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Canadian basketball show graduates to the big leagues south of the border

Mr. Skeets hopes the jokes and insights that made them popular in Canada translate into success in the United States.

Mark Hill

J.E. Skeets started writing daily blog posts in 2005 on a dare from a classmate at Ryerson University. It was the usual mix of random observations found on most amateur blogs – but he struck gold when he began writing irreverently about basketball.

Things happened quickly for Mr. Skeets: The Basketball Jones blog was born, a podcast was created a year later, and then he signed a television deal for a Basketball Jones show on The Score. But last Wednesday, he graduated to the big leagues when his show took a regular slot on NBA TV, a subscription channel with 59 million subscribers. It's proof that successful programming can be born not in an executive's boardroom but in an amateur's basement – and it underlines the burgeoning role of digital media in the world of sports fans.

It's also quite a boost in potential viewers: The Score was only getting into 6.7 million Canadian homes when it was bought by Rogers Communications last year and rebranded as Sportsnet 360.

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"I'd love to pretend I predicted the future and had this whole thing mapped out," Mr. Skeets said. "But I can't. I had zero idea where we'd be in five or 10 years. I didn't know where we'd be in, like, two months."

For Mr. Skeets, 33, and the five partners who have built The Basketball Jones into an international success, it's a surreal moment. Prior to committing himself to it full-time, Mr. Skeets worked in doctor recruitment. "Most people just give up at some point along the way," he said. "It's never easy to work a daily second job – especially one you're not paid for."

In the beginning, Mr. Skeets would post photos of moments when the players appeared to be slow dancing rather than competing. The instantly viral feature was called "Romance on the Hardwood" and included the imagined dialogue. "Do you like me?" Kobe Bryant asks Jannero Pargo in the caption under one photo, where the men appear to be gazing into each other's eyes. Mr. Pargo replies: "Umm, yeah. I mean, you're a really good friend and well…"

The show has evolved over the years, but is built around the personalities of Mr. Skeets, co-host Tas Melas and contributors Trey Kerby and Leigh Ellis. They have moved from Toronto to Atlanta to do the program, along with producers Jason Doyle and Matt Osten.

"There are so many people who are doing this self-consciously hip thing and trying to be cool," says Will Leitch, who started the sports website Deadspin and is a long-time fan of their podcasts. "But when you watch these guys, there's times you feel like they've forgotten that they are even being taped."

And while their irreverent take is what drew the NBA to their content, it was their methods of distribution that really impressed. It's not enough to just do a television show anymore – they have also continued with their podcasts, run a blog and interact with viewers on social media.

A report published by a trio of sports analyst firms called The Global Sports Media Consumption Report 2013 puts the shift in tighter focus: 71 per cent of Americans say they watch sports, but they are gradually moving away from their TVs and catching games and the related content on mobile devices. Thirty-five per cent of sports fans use phones and tablets to follow their teams, and 25 per cent find their information via social media.

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Keeping those viewers engaged is of critical importance to pro sports teams and the TV networks that exist to bring their games to the fans – NBA TV is part owned by Turner Broadcasting System Inc.

"The right content for the right platform at the right time is core to what we do. They are coming in here and they are so prolific – this is really a place where they can extend what they do," said Christina Miller, the senior vice-president and general manager of NBA Digital, adding that the network has no intention of policing their content or censuring the hosts to protect the league's stars and executives. "We are certainly not looking for them to take another approach."

In other words, the "Wanker of the Week" segment is fair game in Atlanta, along with their more standard segments about stats and scores. "We've been ourselves for so long on-air that I truly think it would be difficult to change," Mr. Melas said. "They don't want us to be different. They've been pretty hands-off stylistically – they realize we are not actors."

Joe Ross, vice-president of content at The Score and part of the team that brought The Basketball Jones to Canadian viewers, said one of the show's greatest selling points was its broad appeal and availability on both television and online. One of their most popular bits at The Score was a rap video about former Toronto Raptor Chris Bosh, built around the premise that when something is overhyped and then underperforms it's "Like A Bosh."

"They bridged that divide between traditional and digital broadcasting through their viral YouTube videos, and had a deep knowledge and passion for the sport that came across very easily," Mr. Ross said. "The style of their shows also made them extremely accessible to all sports fans – not just those with a hard-core love of basketball."

There is one small change in Atlanta: The show is called The Starters. Other than that, Mr. Skeets hopes the jokes and insights that made them popular in Canada translate into success in the United States. Basketball is the third most-watched sport in the country, and it will take more than a few jokes to win over knowledgeable fans and avoid a Bosh-like letdown of their own.

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"I think we've found a good balance between hard-core NBA analysis and light-hearted entertainment," Mr. Skeets said. "We can bounce from dissecting a specific play late in the third quarter of a Warriors-Spurs game to opening a pack of 1990-91 Hoops basketball cards on the air to discussing the latest advanced statistic to writing and performing hypothetical NBA movies. There really is something for everyone."

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