PH NBA Bubble

How The NBA Bubble Came to Life Through Storytelling and Social Media

by Mike Guzzo and Terence Hannigan

When the NBA announced its plan to finish out the 2019-20 season in a bubble in Orlando, FL, many questions were asked: fans and media wondered, "Will this work?"; "How will players respond?"; "How will fans stay engaged when we can't be anywhere near an NBA arena?" and much more.

Long before the Los Angeles Lakers captured their record-tying 17th championship, those questions had been answered. Through insightful and creative storytelling by media, and players leveraging their social platforms, the NBA Bubble came to life serving as a shining example of what sports can look like when we can't be there IRL.

While on-court action bustled with buzzer-beaters, upsets, and scoring showcases, fans demonstrated a robust appetite for a taste of the off-court experiences from players. Sixers rookie Matisse Thybulle quickly garnered a following for his “Welcome to the Bubble” vlogs which captured the daily happenings of the Disney World campus. Thybulle wasn’t the only player that found his passion for vlogging in the bubble, as the Lakers’ JaVale McGee and the Nuggets’ Troy Daniels followed suit, pulling in tens of thousands of subscribers. Thybulle’s vlogs notched over 8.4M views and landed him an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and an NYT feature.

Throughout the bubble’s duration, we saw plenty of wacky and wild stories from the ground as media and league personnel lodged in the same hotels. Reporters in Orlando uncovered unique storylines, from player passions to social initiatives and more. Notable examples included:

For fans looking to be part of the action in Orlando, brands like Michelob stepped in to help. They launched the Ultra Courtside experience, where fans could be displayed in the virtual crowd. This gave fans the chance to appear on broadcasts, just like if they were in NBA arenas, and helped the bubble feel a bit more “real”.

With the sports spotlight focused on the NBA, players took it upon themselves to lend their voice to important social causes. In the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, NBA players called for change. When bubble play began, NBA players donned social justice messages on their uniforms.

Most notably, NBA players in the bubble exemplified that they’re more than “just” athletes when they boycotted playoff games following the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Their decision increased media attention surrounding the incident and prompted similar actions from both MLB and NHL athletes. With social unrest throughout the country, it was a groundbreaking move for NBA players to boycott playoff games; risking their own paychecks for a larger, non-sporting cause and showing how valuable their platforms are.

When bubble action concluded, some pointed to lower TV ratings for the league as cause for concern, however, the NBA smashed records on digital platforms. A post from Front Office Sports revealed:

  • 6.9B video views on social channels since the 7/30 restart
  • 2.6B Instagram video views
  • 1B video views during Finals across platforms
  • 321M postseason YouTube views
  • 61M YouTube views during Finals

To top it off, the Lakers broke merchandise records, selling more gear in a shorter timespan than any champion in NBA history. Lakers merch sold in over 110 countries, with 85% of purchases made from mobile devices immediately following the championship-clinching win.

The bubble-era of the NBA has now come and gone, but the storytelling and social impact thoroughly demonstrated throughout these months signals a shining future for the league’s role in the cultural conversation.