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NFL lures millions to TikTok despite rising security, privacy concerns about Chinese platform

Although spy balloons are currently dominating the headlines, the wildly popular video-sharing app may be Beijing's premier Trojan Horse.

Published: February 11, 2023 4:13pm

Updated: February 12, 2023 7:29am

The Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles face off Sunday in the Super Bowl, but their competition extends beyond the gridiron to the social media stage, where the two teams are vying, along with the NFL's other 30 franchises, for followers and engagement on TikTok, the controversial video-sharing app that reportedly has close ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

Although spy balloons are currently dominating the headlines, the wildly popular TikTok appears to be China's premier Trojan Horse.

With 2.6 million followers (and 46.1 million likes), the Chiefs are the most popular of the 32 NFL teams on the platform, with the Eagles a distant second, with 2 million followers (but 48.5 million likes).

It's not just about followers, however, according to a recent piece in The Observer . It's about the quality of the content. Engagement rate, which refers to the percentage of likes, comments and shares an account generates, is arguably the most important metric in evaluating the popularity of a TikTok account, the outlet explained — and neither of this year's Super Bowl competitors perform in the top 25% for engagement. 

TikTok, owned by Beijing-based internet technology giant ByteDance, has 1.53 billion users globally, almost 87 million of whom live in the United States. That's well over a quarter of the entire U.S. population, which explains why an increasing number of sports stars and franchises are using the app as a marketing platform. As a matter of fact, TikTok is now one of the fastest-growing marketing platforms available. 

U.S. sports teams no longer view TikTok simply as a way to reach their existing audiences, according to the Observer; they now use it to "build fandoms, particularly among younger users who may not have locked into following a particular sport or team."

One of the more popular types of content shared and created are "hype videos." These bite-sized promotional clips are designed to get sports fans hyped up about an upcoming event, like a game or the launch of a new product. When it comes to quality content, according to the Observer, the best NFL TikTok accounts belong to the Detroit Lions, the Minnesota Vikings, the Tennessee Titans and the Denver Broncos.

Professional sports teams' growing reliance on TikTok as a marketing tool, however, comes at a time of rising geopolitical tension between the U.S. and China and impasse over control of the infrastructure underlying global internet traffic.

Meanwhile, TikTok itself is provoking increasing national security and privacy concerns in the U.S. amid growing evidence the platform is used to harvest the data of users.

TikTok is, in many ways, just like any other social media site, according to C. Jordan Howell, a cybercrime expert at the University of South Florida: It harvests data for profit. "Privacy," Howell told Just the News, "is not part of the business model." In the case of TikTok, however, there is a major difference: the client. 

"Providing mass amounts of user data to a Chinese company poses a direct threat to U.S. national security interests," warned Howell.

Just the News reached out to both the NFL and TikTok for comment. At the time of publishing, neither had provided a response. 

NFL teams are not the only ones using TikTok to reach the masses, of course. NBA teams are also heavy users of the platform. More worryingly, the NBA is intimately associated with China as ESPN reported last year. 

"In addition to the money their teams derive from the NBA's $5 billion business in China," noted the outlet, many principal owners "have significant personal stakes there through their other businesses." At the time, these owners had interests in China valued at over $10 billion combined — including one owner whose company had a joint venture with an entity that had recently been sanctioned by the U.S. government. Of course, ESPN's own halftime shows for college football games have, in recent times, been sponsored by TikTok.

Amid increasingly aggressive data harvesting methods, souring U.S.-China relations, and spreading bans of TikTok on government devices at the federal, state and local levels, the NFL is apt to find itself under growing pressure to sacrifice some marketing muscle in the interests of national security.

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