Updated: May 11, 2016
*Disclaimer: I’m not a big NBA fan. I’m just a big sports fan with a lot of interest in search patterns and behavior. And it also helps the now-retired Bryant went to high school a short drive away from the FourFront office.
Kobe Bryant is going to go down as one of the best basketball players of all time, and arguably, one of its most popular. So popular, in fact, that even the air around him can cost upwards of $15,000.
And as a sports fan with an interest in all things Google, what better way to quantify interest in a player and his popularity by measuring it with Google search traffic?
In this post, we’ll take a look at the recent popularity of Bryant and how it stacks up against some of the NBA’s top players, as well as measuring his popularity across the NBA.
The Popularity of Kobe Bryant
The key to Bryant’s popularity is an obvious one: his on-the-court talent. Arguably the best player to have ever played in the NBA not named Michael Jordan, Bryant’s statistics and accolades alone point to being one of the most popular players of all time.
Let’s look at just a few highlights:
Career Statistics (via basketball-reference.com)
- 33,643 career points (3rd all-time)
- 25.0 PPG (12th all-time)
- 5,640 career playoff points (3rd all-time)
- 1,827 3-pt FGs (11th all-time)
- 1,944 steals (14th all-time)
- 5x NBA Champion
- 18x NBA All-Star
- 2x NBA MVP
- 11x All-NBA First Team selection
- 9x NBA All-Defensive First Team selection
- 2x NBA Scoring Champion
Another unique aspect to Bryant’s popularity? In the age of free agency and $100+ million contracts, Bryant played each of his 20 years with one of the league’s most popular teams: the Los Angeles Lakers. No disrespect to the Los Angeles Clippers (a team that struggled to stay competitive during most of Bryant’s career), but Bryant was bound to be an all-time favorite playing for one of the most popular teams in the league for two decades.
Comparing Kobe Bryant to Other Top NBA Players
As an avid sports fan and an admittedly-casual NBA fan, one thing I find interesting about the NBA is the fact it’s driven by its superstars. The other 3 major sports (NFL, MLB, NHL) seem to be less reliant on their elite players (although they certainly market them well enough) to draw in fans and TV audiences.
Players such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Steph Curry and several others are as big of assets to the NBA as they are to their individual teams.
To get an understanding of Bryant’s popularity in today’s NBA, I’ve compared Bryant to a select group of the NBA’s elite: LeBron James (Miami Heat/Cleveland Cavaliers), Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City Thunder), Chris Paul (New Orleans Hornets/Los Angeles Clippers), Steph Curry (Golden State Warriors), and James Harden (Oklahoma City/Houston Rockets).
This selection of players was based on NBA MVP voting results beginning in the 2010-2011 NBA season. Players were assigned points based on where they finished in the MVP vote; the NBA MVP (the #1 finisher) was assigned 10 points, the runner-up assigned 9 points, etc. – with the #10 vote-getter receiving 1 point.
|Player||Total Points||Average||Average MVP Finish|
While this table could change following this year’s voting, it’s not likely. Curry (likely a unanimous MVP pick this season) could push his way higher up the list and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook (who missed the cut with 9 total points) could find his way on this list based on this year’s results. Since voting results have not yet been released, we’ll move forward with our current list.
To measure search traffic for each player, I came up with some of the top keywords for each player (approximately 600 keywords per player) and recorded the approximate search traffic for each player’s keyword group beginning with the earliest possible data (April 2014).
Total Google Search Traffic by Player
Using the charts above, it’s easy to see LeBron James is the most searched of the players we measured. Of the players measured, James accounted for 42% of player-related search queries, followed by Bryant (21%) and Durant (13%). In total, James accounted for approximately 95.4 million search queries. Bryant, the second most-search player, accounted for approximately 46.9 million search queries.
Over the past few months, we can see James-related search traffic has leveled off but still remains the highest of the players measured, including the likely-MVP Award winner, Steph Curry. James-related search traffic saw huge spikes in significant career events for the 4-time MVP, including:
- James free-agency speculation and subsequent opt out of his contract with the Miami Heat (June 2015).
- James re-joins the Cleveland Cavaliers, signing a two-year, $42.1 million contract (July 2015).
- James makes his sixth NBA Finals appearance, losing to Curry and the Warriors in six games (June 2015).
Remarkably, these events far outpaced the search traffic Bryant received after announcing his retirement at the end of the 2015-2016 season. The month after his retirement announcement (his announcement was made Nov. 29, thus only providing less than 2 full days of search traffic), Bryant-related traffic was approximately 3.8 million queries – only a fraction of the approximate 13.3 million queries James received after signing with the Cavaliers in July 2015.
- Kevin Durant peaked the same month he accepted his first NBA MVP award. Not coincidentally, Durant’s MVP Acceptance Speech was a viral sensation and continues to live on in meme form across the web (May 2014).
- Steph Curry makes his first NBA Finals appearance, defeating James and the Cavaliers in six games (June 2015).
It’s important to point out there is data yet to captured by this chart: Kobe Bryant’s final game (4/13/2016), Golden State’s record-setting 73rd regular-season win (4/13/2016), this season’s MVP announcement, and the 2015/2016 NBA Playoffs.
We can reasonably expect search traffic to increase for each respective player based on the dates and events listed above. Here’s a quick breakdown for anticipated search traffic increases in the upcoming months:
- Kobe Bryant: final NBA game (April 2016)
- LeBron James: potential 2015/2016 NBA Finals appearance (June 2016)
- Steph Curry: potential 2015/2016 NBA Finals appearance, likely-MVP Award Winner (May/June 2016)
This breakdown assumes that James and Curry both reach the NBA Finals (both players play on the top-seeded team in their respective conferences), but we would also expect an increase in search traffic if another player (Chris Paul & the LA Clippers, James Harden & HOU Rockets) ends up reaching the NBA Finals.
One final note: if Paul or Harden were to reach the NBA Finals, it would be interesting to monitor search traffic during this time. For their respective team to reach the Finals, each player would likely be putting on an excellent playoff performance; this unanticipated performance might lead to a more drastic increase than a similar performance from James or Curry, who are both largely expected to reach the Finals.
Popularity by NBA City
While Bryant spent each of his 20 seasons in Los Angeles with the Lakers (sorry, Hornets fans), his popularity in today’s NBA spans across all markets.
To quantify this popularity, I’ve measured the search traffic for the same Kobe Bryant-related keywords by location. Although NBA fans certainly live outside of their respective team’s city, only the home city of each NBA team was measured during this exercise.
A few caveats:
- Due to their proximity, New York & Brooklyn traffic were indistinguishable and combined into a single figure (New York).
- When measuring the traffic of teams representing their respective states (Minnesota, Indiana, etc.), the location of their home arena was used.
Kobe Bryant-related Search Traffic by NBA City
|Salt Lake City, UT||1,790||1,670||2,040||2,440||1,710||1,530||2,520||3,200||4,410||4,390||3,700||3,160||2,790||3,240||3,400||2,590||2,200||1,550||2,670||5,210||5,130||5,500||3,760||4,830|
We can easily see that search traffic spiked across all locations the same month Bryant announced his upcoming retirement from the NBA. Kobe Bryant-related search queries in NBA cities peaked at 938,260 in November 2015, a 98.9% increase over the previous month (471,730 queries).
We also see an increase in traffic from Chicago in December 2014 (a 48% increase from November 2014), which can largely be attributed to the Lakers-Bull Christmas Day game – a game Bryant ended up sitting out of to rest his body.
Interestingly, if we were to weight the search traffic by city population (total search queries/city population), Bryant-related search traffic peaked in December 2015. The city? Atlanta. One possible reason was the Atlanta Hawks played the Lakers on December 4, just 5 days after Bryant’s retirement announcement.
Not surprisingly, Los Angeles accounted for the majority of Kobe Bryant-related search traffic coming from NBA cities (34%). Other notable cities:
- New York (14% of search queries)
- Chicago (6%)
- Houston (5%)
- Toronto (5%)
One surprising exclusion from the most-search cities: Philadelphia. Despite being born in Philadelphia and playing his high school basketball at nearby Lower Merion High School, Philadelphia accounted for just 3% of total search queries. Philadelphia also hosted the first game Bryant played after announcing he would be retiring at the end of the season.
Based on the data presented, it’s clear that Bryant remains one of the most popular players in the NBA. Even past his prime, Bryant brought a unique presence and skillset to the NBA that will be incredibly difficult to replicate.
Had we been able to capture search traffic data for his entire career (beginning in 1996), we might have seen LeBron-esque search traffic numbers – which also meant we might have needed to analyze search engines such as Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, and AOL. So when we revisit this post in 20 years for the NBA’s next great superstar, we’ll see entirely new search patterns, behaviors and ways of measurement.