Why the Dowdy Celtics Are Trying to Wear Supreme

The N.B.A. has embraced its players as individuals, letting the league become more connected to the culture. Clockwise from top left: LeBron James wore shoes emblazoned with “Equality” against the Washington Wizards on Sunday; Kyrie Irving celebrated with fans after defeating the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 16; Chance the Rapper attended a game between the Chicago Bulls and the Phoenix Suns in Chicago; Irving gave his shoes and jersey to veterans after a game against the Nets in No

BOSTON — You may long for the old Boston Garden and its parquet floor shot through with dead spots. You may miss the short shorts of John Havlicek and Larry Bird. But the championship banners — all 17 of them — are still here in this newer arena called TD Garden, and they tell the story of one of the most iconic franchises in sports.

But I didn’t come for history.

Instead, I wanted to know how the N.B.A. has become the Netflix of sports properties, a league whose players are helping transform the way sports are being bought, sold and consumed in much the same way the streaming services have changed entertainment.

In the land of likes and #hashtags and stories, LeBron, K.D., Kyrie and their peers are usually just seconds away from going viral. The N.B.A. and its stars have pumped out a staggering amount of content across social media platforms: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat. So far this season, the league claims, it has had one billion actions such as likes or shares and two billion views of video highlight packages or player proclamations on these platforms.

No one has ever accused the Celtics of being hip, nor the city itself of welcoming progress with open arms. The Boston Globe recently published a multipart series on the city’s troubled racial past and present. And the Celtics haven’t harnessed the power of social media as aggressively and creatively as, say, the Atlanta Hawks or Portland Trail Blazers.

Yet even the hidebound Celtics are trying to jump on board.

“On the surface, we are a traditional old-school brand,” said Rich Gotham, the Celtics’ president, “but underneath we are quite evolved.”

The team’s ownership group, led by chairman Wyc Grousbeck, is composed of private-equity veterans. Fifteen years ago, the group bought the Celtics for $360 million, a bargain. They not only wanted to hang another championship banner here — the last had come in 1986 — but also sought to unlock the value in what had become a moribund franchise.

Enter Gotham, a tech executive, charged with identifying the team’s consumers and making it easy for them to fall in love again with the Celtics. It helped that money guys and tech evangelists were becoming part of other N.B.A. franchises as well as the league’s front office.

Their goal was to push the N.B.A. past the N.F.L. in popularity and, yes, make a ton of money. When the Celtics were losing, it meant employing “dynamic pricing,” otherwise known as dropping the cost of tickets to put fannies in the seat. When the team was winning, it meant presenting at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference about the role of advanced analytics in the Celtics’ success.

Both here in Boston, and around the league, executives came to the conclusion that their most valuable asset was a generation of basketball players who were bigger, faster and more talented than those who came before. Players who also cared deeply about how they dressed, what music they listened to and what was going on in the world.

Even better, these players had come of age with smartphones and social media and were eager to broadcast their tastes and opinions to whoever was listening.

“We have thoughtful, socially conscious and digitally savvy players,” Gotham said. “All we needed to do is turn them loose.”

Imagine hearing that from the Patriots owner Robert Kraft across town, or Jerry Jones in Dallas, or any N.F.L. executive.

No one in the N.B.A.’s league office flinches when LeBron James wears one black and one white shoe with the word “equality” written on them, as he did on Sunday in a game against the Washington Wizards in the shadow of the White House. He then posted a photograph of them on Instagram, which quickly garnered more than one million likes.

The league helps its stars expand their reach by offering regular programming on Twitter, by live-streaming games on Facebook and by blasting out highlights on Snapchat.

This partnership has not only given voice and weight to different points of view, but it has also helped drive interest in N.B.A. players off the court.

“It’s important to remember how black-dominated the N.B.A. is as a sport, and as a result you are getting viewpoints on civil rights and equality that you don’t necessarily hear all the time,” said Ramesh Srinivasan, a U.C.L.A professor and a scholar of technology, politics and society. “The league knows it can’t stop these athletes, so instead they have embraced them and provided a bigger megaphone.”

This is the same N.B.A. that in the late 1970s and early 1980s worried that it was losing popularity because it was too black. This is the same N.B.A. that in 2005 instituted a dress code to distance itself from hip-hop culture.

Now Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper are courtside fixtures as well the source of the music blasted out of arena sound systems.

Of the hundreds of millions of N.B.A. fans, 46 percent are under the age of 35, according to Gotham. Each morning, my soon-to-be-13-year-old-son watches the previous night’s highlights on Snapchat. He heads to YouTube, where compilation videos of each basket can turn a two-hour game into 20 minutes.

The players have, for the most part, used their elevated platforms judiciously and joyfully. James has attracted 96.6 million followers across all platforms by posting lighthearted fare, like his team’s New York subway videos, to go with his social commentary.

Irving has cracked the N.B.A.’s top 10 with an active Instagram (11 million) feed and a knack for viral gestures, such as giving away his jersey and shoes to a pair of United States servicewomen in Brooklyn last month after a game against the Nets. He also knows social media helps move merchandise: He unveiled his Kyrie 4s with a video urging his fans to continue exploring their best selves.

One of his teammates, Jaylen Brown, posted on Twitter a video of himself jumping out of his car and dunking on unsuspecting pickup players in one of this year’s social-media fads, the Drive-By Dunk Challenge. Both Irving, 25, and Brown, 21, may be still finding their voice, but there is no doubt that there is an audience eager to hear them.

“We are reaching a generation that doesn’t see the same cultural barriers to the game that we once did,” Gotham said.

Gotham, for one, believes the outreach on social media is paying off in analog ways. Between ESPN, TNT and NBA TV, television viewership is up 32 percent this season and averaging 1.4 million viewers per game, according to Nielsen. In September, the billionaire Tilman J. Fertitta paid $2.2 billion for the Houston Rockets, which set the record for an N.B.A. team price tag.

When one of the oldest and most accomplished franchises like the Celtics can trust its players with messages as far-reaching as the platforms, it’s good for business today and will be even better for the N.B.A. tomorrow.

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