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Google Plus: Unlikely winner in the NBA lockout

The search engine giant is hoping to get more users on Google+ with a little help from LeBron and Carmelo.

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After 145 days and counting, the NBA lockout has left many losers in its wake. NBA TV is forced to air reruns of Teen Wolf. Sports bars near basketball arenas are reporting massive revenue hits. NBA players stopped receiving paycheques last week. And CNBC reported yesterday that a New York City escort service is claiming lockout-related losses—whatever that means—of 30%.

But in the midst of this protracted labour dispute, a potential and unlikely winner has emerged: Google.

It was announced yesterday that four of the NBA’s most recognizable stars—LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul—will be hitting the road next month for a four-game exhibition tour dubbed the “Google+ Homecoming Tour.” In addition to being the tour’s main sponsor, the search engine giant will also be live streaming the games through the tour’s Google+ page. Further, Google+ users can win opportunities to chat with the players via “hangouts”—a feature that facilitates multi-person video chat sessions.

On the surface, it seems like a good marketing ploy: work with high-profile people, then leverage those relationships into better consumer traction. Speaking with Canadian Business yesterday, a Google spokesperson said they wouldn’t benefit monetarily from the tour, but would be “benefiting from a brand awareness standpoint.” They’ll also benefit from an increase in users; those who want to live stream the games will have to join Google+, if they haven’t already done so.

The same spokesperson also said that Google’s marketing team has reached out to companies, individuals and sports franchises to “help these people understand how Google+ will help them connect with their fans and audiences.”

The Dallas Cowboys, for example, organized a “hangout” session last week with one of their star players, which has since been uploaded to YouTube. All 30 Major League Baseball teams, according to Google’s spokesperson, have set up Google+ pages, about two weeks after the feature was launched. They were drawn to the social media platform, she said, by their own PR teams or through Google’s marketing outreach.

Google’s participation in the basketball tour also marks its latest venture into sports broadcasting. In February, Bloomberg reported that YouTube, a subsidiary of Google, said it was “in talks” with the NBA and NHL to show live games, though executives from both leagues either refuted or were noncommittal about any involvement. However, YouTube has streamed cricket matches from the Indian Premier League, which is part of their overall effort to keep people on the site longer.

It’s tough to forecast how Google will benefit from this basketball tour, though roughly 24 hours after launching the event’s Google+ page, more than 1000 users have it in their “circles,” a number that should increase exponentially in the coming days.

What’s clear is that Google+ is trying to drum up support by offering new experiences, such as “hangouts,” that target big consumer demographics, like hardcore sports fans. Part of that plan is encouraging high-profile people and brands to create those experiences. And if Google can offer stronger live streaming features than Facebook, it could give them at least one advantage over the competition.

[Updated: Given the NBA’s tentative lockout resolution on Saturday, Google has announced that the upcoming exhibition tour is cancelled. The first three games would have been played before the start of NBA training camp (Dec. 9), though the final stop in New Jersey would have conflicted with team priorities. Regardless, that doesn’t change how Google is marketing its social media service, which is detailed in the second-half of this post. Since collectively joining Google+ one week ago, the four basketball stars—LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade—are in thousands of users’ “circles,” ranging from Paul (approx. 17,000) to Anthony (approx. 29,000). What’s worth looking out for is whether LeBron and company continue using Google+ after the tour’s cancellation.]