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The Endless NBA Divide:

Is social media helping small market teams compete with the big guys?



The National Basketball Association

The National Basketball Association (NBA) is the most popular basketball association in the world with a global audience and millions of loyal fans worldwide. It is known for its exciting games, talented players, and thrilling tournamentsThe NBA has been around since 1946, and it is constantly evolving to meet the needs of its fans. 

It includes 30 teams from the USA and Canada which are split into two conferences based on their geographic location. Each team plays a total of 82 games during the regular season. From the 30 teams, 8 teams of each conference (16 in total) qualify for the final tournament called the Play-offs. The winner of this tournament wins the competition and is crowned NBA Champion.

The NBA consistently ranks among the top sports leagues in terms of television ratings and viewership.


Data from Wikipedia

The NBA ranks second in both viewership and US Television revenue out of all major sports leagues in the US only beaten by the NFL.

The viewership of videos related to the NBA has been growing constantly in the last decades. We made this conclusion by aggregating the views of videos that contain the tags “NBA” and “Basketball” in the YouNiverse dataset. This dataset contains detailed metadata about YouTube videos posted between 2005 and 2019. It has been an important resource for this article and will be referenced several times below.


Data from YouNiverse


The impressive growth that is observable in the plot above should be taken with a of salt: the number of total viewers on YouTube in the same period has also been growing exponentially which means that a part of the growth of the NBA’s viewership might be attributed to YouTube’s growth.

One interesting aspect of the chart is the significant variance, which can be attributed to the seasonal fluctuations in NBA viewership. During the off-season and mid-season, viewer numbers tend to decline, while at the start of the season, towards the end of the season, and during the playoffs, viewership numbers tend to increase.


Small and Big Market Teams

Teams in the NBA can be split into two different categories: Big Market teams and Small Market Teams:

A “Big Market” team refers to a team that plays in a city with a large population and a high level of interest in sports. On the other hand, a “Small Market” team refers to a team that plays in a city with a smaller population and perhaps less interest in sports.

Depending on the context, we might also talk about “Medium Market” teams which are bigger than small market teams but not big enough to be considered big market teams.

Despite the impressive growth and viewership statistics, the National Basketball Association has been struggling with a very difficult issue for years: historically, there has been a big gap in the NBA’s viewership between Big and Small Market Teams. This can be explained by several  factors like differences in financial means, in media exposure and a bigger local fanbase.

One might wonder if the appearance of social media and streaming platforms has helped reduce the above-mentioned discrepancies. The theory that supports this hypothesis is the following: since online marketing is cheap and developing a strong online presence is equally easy for a small market team as it is for a bigger market team, the effects of a small local market could be partially mitigated by the effects of a stronger online presence.

Has social media levelled the playing field between Big & Small-market teams ?

This means that the competitive disadvantage that Small Market teams had in the past is no longer relevant and differences between various market size teams should iron out over time.

For this study, we used different thresholds to classify our teams into small/big and medium market teams.

For each team, we retrieved the size of their local TV Market. We then used the following thresholds to classify them into their respective categories:

  • Teams with a TV market size of fewer than 1.5 million people were classified as Small Market Teams
  • Teams with a TV market size between 1.5 and 2 million people were classified as Medium Market Teams
  • Teams with a TV market size of more than 2 million people were classified as Big Market Teams

We have chosen a subset of 8 largemarket and 8 smallmarket NBA teams to make the study more feasible.

In this article, we research if the accessibility that YouTube offers has helped reduce the discrepancies between their viewership. We show that significant differences still exist today and we give hypotheses supported by our data why this might still be the case.




















New York Knicks / Brooklyn Nets 7.453M 19216182
LA Lakers / LA Clippers 5.735M 13214799
Chicago Bulls 3.472M 9458539
Philadelphia 76ers 2.997M 6102434
Dallas Mavericks 2.963M 7573136
Toronto Raptors 2.7M 5928040
Golden State Warriors 2.653M 4731803
Atlanta Hawks 2.649M 6020364
Houston Rockets 2.570M 7066141
Washington Wizards 2.566M 6280487
Boston Celtics 2.490M 4873019
Phoenix Suns 2.158M 4948203
Minnesota Timberwolves 1.887M 3654908
Detroit Pistons 1.863M 4319629
Denver Nuggets 1.798M 2932415
Orlando Magic 1.731M 2608147
Miami Heat 1.693M 6166488
Cleveland Cavaliers 1.512M 2048449
Sacramento Kings 1.459M 2363730
Portland Trailblazers 1.315M 2492412
Charlotte Hornets 1.291M 2636883
Indiana Pacers 1.183M 2074537
Utah Jazz 1.100M 1232696
San Antonio Spurs 1.031M 2550960
Milwaukee Bucks 922K 1575179
Oklahoma City Thunder 755K 1408950
New Orleans Pelicans 664K 1270530
Memphis Grizzlies 620K 1346045

Data from Hoops-Social


Data from Hoops-Social.



Based on the theory explained above, the difference in views between Big and Small market teams should decrease over time.

The figure below shows the evolution of the cumulative views of our studied small market and big market teams over time. The orange area between the two lines shows the difference in views between big market and small market teams. As you can see, the area does not decrease over time. There are some periods where it gets smaller (this corresponds to periods where some of our Small Market teams have very high viewership like the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs in the 2013-14 season), but it then gets bigger again in the following periods. We conclude that there is no convergence in viewership between small and big market teams.


Data from YouNiverse

But why is that the case? Didn’t we say that YouTube should help decreasing the discrepancies between different markets? Well yes, but no. On one hand, YouTube has definitely helped with some of the issues that we mentioned. But unfortunately many other things that impact the viewership are completely uncorrelated with social media accessibility.

Let us have a closer look at this issue and try to find an explanation.

The following figure displays the distribution of views on Youtube for the sixteen studied NBA teams across different seasons. 

You can notice that except from a few outliers, the viewership is almost always dominated by some big market teams. The most dominant big market teams in the past years have been the Golden State Warriors (GSW) and the LA Lakers (LAL)




An NBA team has three possible ways of adding players to their roster:

  • Select the player in the Draft.

The NBA Draft is a yearly event where teams get to select players from the draft pool. This is the main way that teams can add young players to their roster, as every player who wants to join the NBA has to declare for the draft.

  • Acquire the player by trading for them

NBA teams may acquire players through trade offers with other teams. This is a common way for teams to upgrade their rosters, as they can acquire players who may be better fits than the players they currently have.

  • Sign the player as a free agent

During the free agency period, teams can sign players that have previously played for other teams. This might be the cheapest way for an NBA team to sign a great player but depends on the ability of the team to convince the player to join them.



One of the reasons that impede the progress of small market NBA teams is the difficulty in attracting big name players, who do not usually want to join these teams.

This means that smaller teams are often unable to compete with the big teams and are unable to sign the best players. As a result, they are unable to develop and build a successful team, resulting in a lack of success in the NBA.

There are several reasons why professional basketball players may not want to play in small market cities.

Lack of Profitable Sponsorships

Small-market cities do not have as many lucrative endorsement and sponsorship opportunities as larger markets. For example, players in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago may have more opportunities to endorse products and appear in advertisements, which can lead to additional income and exposure. When a match occurs in a big city, companies are willing to pay a considerable amount of money to get some visibility during that period. So large cities attract more profitable sponsorships. Furthermore, small market cities may not have the same level of media coverage as large markets, meaning players may not get as much attention for their performances.

Lifestyle differences

Another factor that can influence a player‘s decision to join a team in a large market city is the climate and lifestyle it has to offer.

For instance, a player may opt for a city with yearround warmth rather than one with extreme winters. 

Additionally, larger cities are often able to provide more opportunities for recreation and leisure activities, something that may be attractive to those who want to enjoy their free time away from the court. Furthermore, the range of amenities and services available in larger cities can be far greater, with players or their families able to access private education, top universities, and exclusive services such as sportspecific doctors or shopping butlers. The advantages of playing in a large market city may be too hard to pass up for some NBA players, given the range of benefits they can receive.

Support from Fans

Finally, small market cities may not have the same level of support from fans and the community as larger markets. This can be an important factor for players who hope to be backed and recognized by the local community. In bigger markets, there can be a stronger sense of team pride and engagement with the community, which can be a beneficial opportunity for players. Big market teams can easily host events to reach out to their fan base, get the attention of celebrities, and increase the team’s visibility. As a result, larger market teams can offer more chances for players to advance their careers and establish their personal brands.

By studying the free agent moves in 2021 and 2022 of important players (who scored at least 10 points per game), we noticed that only 19% of all the moves were from a bigger market city to a smaller one, whereas 50% of all moves were from a smaller market city to bigger one. This provides some evidence that it is very hard for smaller market cities to attract the best players in free agency.

Free agent moves in 2021 and 2022


Free-agent moves from bigger to smaller markets


Free-agent moves from smaller to bigger markets


Free-agent moves within the same market

Data from NBA

We have just shown that it is extremely hard for a small market team to maintain a competitive team with very strong players over a long time frame.

They might be able to draft an exceptional player who stays for a few seasons or trade for a player who stays with them for a year. But over the long run, they (almost) always go back to having a roster with average players.

Talent departure

Among potential factors we may note that smaller market teams also tend to struggle to build a winning culture or a team that is attractive enough to draw in free agents or even keep their own players. Consequently small market teams need to be more aggressive in the trade market to acquire more experienced players who can help the team reach the playoffs. Small market teams must also make sure that their players are comfortable and happy in their new environment so that they will be motivated to stay and perform at their best. 

High Trading Risks

Since Small Market cities are generally less attractive for athletes, a small market team runs a high risk of losing an athlete that they traded for as soon as he becomes a free agent. Of course, they would not be ready to give up a significant amount of assets for a player who might leave in a few seasons. Hence, small market teams must be very careful when it comes to trading and they should always be aware of the risk of losing the players they have acquired. As such, small market teams should look for players who are less likely to leave and focus on building a team with a strong core of players who are dedicated to the team and the city.




When a big name player changes teams, there is usually a huge influx of attention on the team they are joining. This is because of the expectations that come with having a star on their roster. Fans will be more likely to follow the team and watch its games if they think the team has a chance of winning. 

When a star player leaves a team, the team’s winning percentage often drops significantly. This has a direct impact on the team’s fan base, as many fans will stop watching their games if the team no longer has a chance of winning.

This is especially true of teams that rely heavily on one or two star players. For example, when LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2018, the team’s winning percentage dropped from 56.6% to 33.3%. This resulted in a massive drop in viewership, as the team’s average television viewership was down 28% after his departure. Another example is when LeBron James joined the Miami Heat in 2010, the team’s winning percentage increased from 44.1% to 66.7%.

The impact of star players on a team’s winning percentage is undeniable, and it is no surprise that the biggest stars in the NBA often have the biggest impact on a team’s success. This is why it is so important for teams to acquire and retain the best players in the league as we have described in the previous section, as they are often the difference between success and failure


The winning percentage of a basketball team is one of the most important factors in determining how many people will come to see its games. If a team has a higher winning percentage, more people will be drawn to tune in and watch their games. In this section we aim to analyse if the same is true for Youtube videos. More precisely, we describe how the  winning percentage of a team impact its popularity on Youtube videos

Having big name players on a team is one of the biggest factors in determining a team’s winning percentage and popularity as we have seen previously. If a team has a star player, it can significantly raise the chances of that team winning more games. This in turn will draw more attention to the team and increase viewership. Similarly, if a team loses a big name player, the team will likely suffer a decrease in its winning percentage and thus, a decrease in viewership.

To investigate further this analysis, we have computed the correlation between  the winning rate of the small-markets teams as well as the correlation of the winning rate of the big-markets teams ans we obtain the following results:
  • The p-value of the correlation between small-markets teams and their winning rate over the the study period (2006-2021) is statistically significant at the 95% level.

In conclusion, the winning percentage of a team affects the number of people that view its games. Having big name players on a team can significantly impact the winning percentage and thus, the number of people that tune into watch their games.

In the following graphs, we study the high-profile transfers of Kevin Durant from Oklahoma City Thunder to Golden State Warriors and  LeBron James from Miami Heat to Cleveland Cavaliers.

Impact of signing an NBA superstar on a team’s views
Impact of signing an NBA superstar on a team’s views
Impact of signing an NBA superstar on a team’s winning percentage
Impact of signing an NBA superstar on a team’s winning percentage

In both cases, we clearly see a difference in the trends pre and post-trade. The team from which the player is departing usually bears a hefty cost on its popularity base, and the opposite happens for the team that’s welcoming the player. This goes hand in hand with previous findings that state that great players impact positively the winning percentages of their teams impacting in its turn the viewership numbers. The graphs also support the opposite effects on the team that’s losing the star player.  It is also worthy to note the sharp peaks in some of the following seasons in the viewership of the team receiving the star player. These peaks are mostly due to the new player winning the championship for their team. Expectedly, winning the NBA is a huge boost for one’s popularity. This highlights the importance of recruiting and trading for extremely highly rated players in order to win the league, gain momentum and expand your fanbase. After all, who wants to support a losing team?



Media exposure plays a big role in why some NBA teams are more popular than others because it gives teams the ability to reach a much wider audience. With the spotlight that the media provides, teams can build a strong fan base and increase their popularity. Media coverage also provides teams with a platform to promote their brand and generate more interest in the team and their players. Thus, the presence of a team in the NBA community represented on Youtube can have a big impact on its popularity.

We decided to focus our study on two particular media exposure indicators. First, the number of team related videos uploaded on Youtube, and second, the number of team fanbase channels present on Youtube.

We defined  fanbase channels as YouTube channel dedicated to covering a particular team, typically featuring news and updates, game highlights, and other content related to that team. These channels are usually run by passionate fans and are a great way for a team’s fans to stay up to date on all the latest news and highlights.

It is interesting to see that big-market teams related videos represent nearly 60% of all NBA related videos. We can also see in the team specific charts below that big market teams are the ones that have the biggest exposure on Youtube having both an enormous number of videos talking about them as well as an impressive number of fanbase channels. Another interesting observation is that the Los Angeles Lakers are dominating this media coverage by being the most present team in terms of videos and fanbase channels.


Data from YouNiverse


Data from YouNiverse


Data from YouNiverse

Even if media exposure plays a big role in why some NBA teams are more popular than others, there are other media related factors to consider as well. For example, a team’s history of success, star players, and also the so-called Big Name Bias that can all contribute to the popularity evolution of a team through time.

The big name bias is a cognitive bias in which people tend to favor more famous or well-known people, products, or services over lesser-known alternatives, regardless of the actual merits of either option. This bias is often seen in areas such as sports, entertainment, and politics, where people may be more likely to support a popular name despite their lack of knowledge about the person or product.

One way to determine if there is a big name bias in the popularity of NBA teams is to analyse the viewership of YouTube videos and compare it with the engagement of the fans. This can be done by looking at the number of views a team received in its videos and compare it to the engagement of the fans on those same videos.

To quantify the fan engagement of NBA teams, we decided to look at the total number of likes their videos have received. This provides an indication of how many people usually interact with their videos and gives an idea of the size of a team’s fan base, related to how passionate the fans are about their team.


Our analysis of over 180,000 videos revealed that fan engagement of small market teams averages at 9.2‰, compared to 8.6‰ for big market teams and 7.8‰ for medium market teams. These results demonstrate that the size of a team’s market does not necessarily correlate with the level of engagement from their fans.

This could be due to the close connection that small market fans have with their teams, as well as the smaller size of their fan base, which could make them more likely to be more involved in their team’s success. This confirms the presence of the Big Name Bias, which suggests that casual NBA fans are more likely to follow popular NBA teams, particularly those in big markets.





Following our study, we uncovered three main reasons as to why the disparity between the popularity of Big and Small market teams has remained unchanged, even with the presence of global social media platforms such as YouTube.

Firstly, Big players tend to improve the popularity of a team, and they naturally gravitate towards the Big market teams. Secondly, the results of a team can have a significant effect on its popularity, and Big market teams tend to have better results. Thirdly, Big market teams are more often covered by the media, which increases their exposure and thus their popularity.

However, these reasons are not independent of one another, and there are other factors at play in determining why the disparity between the popularity of Big and Small market teams has not decreased. For instance, the presence of big players can also affect the media exposure of a team, as well as its results. Similarly, the results of a team can also have an impact on its media exposure and its attractiveness to big players. Finally, a strong media presence can help a team attract superstar players, which can lead to better results and increased popularity.

Thank you,


Built at EPFL Switzerland, as part of the Applied Data Analysis Masters level course (2022-2023).