R/GA, New York / ESPN X NBA / 2020
Research with casual basketball fans informed us that an expected three-peat Golden State Warriors championship run in 2019 was decreasing viewership motivation. But these perceptions were based on a hangover from previous seasons.
Hardcore fans told us that the Warriors actually looked vulnerable. And the stats proved it. We then noticed a pattern in how fans were expressing doubt… “If the Raptors and Warriors meet in the finals, Toronto can win.” Our plan was to amplify this one word and weaponize it to further stoke doubt, based on the insight that the feeling something unpredictable might happen makes the game too irresistible to ignore.
Use a single word — “if” — across all our communication platforms when talking about the NBA Finals so that more fans would find a reason to watch. And as ESPN, it had to start with our broadcasters. Across ESPN’s content, we briefed show hosts and commentators to begin using the “if” construct to sow the seeds of doubt… that this NBA Finals was anything but a lock. And it worked. We saw fans on social tweeting bold predictions about the 2019 NBA Finals that revived love for their favorite team with posts like “If @warriors meet the @trailblazers in the Western Conference Finals I will actually sell my soul to go #IF #ESPN” and lots more. As the “if” wagers caught fire on social, we delivered on their bold prognostication if their statement came true. (And yes, the 2 tickets for 1 soul “if” deal actually went through.)
The “IF” campaign used deep social listening to stoke the unpredictability of the game. We saw fans were already pointing out that nothing is locked when it comes to the NBA Finals. Even though the Warriors seemed like a sure thing, they could be taken down if things came together for the right players, teams, and coaches. Rather than positioning the 2019 NBA Finals as a lock waiting to be tested, we used this fan truth to get back to the fact that it was anybody’s game. All to drive tune in throughout the playoffs as the unpredictability played out.
The “IF” campaign was served up across platforms as a direct tune-in call to action, sowing seeds of doubt and amping up storylines that repositioned the games for our audience. And because our fans were so passionate and emboldened about this new, refreshed potential for the Finals, their predictions on social media became bolder too. So, we ran fan-made if statements about the upcoming games in our ads. And when it came time to make good on their if wagers, we ended up drawing up contracts for souls, partnering with LeBron James’ tattoo artist to give a fan some ink, and more. The campaign started as mass-communication to drive tune in, and became a one-to-one brand experience where fans were rewarded for being fans out loud.
766% increase in “IF” mentions on social during the NBA playoffs
35% lift in tune-in after seeing the campaign
One tattooed fan.
One shaved head.
And sure enough, the Golden State Warriors fell to the Toronto Raptors in the Championship, proving that a little bit of doubt on the status quo, and a lot of heart from the fans, can go a long way.