Part 3: The Marvel Character Development Flywheel

Jeff Burke
Feb 3 · 4 min read

Exhibit 5: Marvel Universe Connections; Source

Exhibit 5 shows the complexity of the Marvel Universe films. While the image can be difficult to process, it immediately becomes apparent how connected the different storylines are. Recently, Disney announced even more Marvel Studios productions coming in 2021 and beyond. The Marvel Universe continues to lucratively expand, and it can be seen as a paradigm for the NBA.

Exhibit 6: The Marvel Strategy; The Character Development Flywheel

The Marvel Universe has created a Character Development Flywheel for their portfolio of characters that the NBA can apply to marketing and supporting their players. Similar to how Marvel leverages unique characters to appeal to unique audiences, the NBA should promote players and their individual characteristics (e.g., Hometown, College, Hobbies, Personality) to connect to unique audiences.

In Exhibit 6, I have outlined four steps in the Flywheel that Marvel leverages.

Step #1: Introduce

Marvel supports and establishes new characters. Exhibit 5 represents the timeline of the film introduction of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk.

In the NBA context, the league should promote individual players. In Exhibit 6, I have outlined superstars with massive followings and their own brands: LeBron James, James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry. Obviously, these players need no introduction, but at one point, they did. For the benefit of this visualization, I included superstar names, but the NBA should constantly be focused on introducing fans to new players.

Step #2: Develop

Once introduced, the characters need to be developed. While it may not seem intentional, one can quickly understand how Marvel has developed Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, Ant-Man, Black Panther, and Doctor Strange to all be very unique. Their jokes, their tendencies, and their powers are all designed to be fully differentiated, resonating with different audiences. Fans can certainly like multiple (or all) characters, but ideally, they will connect with them differently.

For the NBA, they should embrace the uniqueness of their players and promote the storylines. LeBron James is passionate about childhood education and wine (separate of course!). Pat Connaughton does real estate on the side. De’Aaron Fox, Luka Doncic, Paul George, and many others love gaming (Exhibit 4). The individual characteristics and passions of the players are the greatest marketing asset the league has, and it is a critical component of connecting with new fans.

Step #3: Integrate

Marvel ties each individual storyline together in a variety of ways. Overt methods include converging storylines with movies. Less overt methods include plot references and a cogent, consistent timeline.

The interconnections accomplish two things:

1. Combine audiences

2. Enhance character depth

First, the integration of storylines combines the unique audiences that have carefully been developed. In many cases, there is certainly overlap, but in scenarios where there are siloed, character-specific fans, it pulls them into different storylines.

Second, the combination allows for additional character development and depth. For example, Captain America interacts with civilians frequently, but how can Marvel show a different level of depth in his interactions with egomaniac like Iron Man? The stark contrast enhances the key characteristics of each character, adding depth.

In the case of the NBA, the obvious first example would be games. The Mavericks play the Hornets. Immediately, the Dallas and Charlotte fanbases converge. Consistent rivalries are great examples of the additive (or multiplicative) nature of integrating storylines.

The second, somewhat less obvious, example would be integrating player storylines, and most importantly, marketing individual storylines. People want to witness the LeBron James and Kevin Durant matchup, but the key is finding less apparent matchups, marketing them in a targeted way, and driving fan engagement. Exhibit 4 provides two examples, but the league offers thousands of opportunities.

Step #4: Converge

Finally, Marvel creates mega events to fully converge storylines. Crescendos like The Avengers provide the benefits of Integrating storylines but at a much larger scale. It is, however, critical to understand that the success of The Avengers is due in large part to the success of Step #1, #2, and #3.

Most relevant to the NBA strategy, however, is how Marvel uses these mega-events to set up for future storylines. Without detracting from the current event, Marvel typically uses the captive, massive audience to introduce new characters or generate hype for future storylines.

This is the final critical step of the Flywheel. Leveraging the mega-events and superstars to begin Step #1 for the new characters / players (e.g., intentionally pushing LeBron James to promote the next wave of stars).


The NBA already has a portfolio of “characters” to promote: the players. By working in conjunction with the players, the league can transition from the blanket Top-Down media approach to a personalized, bottoms-up media approach focused on developing players public persona, as well as connecting directly with fans at a personal level, ultimately driving long-term NBA growth.

Originally published at

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Jeff Burke

Written by

I write about emerging startups and growth marketing | Management consultant | Former professional athlete | Boston College Alum |

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

Jeff Burke

Written by

I write about emerging startups and growth marketing | Management consultant | Former professional athlete | Boston College Alum |

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

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