Basketball has thrived off fans and groups creatively using clips and highlights from across the major leagues down to high schools across social media.
Whether its domestic leagues, the NBA or college hoops this open use has been a positive driver of the sport’s culture and has certainly been one of the reasons for the sport’s continual rise in popularity.
Driving this culture and fandom of the sport is Australian-based Forever Network, a global digital sports media company that has a laser-focus on youth-oriented sports media production with its social media-led approach to content and distribution.
Their leading brand under their umbrella is Basketball Forever, a basketball media network built for social media consumption with combined audiences across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter in the millions. This approach has propelled the brand to being considered one of the sport’s biggest in the world.
To understand more about the company and how they have developed a global, independent media brand we spoke to two of the co-founders of Forever Network Alex Sumsky and Jaden Harris.
Take me through the genesis of the idea? Starting in high school.
Alex Sumsky: “It was at a time when we were, and in particular myself, were pretty bored with the sports media offering at the time. I had the basics covered, I had ESPN, NBA TV, the mainstream ones that you might follow and I just thought it was really hard for me to get access to the types of content that I wanted to see and experience.
“I decided that I’m immersing myself in the internet, and I’m pretty picky, so why don’t I create a content experience where I can deliver the ‘best of the best’ or what I think is going to work for people like my friends who also have the same sort of experiences as me and how can I deliver that in a way to them that is different, unique and capitalises on social media, which at the time, wasn’t really a focus for most publishers. A lot of them monetised their web properties and social media wasn’t a part of that.
“The approach we took is very much meeting people where they are at. That’s the approach to delivering our work which is really visual and wanting to engage people and that was in a form of videos, graphic design, illustrations.”
At what point did you think you started to build a great audience and following?
AS: “I think the point when it dawned on me was when we hit 100,000 followers and around the same time we did our first rebranding. We built a consistent brand, logo, theme and developed our look and feel.
“Then I understood the scale and magnitude of what we created when we had our first ‘viral sensation.’ A particular college player had injured himself pretty graphically on national television and we launched a content campaign called #Win4Ware at the time and that was something that took off on a level to this day where we haven’t hit those numbers and it was picked up by mainstream media like SportsCenter and NBA TV. We then released all of this merchandise called Win4Ware, assorted people bought shirts for it, NBA players tweeted about it. That was the moment when I realised it was huge and that’s when I began to dedicate much of my time to it.”
You’ve built such a massive audience for Basketball Forever across Facebook and Instagram, how do you face the challenges of activating and monetising a big following?
Jaden Harris: “We view what we do, and as we call it, an ‘engagement curve.’ What we’re good at is getting people to feel something and elicit a response from our content. The lowest level of the curve, someone likes a photo on Instagram or Facebook. Then they might move up a bit by following us or staying in touch, then they might want to buy a particular t-shirt about a particular player or theme.
“We see that as a big opportunity for us to continue to create closer touchpoints with our audience. We’re trialling an event next year with the working title Street Kings and we kind of a see that as another extension of people wanting to be involved with our brand which really represents this intersection of sports and culture that really speaks to them.
“Basically we’re moving people along that curve and along that journey for us. We started off with social media led photo content and our journey is to continually try and evolve the brand.”
You’ve got a way of engaging your audience, describe the attitude that drives the brand?
AS: “When we first started our mantra, or slogan if you will, was ‘For the Love of the Game.’ What that says is everything we’re doing is about creating and focussing on the moments that we knew audiences and people like us will get captivated by. As Jaden says it’s all primarily built around emotion. How can we make someone feel something when they see something on court? How can we recreate a moment whether that is a mini documentary or a short video or a painting.
“It’s something we keep in mind to this day when we create content.”
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That philosophy drives the internal business as well?
AS: “I think that’s fair to say!”
One of the tricky things is the platforms you direct your content to are changing, your audience is changing and their viewing and consumption changes. How do manage that total change whilst maintaining your advantage?
AS: “A big part of it is just understanding your audience and listening to them. We started out creating stuff based on what our needs were and as we age our audience ages with us.
“Our biggest segment was between the ages of 13 to 17-year-olds when we were that age. Then when we transitioned into our 20’s, so does our audience. As our needs changed, their needs changed and as our interests evolved, so did theirs in a very similar way. It’s being able to understand that, questioning what interests us and what is culturally relevant now.”
JH: “The really interesting thing for us is when people talk about product market and channel fit we really nailed that because we started with the new channels that had emerged in the early days of our business which was primarily Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Other sports media companies might have had product market fit but it wasn’t designed for the channels of the day. We really optimised ruthlessly for that and we’ve done that ever since, and we’ve tried to not push against the rules of the channels. We optimise everything we do for that and a lot of the time it’s in the audience’s best interest. As these channels start to get more and more evolved and optimised for how people are consuming content it kind of helps us continue to do that as long as we stay focussed on making sure we’ve got a good product.
“Facebook when we first started wasn’t designed for sharing media, it was really a peer-to-peer social networking platform, we were an early company putting broadcast media on there and in a way that encouraged comments, shares in the captions and we did it in a way that was serving a community. With the evolution of Instagram and its focus on visuals, that really benefitted our visual content style.
“The continual evolution kind of suits us perhaps more than it does for the companies that are not visual first and are still playing catch up.”
Luka Doncic drops 41 pts, 10 ast & 6 reb in a big win!
Mavericks beat the Rockets 137-123. pic.twitter.com/b42QfyByzV
— Basketball Forever (@Bballforeverfb) November 24, 2019
What do you think of the way sports clubs or organisations use social media in Australia?
AS: “I don’t mean to be brutal but media in Australia in general is pretty terrible, particularly how much we’re being exposed to US media now and how they do such a great job creating great content.
“We struggle with media and I’m not surprised that struggle filters to the use of social.”
What qualities have allowed the two of you to maintain a good partnership?
AS: “The professional relationship I have with Jaden works really well because a lot of our skill sets are very complementary.
“We did have a relationship prior to starting a business together, growing up and through high school, I think we understand each other well and each other’s personal strengths and weaknesses.
“I’m more focussed on the content, the creative side of things and the brand whereas Jaden has a much greater hold on the operations and business development side.
“It came together really well and has become a great, functional partnership.”
How do the two of you overcome difficulties and adversity?
AS: “I get asked this a lot and it’s simply down to being mutually motivated by the same thing. We have the same goal and our company’s vision is aligned.
JH: “We almost viewed our friendship as a weakness when we first started and that was perhaps not the way we should be doing things. We’ve increasingly seen ourselves over the years that what we have is a strength because we have an understanding and we weren’t spending the first year or two working together with too many surprises.”
What kind of mentorship do you have and how has it impacted the company?
AS: “It’s been so important so for us. Our first investor and board member, Alister Coleman, has been an integral mentor for us especially in our early stages and helped us climb up a steep learning curve. He was very hands on with the business and provided guidance and support but gave us opportunities to learn on our own, make mistakes and to keep learning from any mistakes we’ve made. With Alister knowing when to be firm with us and when to ease off has made it a really solid mentor relationship. Without having a mentor like him who knows how many mistakes we could have made as a business.”
Basketball is your main vertical, do you think about expanding to other sports?
JH: “We’ve thought about this over the years but we haven’t gotten to it particularly because we’ve found basketball has dramatically grown in popularity since we’ve started the company. It’s one of the world’s biggest sports, huge growth in Asia and keeps growing in Australia so we feel there’s still a huge amount of growth to be had. It’s still a huge market and a lot of value is there.
“Alex and I do get excited by the possibility of going to other sports, we’ve done a few tests and would love to give it a crack one day, but we may not make that strategic decision and just continue to focus on basketball. We’re still teasing that over the next 12 months or so.”
The NBA and NBL seasons are starting, what does the next 12 months look like for Forever Network, for Basketball Forever? And another question to lead from there, what does growth look like for both of you?
AS: “We have a big vision and plans around further developing our content and do content we’ve never done before this season, we’re going to explore opportunities like longer-form stuff and we’ve just livestreamed two NBL games. In total, we amassed 500,000 viewers across them. We just released a 30-minute mini documentary that eclipsed a million views. We’re exploring podcasts, a half hour talk show that we’ll stream live on our channels.
“It’s content that we’re doing that will hopefully separate us from a lot of our competitors and on top of that we’re looking at ecommerce quite a bit more and really improving that offering working on things like custom shoes and collections of merchandise. We’re going a lot deeper into those sorts of things and trying to make everything a lot more valuable and interesting.
JH: “We’re also working on new ways to engage the audience such as working on our first event that we’re looking at. As Alex mentioned we want to refocus what we’re doing with ecommerce and create a high-value proposition there and look to work with more brands. At the moment our brand partners and advertisers are within Australia so we’d like to start to push into Asian and US markets where we’ve got a really solid audience. Finally we want to grow the team and bring in new partners.
“It’s an exciting time given the last 12 months has been a period of consolidation, growing our team and getting our internal content processes worked out. With Alex and I off the tools it’s an exciting period for us as we have more time to go for our bigger picture goals.”