NBA Test of Fans’ Patience

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BasketballStrikes, labor disputes, and lock-outs are rarely good for a sport in the short-term. The most recent was between the NBA players and the NBA owners, resulting in a lock-out starting July 1st. By the time it ended the NBA season by truncated by two months and 20% of the normal 82 games. The lockout meant an estimated $1 billion in lost television ad revenue, and $2.7 billion in lost licensed product revenue. It also meant online fans had very few reasons to track the normal pre-season and early season nuances of the sport: During the lock-out even trades were suspended. Games have resumed but with less time for players to get in shape and coaches to hone rosters and strategies some of the early play has been off-par.

To assess the impact of the delay on consumers’ digital enthusiasm, Compete compared unique visitors (UVs) for its “basketball enthusiast” behavioral category year-over-year. Behavioral categories are a proprietary set of sites that represent a common interest or leaning. Compete’s patented normalization process avoids double-counting, which means that someone that went to more than one site in a category is counted only once in the category UV total (i.e., avoids false positives).

Traffic Needs a Rebound

The impacts of the lockout are as dramatic as a technical foul. The lock-out started July 1st, and so did the big first y-o-y decline in category UVs—down 55%. Category traffic was down an average of 48% from July through November.

Basketball Enthusiast Behavorial Category UVsref

The sustained drop in traffic suggests the potential for big losses in online ad dollars in addition to lost TV and product dollars. But the bigger question is where were all these online eyes going instead of to basketball sites? And now that the lock-out is over, when and to what extent will the NBA recover interest and traffic? There’s big business in play: each single lost visitor represents about $264/month of lost revenue and with an average of 2.3 million visitors lost each month it adds up.full court press

Full Court Press

Down the road, the new owner/player agreements may help the league, but in the near-term the disruption in fan interest has been significant. The NBA and teams will need to aggressively re-engage fans through quality of play and as well as through recuperative marketing. The big questions on the effectiveness of the rebound include:

  • To what extent will online fans come back?
    • Hint: Track traffic category over time.
  • Will they come back uniformly?
    • Hint: Benchmark traffic to sites with the strongest rosters (like the LA Clippers) vs. others.
  • How many basketball enthusiasts permanently switched to other sports?
    • Hint: Identify how many former online basketball enthusiasts now frequent other sports categories.
  • How has traffic and revenue to key NBA sponsors’ sites suffered?
    • Hint: Map overlap with and referrals from basketball sites and/or basketball search terms and sponsor sites, such as
  • Have key NBA players lost online clout?
    • Hint: Evaluate changes in search-engine volume for key players and teams, and the extent to which that activity leads to purchases.
About Lincoln Merrihew:
Lincoln Merrihew is the Senior Vice President of Transportation at Millward Brown Digital. At Millward Brown Digital, Lincoln is responsible for steering the Transportation Team, which encompasses the automotive and travel practices. Before Lincoln joined the Millward Brown Digital team, he worked at TNS Custom leading the Automotive team, and then continued on there to lead business development for 10 different industry verticals. Lincoln's career aspiration is to create game-changing solutions and insights. Connect with Lincoln on LinkedIn.