Although the NBA Finals has been ratings gold for television networks ESPN and ABC, it's not the only way fans are consuming NBA games. New data from Pixability reveals an increasing appetite for NBA basketball on YouTube. Eleven-time NBA All-Star LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are tied 2-2 with 2015 Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, and the NBA Finals' ratings are up 33 percent from last year.
They've set a record for ABC as being the highest-rated finals in the network's history, with more than 18 million viewers tuning into Game 3. However, in a world where fans are increasingly turning towards using multiple screens during games, the NBA is seeing exponential growth on YouTube.
In a media landscape where sports can attract top dollar from networks and content deals, the NBA has taken a unique approach towards its product: They are giving it away for free.
Websites such as YouTube, NBA.com and affiliated team sites host thousands of videos from behind-the-scenes clips to player and game highlights. The Finals are poised to generate more than 134 million views on the NBA's official YouTube channel, according to Pixability, a video marketing platform.
And that number is growing rapidly; over the last two years, the NBA's YouTube growth is up 40 percent. "The NBA has been highly focused on the digital space longer than anyone else. They are reaping the benefits of this now after years of investment," said Joe Favorito, a sports marketing professor at Columbia University. Pixability said the NBA has been uploading between 350 and 400 videos per month in the past year.
Former Commissioner David Stern and current Commissioner Adam Silver were ahead of this trend long before the other leagues. The NBA was the first league to partner with YouTube, in 2005, and formed its own NBA channel the same year. Today, more than 2.8 billion videos have been viewed on the NBA channel.
"We have always made a conscious effort to be early adopters and provide compelling platform-specific content to further enhance the experience of our game," Melissa Rosenthal Brenner, the NBA's senior vice president of digital media, told CNBC.
So, why are they giving so much content away for free? It's all about building the brand and showcasing your product to a global audience, according to Favorito. "As more foreigners visit the U.S., part of what they want to experience now is an NBA game," he said.
"It's making them one of the hottest leagues right now," said Mike McCarthy, contributing writer to Sports Illustrated and Sporting News. McCarthy believes the YouTube growth is a result of fans wanting to consume sports in shorter doses. "People can go to YouTube get a clip they want to see, and you don't even have to be in your living room," he said.
"We want to be where our fans are, providing them with the right content, on the right platform, at the right time," Brenner said.
It's not just YouTube that fans are turning towards, they are also turning to apps like WatchESPN. The streaming platform has seen unique viewership grow 118 percent as more than 700,000 viewers tuned in to stream Cleveland's 96-91 win over Golden State in Game 3.
When you compare the NBA's rapid YouTube growth to other sports, it's staggering. The NBA's 134 million views puts them exponentially ahead of the other leagues—six times more than the other three sports combined.
Major League Baseball's channel saw 7.6 million views from the World Series, while 3.8 million visited YouTube for the NHL's Stanley Cup Finals. Nine and a half million people visited the NFL's newly launched channel in the two weeks surrounding the Super Bowl this year. The NBA was the first league to start a YouTube channel in 2005, the other leagues have slowly followed. "I give a lot of credit to Adam Silver," said McCarthy.
"The NBA's success gives it a leg up compared to the other leagues," he said.