Why the Sports Industry Can’t Target TikTok Users Enough

Sports analyst Mark J. Burns unpacks why leagues and teams should be pointing TikTok followers toward their online shops
Getty Images / Morning Consult artwork by Kelly Rice
October 17, 2023 at 5:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • Daily TikTok users’ purchasing consideration of the NBA and NFL overindexes at a greater percentage than the other major U.S. men's pro sports leagues.

  • More than half of daily TikTok users (55%) said they follow athletic apparel brands on social media — a higher share than those who follow sports leagues or media organizations.

  • TikTok’s prevalence in the sports industry will likely only widen as stakeholders try to reach a younger audience. Leagues, rising athletes and sports marketers should allocate more resources and strategic thinking to the social media platform, given its users’ higher levels of favorability and purchase consideration toward most leagues in comparison with the general public.

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Sports are a key driver of TikTok content. From the Savannah Bananas, a low-level baseball team-turned-viral sensation, all the way to the NFL and NBA, whose business relationships with the popular social media app date back to at least 2018, there’s no shortage of eye-catching videos to fill up sports fans’ feeds.

Now, Morning Consult Audience data reveals that sports stakeholders seemingly can’t lean into the ByteDance-owned platform enough, particularly if they’re looking to market and sell products to fans. The data suggests leagues, athletes and sports marketers should devote more staff and strategic thinking to TikTok, if they aren’t already.

When looking at the five major sports leagues — NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and MLS — daily TikTok users (those who said they use the platform either “several times a day” or “about once a day”) reported notably higher levels of purchase consideration when compared with the general population.

About 1 in 3 daily TikTok users (34%) said they would consider purchasing from the NBA, a difference of 14 percentage points versus all U.S. adults (20%) and the largest gap among the leagues, though the NFL and MLS were not far behind. 

Daily TikTok Users Are More Likely to Buy Products From Sports Leagues Than the General Public

Shares of respondents who said they are “absolutely certain” or “very likely” to purchase a product or service from the following brands:
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“Daily TikTok users” are defined by respondents who said they use the app either “several times a day” or “about once a day.”
Source: Morning Consult Audience

This memo utilizes data from Morning Consult Audience, our new product that makes it easy to explore and build thousands of custom audience profiles to better understand your customers. To learn more about Morning Consult Audience, request a demo here.

Daily TikTok users also have a more favorable opinion of most of the major leagues than the general population, according to Morning Consult data. More than half of the app’s daily users (57%) said they have a favorable opinion of the NBA, compared with 43% of all adults — the largest gap among the leagues. MLS came in second with a 10-point gap. 

The NBA’s success with TikTok is not surprising, as the prescient basketball league was quick to sign a partnership in 2018 to deliver custom highlights to fans around the world via the burgeoning app. Today, the NBA has 20.5 million followers on TikTok, compared with 12.1 million for the NFL and 6.9 million for MLB. 

The data makes it clear that sports leagues should experiment and try new approaches for producing content on TikTok in pursuit of virality, while pointing these engaged consumers toward their online shops, given daily TikTok users’ heightened levels of purchase consideration toward the leagues. For example, the NBA’s 10-second clip of Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler’s latest hairstyle has nearly 7.5 million views and over 10,000 comments on TikTok. A link to the Heat’s online shop with the post, pointing fans toward Butler’s jersey, would have likely benefited the team’s bottom line. 

Another route is the platform’s recent foray into live e-commerce. Launched last month, TikTok Shop allows users to find and buy products seen in videos on the app, and could emerge as a handy tool for leagues, athletes and brands to point fans toward new products.

How other leagues can make strides on TikTok

While the NBA leads the pack among regular TikTok users, other leagues are actively working to catch up. 

MLB, the only major league whose favorability underindexed among daily TikTok users when compared with the general population, has turned popular TikTok creators into league ambassadors via a partnership signed in 2021. MLS, meanwhile, signed a multiyear deal with TikTok in March that includes the formation of the Club Creator Network, a program that will connect creators and influencers with MLS clubs to produce exclusive content.   

As more than 3 in 5 Gen Z adults report using TikTok each day, MLB has an opportunity to reach young potential fans about recent rule changes it has made to address criticism that America’s pastime is too slow or lacks action. Hence, it’s easy to picture a lighthearted TikTok clip that further explains the reasoning behind the new pitch clock and why it’s designed to improve the viewing experience. A well-executed video could go a long way in turning some disinterested or casual observers into dedicated fans. 

Taking advantage of famous fandom should only help, too. In early September, MLS shared a video on TikTok of actress and singer Selena Gomez at the recent LAFC-Inter Miami match — a visual message from the league to young people that they should be paying attention as well.

Sports industry as a whole has broad appeal to TikTok users

TikTok’s benefits can largely be applied to the greater sports ecosystem. In a separate Morning Consult survey conducted in March, 55% of daily TikTok users said they follow athletic apparel brands on social media, the top category among the types of sports-related accounts included in the survey, just above sports teams (54%). 

The data suggests that a team ready to unveil a new apparel line or style of jersey should utilize TikTok as a key starting point for the marketing campaign. Making sure the apparel company that collaborated on the product simultaneously pushes the launch on TikTok is also vital.

Many Daily TikTok Users Follow Athletic Apparel Brands, Teams on Social Media

Share of daily TikTok users who said they follow the following types of sports-related accounts on social media:
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Survey conducted March 17-19, 2023, among 563 TikTok users who said they use the app “multiple times a day” or “once daily,” with an unweighted margin of error of +/- 4 percentage points.

It’s important for leagues and sports brands to remember that TikTok is a unique playground where weird, unpolished and raw content often wins on the platform. Examples of off-kilter content to find an audience on the platform include this young Los Angeles Chargers fan’s  reaction to being featured on the SoFi Stadium video board and the Tennessee Titans’ reminder to marketers that user-generated content, with some creative team effects, can grab fans’ attention. It applies to individual athletes, too, such as when Serena Williams provided fans behind-the-scenes access into her pregnancy.

Whether you manage a team or league account, or work with a professional athlete, tugging on the heartstrings of your fans — like U.S. women’s national soccer team star Alex Morgan did as she created a fun video montage of her daughter Charlie’s camera roll — is another recipe for success on TikTok.

A headshot photograph of Mark J. Burns
Mark J. Burns
Sports Analyst

Mark J. Burns previously worked at Morning Consult as a sports analyst.

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