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Innovation heist: How the NBA steal a march on the competition 🏀

Steve Jobs often quotes Picasso that 'Good artists copy, great artists steal', a philosophy which is has also been applied by the NBA, which recently launched their reimagined global app.

‘Good artists copy, great artists steal’ is a quote often attributed to Pablo Picasso.

“Whether he did indeed say that is open to debate, but it is an extremely valuable insight for anyone interested in developing their ability to think creatively,” explains Jim Connolly, founder of the Creative Thinking Hub.

The quote refers to the fact that good artists and great artists work very differently:

“While a good artist will see another artist’s style and then try and emulate that style as closely as they can, a great artist will select elements from another artist’s work and incorporate it into their own unique mix of influences.”

“A great artist selectively takes (steals) elements from multiple sources and then creatively combines their influences to create something that is uniquely their own.”

This was an idea which Steve Jobs openly talked about on a number of occasions and Apple are a great example of the quote in action.

Image: Steve Jobs via Matt Buchanan (Flikr)

“Apple did not create tablet computing,” explains Connolly. “Toshiba and other companies had manufactured tablet devices almost a decade earlier. What Apple’s iPad team did, was take the concept of tablet computing and build it into something that worked extremely well, was wafer thin and looked great.”

The NBA is arguably the best ‘artist’ within the sports industry context.

Look at the launch of their reimagined global NBA App, for example. It will provide wall-to-wall content from every NBA game, feature social-style vertical video, and a first-of-its-kind ‘For You’ experience, with content recommendations based on fan preferences and personalisation.

This ‘steals’ concepts from wider consumer trends being tapped into by social media apps like TikTok and Instagram, as well as by brands such as Spotify, Duolingo, Airbnb, and Amazon.

Today, 72% of consumers will only engage with personalised messages, making personalisation crucial in getting any audience’s attention. With so many aspects of digital marketing using AI and other developments to provide personalization, it is what consumers are coming to expect.

As such, this seems a very smart play from the NBA (no pun intended) and it would be highly surprising if other teams didn’t soon follow suit.


This isn’t the first time the NBA has ‘stolen’ concepts from wider market trends and applied them cleverly within their own sporting setting to steal a march on other its (traditional) competition.

The obvious one that comes to mind would be the launch of NBA TopShot.

According to TechCrunch, Dapper Labs caught the attention of the NBA after they launched CryptoKitties, which was seen as the first popular use of blockchain-based applications. The NBA liked the idea that Dapper Labs could build them a compelling digital collectable, which also happened to fit into an increasing consumer demand for physical collectables – particularly trading cards.

In May 2020, they went to market together with NBA TopShot, years before many other leagues, teams and federations.

Image: NBA TopShot

Another example that stands out is the NBA’s interest in Pokémon GO.

Released in July 2016, the game was instantly a smash hit, accumulating more than 1 billion lifetime downloads.

That set cogs turning at NBA HQ and in July this year, the NBA finally announced NBA All-World, an augmented reality mobile game from the creators of Pokémon GO, Niantic Labs.

The free-to-play game sees players find, challenge, and compete against today’s NBA ballers in their neighbourhoods, then recruit them to their team before proving themselves on the court.

Like with Pokémon GO, the game - which leverages geolocation, AR, and the metaverse, will encourage users to get outdoors and get moving. Players will explore the real world to collect items, be the top player at their local court, and play against the likenesses of real-life NBA players.

If NBA All World, which will launch globally during the 2022-23 NBA season (which starts later this month), can get even close to the success of Pokémon GO then the NBA could be about to start the next wave of innovation for the sports industry as it did with NBA TopShot.

There is often a latency within the sports industry and so what I like most about these examples is that they look outward.

By looking at other industries and scanning the horizon of popular culture, you have the opportunity to see (and reimagine) the future for sport. This something the NBA does much better than most and provides a lesson for everyone else.

There is incredible value in keeping your finger on the pulse and the best way to do this is by widening the sources of information and inspiration that you open yourself up to.


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N.B. That’s not to say the NBA doesn’t also take ideas or inspiration from across the sports industry. It is of course important for any league to also keep tabs on what is working closer to home.

The Basketball Africa League, a joint effort between the NBA and FIBA, follows a similar format to the UEFA Champions League. Similarly, the introduction of HooperVision with Jamal Crawford and Quentin Richardson as an alternate League Pass option was a clear response to the astounding success of ESPN’s Monday Night Football ‘ManningCast’. I’m sure there are plenty of other examples, too.

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