For the N.B.A., It’s the Most Tweetable Time of the Year

THE NEW YORK TIMES

By KATHERINE ROSMANDEC. 24, 2014

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Melissa Rosenthal Brenner at the N.B.A. offices in Manhattan. She will monitor the buzz about five Christmas games.CreditChristopher Gregory for The New York Times

For Sadie and Jack Brenner, ages 8 and 5, helping their mother onChristmas Day doesn’t involve baking cookies or stuffing ripped wrapping paper into garbage bags. Their mom has to work, and they tag along, trying to help by checking out apps and scanning Instagram.

Melissa Rosenthal Brenner, 40, is the senior vice president for digital media for the National Basketball Association. And Christmas is a big basketball day. This is the 67th year the N.B.A. has arranged a showcase of marquee games for Dec. 25. This year there will be five, with one featuring the return of LeBron James to Miami, where his Cleveland Cavaliers will face his previous team, the Heat.

The N.B.A. takes a full-court-press approach to these games when it comes to social media. The league has arranged for digital reporters to have locker-room and bench-side access at each of the five games. They will be able to take photos and videos, with the results viewed on NBA­.com, the Game Time app and social media feeds.

Ms. Brenner will be scoping the court for tweetable moments from Madison Square Garden, where she and her husband, the entertainment lawyer Joe Brenner, along with their two children, will watch the Knicks play the Washington Wizards. She will have three mobile devices in hand to check what fans are talking about and to make sure that great plays are captured and shared. She will be scanning tweets coming from N.B.A. feeds to be sure the tone doesn’t favor one team or another.

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Melissa Rosenthal Brenner, a lifelong basketball fan and a 17-year N.B.A. employee, has helped the league strengthen its presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms. CreditChristopher Gregory for The New York Times“But I also try to enjoy the game as a fan and as a parent to make sure my kids aren’t running through the stadium,” she said.

After the noon game, the family will return to its Upper West Side apartment, where Ms. Brenner will have set up something approaching mission control. She will watch the remaining four games being broadcast on cable and network TV from a wall-mounted television while she monitors social media on two mobile devices from Samsung (a partner of the N.B.A.); an iPhone 6 and an iPad Air 2 (she uses Apple devices, she said, only because it’s important for her to experience the N.B.A.’s content on all the devices that fans do); a Microsoft Surface (she got one when the former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer bought the Los Angeles Clippers this year); and a laptop.

“When I was a kid, Christmas Day was a movie and Chinese food,” said Ms. Brenner, who is Jewish. “For my kids, it’s Knicks games and ordered-in Chinese.”

Perhaps there is no better person than a working mother of young children to understand the viewing habits of millennial sports fans who have phones glued to their hands and do everything while doing something else.

The goal is to use social media to get those people to turn on the TV.

“It’s not enough to tweet something that says, ‘The game is tied going into the fourth,’ ” she said.

“It needs to be a video of Carmelo hitting a 3 and tying the game as it goes into the fourth,” she added, referring to the Knicks star Carmelo Anthony. “That’s a different message, and it can bring people to turn on ESPN.”

The whole operation relies on the social channels that Ms. Brenner, a 17-year veteran of the N.B.A., has helped to build.

The N.B.A.’s YouTube site is the most subscribed-to sports channel on the video sharing platform, logging 5.9 million subscribers and 2.47 billion video views. (The next-highest-ranked professional sports league is the National Hockey League, No. 37 on the list, with nearly 515,000 subscribers and 280 million video views.)

The N.B.A.’s Facebook page has 26.8 million “likes” (National Football League, 11.9 million; Major League Baseball, 6.2 million; Nascar, 4.5 million; N.H.L., 3.6 million). The N.B.A.’s Twitter and Instagram feeds are also more followed than those of the other leagues — with 12.4 millionfollowers on Twitter and 4.2 million on Instagram.

At a time when news media coverage has depicted the worlds of professional sports and the technology industry as unfriendly (at best) to women, Ms. Brenner is sitting pretty atop both.

Ms. Brenner is also a lifelong basketball fan (the 76ers are her favorite team because she is from Philadelphia), and she is as likely to drop tech-industry jargon about “the space” as she is to extol the virtues of the triangle offense.

“She is doing an extraordinary job,” said N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver, who assumed the helm of the league last February after serving as the deputy commissioner for eight years. Ms. Brenner had been a senior member of the league’s marketing team since 2006. Mr. Silver was already in the habit of relying on her judgment.

“My first week on the job, Melissa convinced me to signal to the digital community that the N.B.A. was open for business,” he said. “She said, ‘Let’s get on a plane and go to Silicon Valley.’ On Monday, I started as commissioner, and that day Melissa led our group.” They met with Twitter and Facebook.

Ms. Brenner graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1996. She was hired by the league in 1997 after having worked for a year at a sports memorabilia and licensing company. In 1999, Ms. Brenner was given oversight of much of the in-house advertising production arm that the league operated in Secaucus, N.J. She worked there and in Manhattan. “I used to joke that I was bicoastal,” she said.

In the role, she was entrenched in producing ads for many facets of the N.B.A.’s business — W.N.B.A. and N.B.A. ticket sales, courtside banner sales, public service announcements, TV viewing. She began to take note of social media and grabbed the reins for developing a strategy.

In 2007, she contacted Dan Rose, the brother of a close friend. He had recently taken a job at Facebook, which had opened access to the platform beyond college communities. Ms. Brenner wanted to discuss how college hoops fans might be able to follow their favorite players to pro teams.

“Melissa was the first person in the sports world to reach out and say, ‘We want to do something with social media,’ ” said Mr. Rose, now Facebook’s vice president for partnerships and operations.

They continue to work closely. For the N.B.A. finals last June, Mr. Rose and Ms. Brenner organized a live-interview promotion in which stars like Dwyane Wade and Mr. James were asked questions submitted by fans. (When did Mr. James first dunk a basketball? Eighth grade.)

“The players visibly relax; it wasn’t some gotcha question or the third time you’re asked about your sprained ankle,” Ms. Brenner said. “I sat back and thought there is something really special about this.”

She likes Twitter, too. Both she and her deputy, Sam Farber, are in regular contact with executives there. Last year, when Twitter began to develop the Twitter Mirror, a celebrity-selfie-taking, wall-mounted tablet that can be found backstage at awards shows and other live TV events, Ms. Brenner and the N.B.A. were early adopters. The Mirror was set up to facilitate N.B.A. athletes’ tweeting pictures of themselves at the 2013 draft, the All-Star Game and the finals.

More recently, she approached Twitter about the idea to stamp the @NBA handle onto official N.B.A. basketballs. “This is the first time we have seen a handle on a ball for a pro league,” said Jenna Mannos, the sports partnerships manager at Twitter.

The N.B.A. is also investing a lot of resources in the development of Snapchat content. It produced a special 93-second video on Snapchat called “#23 Returns Home.” It included fan- and N.B.A.-supplied photos related to Mr. James’s return to the Cavaliers, with whom he spent his first seven N.B.A. seasons.

As part of an arrangement with Snapchat, it was shared with all users of the app. Another Snapchat piece is being conceived for an N.B.A. game in London next month.

The league tries to leverage content at every opportunity. When Dikembe Mutombo, a former star player who is now the N.B.A.’s global ambassador, came by the office this year, someone on Ms. Brenner’s team grabbed a smartphone and followed him around to make a snap. It features him wagging his finger, in his signature style, at an N.B.A. employee eating junk food.

As a woman working in two male-dominated fields — pro sports and technology — Ms. Brenner says she has faced sexism, but she treats it like a nonevent. When she attended a conference for mostly male technology and hedge-fund executives a few years ago, an organizer mistook her for a company publicist, a job often held by women. She explained that she was an executive with the N.B.A. If someone is surprised to see a woman in a senior role, she said, “it’s their issue; it’s not my issue.”

The culture at the N.B.A. is family-friendly, she said. When Ms. Brenner returned to work after her mother died in 2011 from cancer, a welcome-back call from David Stern, the commissioner at the time, was the first she received.

A few years ago, she got stuck in traffic after attending her daughter’s midday gymnastics recital. She was late for a meeting with Mr. Silver. She ended up running several blocks and arrived at his office 20 minutes late and sweating.

“So,” Mr. Silver asked Ms. Brenner, “how’d she do?”

A version of this article appears in print on December 25, 2014, on page E1 of the New York edition with the headline: Most Tweetable Time of the Year.


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