day and showed off the open encounters he has with players from Utah Jazz. It’s those little moments that fans are unlikely to see through the eyes of a team account that highlight player-generated content.

With UGC, marketers can bring content to their viewers that is not in a branded account and offer a unique perspective on an event. A marketer cannot capture everything that happens during an event as big as the NBA bubble. So why not use gamers to share what they’re experiencing on social media? Leveraging content from users (in this case, the player), marketers can offer content behind the scenes to prevent social feeds from becoming stale.

A hands-off approach to content

No one could have predicted the chaos that played out on March 11th or that the NBA season would end on the Disney World campus in Florida. But three months after the bubble started, it’s safe to say that the NBA experiment, once shrouded in uncertainty, has become one of the most interesting and important events of the summer.

While people were already curious about the bubble, it really was the players that kept the fans busy even when there were no games in the air. There’s no shortage of unique Orlando content, and when players post something new the entire internet turns on. And it shows that sometimes the best strategy is to step back and let others do the talking for you. By allowing players to create their own bubble content and share it with the rest of the world, the NBA was able to maintain fan engagement without having to create all of the content themselves.

For more inspiration on third-party content that can help you achieve your social goals from awareness to consideration, see our guide to user-generated content.