How the NBA dominates pro sports

July 17, 2012: 8:49 AM ET

Technologies like social media have helped the league boost ratings and attract younger viewers.

By Richard Nieva, reporter

David Stern

NBA Commissioner David Stern and Phil Kent, Chairman and CEO of Turner.

FORTUNE -- How has the National Basketball Association managed to score its highest ratings, strengthen its brand globally, and create more buzz amongst its fans than any other North American sport? In a word, technology. That is what commissioner David Stern said speaking on a panel at Fortune's Brainstorm Tech conferencein Aspen, Colorado.

Exhibit A: Stern issued a call to developers who could create technology that tracks a basketball at its highest trajectory, so referees would know when a ball deflected by opponents resulted in goaltending -- and an automatic two points for the shooting team. It's a trend that many professional leagues are following. After this year's soccer European championship, FIFA -- the sport's international governing body -- announced it would implement technology that would strengthen the accuracy of awarding goals.

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But for the NBA, the digital embrace doesn't come on a strictly technical level. He credits social media with the league's uptick in popularity: the NBA made a concerted effort to facilitate players' Twitter habits. "We said, go ahead guys. Go at it." So it's no surprise that the league has the most Twitter followers of any of the major American sports -- 5.6 million compared to the National Football League's 3.5 million.

Lebron James, arguably the league's signature player, has almost as many followers as the league itself, with 5.4 million. It all congealed for Stern and the league after James, who has been called by many the first athlete of the digital age, won his first championship this year, after nine highly scrutinized years of trying.

All of this adds up to a bonanza television year for the league. Ratings have shot up on the TNT network, despite being broadcast partners with Turner (TWX) for over 30 years. (Turner and Fortune are owned by the same parent.) According to the Hollywood Reporter, the last game of the NBA finals attracted 18.5 million viewers, the second most watched NBA game for ABC (DIS) since it started broadcasting games.

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Stern attributes part of the league's success to not being a "walled garden," i.e. letting its partners drive some of the content. Turner also runs each of the NBA's media arms, from NBA.com to NBA TV. "They didn't take the route of other leagues, saying, we have to do everything ourselves," said Phil Kent, chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting, also speaking on the panel.

In the spirit of partnering, Stern said he's talked to Twitter CEO Dick Costolo about using tweets to record All-Star game MVP votes in real-time -- another way the game can open itself up to the Internet generation. "We've gotten younger," Stern said, referring to audience demographics. "Don't scratch your head. It's because of social media."

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