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Predicting Performance of Athletes as Influencers: On-Court Performance Doesn’t Always Dictate Marketability

4 minute read | July 2019

Some athletes are great at repeatedly making the highlight reels, and some excel at connecting with fans when they’re not competing. But does strong athletic performance always correlate with impactful fan engagement? Perhaps surprisingly, not always.

To arrive at this verdict, we created a case study that tracked six NBA players during the 2018/2019 regular season. Our analysis combined 30 data points from Nielsen Sports’ Social Scorecard and five “box score” basketball performance statistics from Gracenote, a Nielsen company. From there, we were able to see the relationship between on-court performance and social marketability value and impact. The analysis also identified undervalued athletes, meaning they have a higher social media score than their performance as an athlete would indicate.

Our analysis included the NBA’s Russell Westbrook, Giannis Antetokoumpo, Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis and Ben Simmons.

The first part of our analysis looked at social media engagement—an area that shines a light on current and future branding potential. Out of a possible aggregate score of 20 across reach, relevance, resonance and return (see methodology for metric descriptions), Russell Westbrook topped the group with a score of 15.11, garnering solid marks across each of the four elements of the social scorecard, followed by the 2019 NBA MVP Antetokounmpo at 14.83. Simmons had the lowest score of those tracked with a score of 10.12. What’s more noteworthy for brands, however, is the social media status of newcomer Doncic, who outperformed the others in terms of both reach and returns.

When we look at on-court performance, based on points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals, it’s clear that social media prowess doesn’t always equate to hardcourt performance. Westbrook again comes out on top, followed by Antekounmpo, but NBA 2018-2019 rookie of the year Doncic had the lowest performance score of the group after coming in at No. 3 for social media performance.

While there’s no question about the impact of athleticism and skill on the court, Doncic is somewhat of an outlier from a marketability perspective, simply because his social star is rising faster than his on-court performance. Long term, this could generate higher ROI for brands looking to tap into the athlete’s potential, which will likely grow in step with his tenure in the NBA.

When we calculated potential media return if one of these athletes published 10 social media branded content posts, Doncic’s average value per post was $203,852. That means he could provide $2 million in Quality Index Media Value exposure to a brand in 10 posts, comparable with veterans and highly sought-after endorsers Westbrook and Antetokounmpo at $2.4 million.

Interestingly, a month-by-month analysis showed that Emiid’s on-court performance directly affects his social endorsement power. On the flipside, Yet Davis’ fame on-court performance does not affect his social media prowess.

It’s an easy and predictable decision to partner with the best player on the court. It can also be costly, given that tenured, highly skilled players are often comfortable in their careers, salaries and have well-established endorsement deals. Savvy brands, however, have more to gain longer term by partnering with athletes with long careers ahead of them—especially those who already have a strong running start.


The insights in this article were derived from a study that combines multiple and contrasting data sets to compare an NBA athlete’s on-court performance and his overall marketability expressed via a social media score.

  • For the social media scores, we combined more than 30 digital and social data points. We then categorized each under one of four data pillars: reach (following size, fan quality, reachability, momentum), relevance (three affinity scores: topic, target, gender), resonance (engagement, buzz, reach, sentiment) and return (the average value of a single post, calculated by evaluating each athlete’s average posts, engagements, frequency of posts and follower size).
  • For the athlete performance scores, we use NBA athlete on-court box score data from Gracenote, which accounts for points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals.

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