Even in its relative infancy, social media has already proved itself to be an effective tool to boost fan interaction, forge connections between teams and leagues and their fans, sell tickets and merchandise, and help drive TV viewership.
But there remains nothing close to a one-size-fits-all approach for effectively leveraging social media. Rather, many different strategies have been pursued by sports properties, often in concert with traditional media extensions.
What follows is a snapshot of 20 effective uses of social media within sports over the past year, from properties to personalities, illustrating some of the ways the industry is finding traction.
SnappyTV gets the picture
If Mike Folgner, chief executive of San Francisco-based startup SnappyTV, gets his way, “snap” will be a social media verb in the same vein as tweet.
Folgner’s company is trying to create a niche in which its technology is used to take clips of live online video, usually one minute in length or less, and post them on Twitter and Facebook. SnappyTV’s near-realtime distribution of video highlights, what it calls “snapping,” is done in full cooperation with partner networks and is positioned as a powerful, social media-based marketing vehicle for boosting viewership of the live content.
“Quite simply, the best ad for watching a game is the game itself,” Folgner said. “Our technology helps make that happen.”
A test conducted in May with Tennis Channel for the French Open generated more than 2 million views of snapped video clips. One clip, in which a ballboy accidentally interfered with a point during an Andy Murray match, generated more than 400,000 video views through SnappyTV. The company is now aggressively targeting college football networks for additional deployments, and is seeking to develop an advertising-based revenue model around the snapped clips.
“We’ve got great evidence that we can drive tune-in,” Folgner said. “So we believe we’re resonating with rights holders and can begin to grow very quickly.”
Cleveland Indians Social Media Suite
The Cleveland Indians wanted to participate in the local social media conversation around the team rather than just be bystanders. As opposed to simply credentialing bloggers and other active social media participants with press box access, the club last year opened the Social Media Deck in the bleachers of Progressive Field. Seating 10, outfitted with wireless Internet access, and sponsored by Time Warner Cable, the section helped build good will for a club coming off a 97-loss season.
The suite at Progressive Field has built a waiting list of more than 200 people.
The Indians built upon that success this season by expanding the Social Media Deck into a 12-seat luxury suite at the ballpark. Still administered on an invitation-only basis, the Social Media Suite this season has built a waiting list of more than 200 people and is almost fully subscribed for the rest of the season. The move comes in concert with several senior club executives, including team President Mark Shapiro, activating Twitter accounts.
“This has given us a tangible platform to show our commitment to the social media space,” said Curtis Danburg, Indians senior director of communications. “We’re creating new brand ambassadors who are then going out and talking about the Indians experience and are in essence spreading our message. It’s hard to fully quantify the effects of that, but we know there’s been incremental lift [in ticket sales and attendance].”
MLB’s All-Star performance
MLB’s All-Star fan voting process is already the largest of its type in pro sports. But balloting this year soared to a record 32.5 million, 36 percent above the prior mark of 23.9 million ballots set in 2009, thanks in part to an aggressive Twitter hashtagging effort concentrated on several key positional races.
MLB Advanced Media, overseeing the online balloting, pushed out several designated hashtags, such as #voteavila and #votemartin for a close battle between Detroit catcher Alex Avila and New York Yankees catcher Russell Martin.
The All-Star Game social media blitz continued during the July 11 Home Run Derby during which 23 players, including Toronto slugger and Derby participant Jose Bautista, tweeted and posted to Facebook during the event under the coordinated hashtag of #HRDerby. Those 23 players collectively gained more than 121,000 new Twitter followers in the 18 hours following the event, and more than 18,000 mentions back to their accounts. The event peaked at 4,995 tweets per second, good for the eighth-highest such figure in Twitter’s five-year history.
MLB encouraged player tweets and Facebook posts, even setting up social media stations near the Chase Field dugouts.
“It’s one thing to have a TV analyst talk about how a David Ortiz did at the plate in that last round,” said Andrew Patterson, MLBAM manager of new media. “But to have Ortiz himself go right on Twitter and do it, that’s very compelling.”
Twackle measures up
Octagon Digital began Twackle in early 2009 as a consumer-facing Twitter aggregation engine. It has since morphed into a social media-powered news analytics engine aimed primarily at publishers and other business-to-business clients. Twackle now primarily tracks which news stories are shared the most on Twitter, and, in turn, are most likely to go truly viral.
With a variety of analytics that include heat maps, geographic clusters and detailed sharing patterns, Octagon Digital has now positioned Twackle closer to Google Analytics, comScore and other third-party measurement outfits. The strategic shift holds the promise of more revenue for Octagon Digital, but more broadly, many publishers are frenetically searching for ways to gauge the performance of their content within social media.
“We’re basically train spotting,” said Jim DeLorenzo, Octagon Digital vice president. “But we now have tools in place where content can be measured and evaluated in real time.”
Red Sox ask for advice
Construction of the master MLB schedule is a complex affair that involves months of work and endless compromise to balance many competing interests. But the Boston Red Sox this spring, during the playoff run of the neighboring Bruins, went to Twitter and Facebook to conduct real-time crowdsourcing about a game time change under consideration for June 4.
The club quickly received more than 4,300 Facebook likes and 650 Twitter responses from fans overwhelmingly voting in favor of moving the game against Oakland from 7:10 p.m. to 1:10 p.m. The shift enabled fans to watch the Bruins in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final that night. In addition to the club’s own social media channels, the Red Sox used sister company and regional sports network NESN to alert fans to the polling. Two weeks later, after the Bruins won the Cup, the city of Boston requested a similar switch to accommodate the hockey team’s championship parade.
The polling initiative came as part of a heightened use of Twitter overall by the Red Sox during games, such as Tweet Your Seat merchandise giveaways and Tweet Your Tunes, in which fans request songs to be played in the ballpark during rain delays.
Turner buddies up to fans
Through services like NASCAR.com’s RaceBuddy and TNT’s Overtime, Turner uses social media applications as a companion to its broadcasts. These applications use alternate camera angles and chat rooms to attract online viewers while Turner Sports’ events are being telecast.
“There’s a lot of social activity happening along a given sporting event and we wanted to capture that,” said Matt Hong, senior vice president and general manager of sports operations for Turner Sports. “The metrics have all been positive. We’ve seen no decrease in TV ratings as more people consume the digital product.”
Hong pointed to RaceBuddy as an example. Turner saw TV ratings for its six races in 2011 jump for the first time in three years, averaging 5.125 million viewers. It also saw online activity around RaceBuddy increase. The social media platform saw a 76 percent increase in viewership, averaging 936,000 streams per race.— John Ourand
Women’s World Cup sets mark
The current record for most tweets per second isn’t held by the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA or NHL finals, or even the men’s World Cup, but rather the July 17 Women’s World Cup final between the U.S. and Japan.
The final set a record for tweets.
Even as women’s soccer faces an uphill climb for commercial success in America, the Women’s World Cup distilled a potent combination of nationalism, large-scale international competition, and dramatic back-and-forth lead changes that caught fire on Twitter. The presence of Japan, Twitter’s most fertile territory in Asia, also was crucial.
But unlike many other league-coordinated social media efforts, the Women’s World Cup frenzy on Twitter was essentially all organic and fan-driven. Even U.S. President Barack Obama tweeted 13 times during the match. The match’s 7,196 tweets per second beat out not only every other sporting event in tweet volume, but other major news events such as the Japan earthquake and the death of Osama bin Laden.
Individual stars for the U.S. team saw their own social media lift, as well. Goalie Hope Solo entered the tournament in late June with fewer than 10,000 followers. She now has more than 244,000.
JetBlue flies with Twitter
JetBlue Airways, only 12 years old, is an airline born in the digital age. It also is by far the most followed airline on Twitter, with more than 1.6 million followers, and is widely praised as one of the most active consumer brands of any type in social media.
Social media is a prime component of activating its sports partnerships, including ones with the New York Jets, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, and many others. Announcements of such deals are heralded with special airfare offers distributed to Twitter and Facebook followers and fans. The airline also directly engages on Twitter and Facebook with fans of its partner teams who are traveling on its planes to upcoming games.
In January, JetBlue Chief Executive Dave Barger conducted a Twitter challenge with Doug Parker, his counterpart at US Airways and a Pittsburgh Steelers sponsor, over the AFC Championship Game. After some friendly back-and-forth on Twitter and a Pittsburgh victory, Barger made good on his bet and posted a picture of himself wearing a Steelers jersey and US Airways hat.
“This is all about having a direct dialogue with our customers,” said Morgan Johnston, JetBlue manager of corporate communications and head of the company’s social media efforts. “Sports is obviously a big part of our marketing efforts, and our customers are clearly passionate about sports. So that is an important part of the conversation, too.”
This is Mission Control
The concept behind the New Jersey Devils’ “Mission Control,” a social media hub housed within the club’s Prudential Center home, is strikingly simple: Who better to engage the club’s fans on social media than the fans themselves?
Fans volunteer to staff the New Jersey Devils’ social media hub.
A group of 25 fans, dubbed “generals,” volunteers by taking turns manning the Mission Control office, monitoring social media conversation around the team and relaying information to other fans.
Inspired by other brands, such as Dell and Gatorade, that have built similar on-site social media centers, Mission Control is staffed about six hours a day during the offseason, and as long as 12 hours on game days. Since Mission Control launched in February, the Devils’ Facebook following has nearly doubled to more than 192,000 fans, and the Twitter audience has grown to more than 28,000 followers. Two ticket promotions that were run through Mission Control sold more than 850 tickets and generated nearly $18,000 in incremental gross revenue.
Among the elements under exploration for Mission Control during the next hockey season are an expansion into location-based social media and daily online deals for tickets and merchandise.
“This new social media platform gives our fans the opportunity to get even more deeply invested in the team they love,” said Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek.
ESPN goes virtual
It wasn’t much of a surprise when ESPN launched its second Farmville-style game last month. “Sports Bar” feels a lot like its first social media game, “College Town.”
ESPN executives say the performance of “College Town,” in which users build virtual campuses, convinced them that a second similar game will work.
“‘College Town’ has been our biggest social media business success to date,” said Patrick Stiegman, ESPN.com’s vice president and editor-in-chief. “We’ve seen a lot of stickiness with fans. And they’ve spent a fair amount of money to purchase upgrades.”
ESPN launched “College Town” in September 2010 and says more than 582,000 monthly users still are logging in to play. Up to 60,000 people still interact with the game every day. ESPN has seen more than 7 million total downloads, with users spending about 70 minutes per session.
“Activity has leveled out a bit,” Stiegman said. “But the amount of money people are spending on it is increasing.”— John Ourand
NBA players hold court
The NBA is well-known for its strong social media position within the sports industry, with a combined Facebook and Twitter following of more than 23 million at the league level. The NBA conducts daily social media strategy sessions and is as aggressive as anybody in the space.
But what truly fuels the league’s presence in these forums are the players. No other property has as many of its highest-profile superstars prolifically and skillfully tweeting and posting on Facebook as the NBA.
Shaquille O’Neal (see related item) staged an early foothold on Twitter and remains a force there. But he is joined by a legion of other current megastars, including Orlando’s Dwight Howard, Miami’s LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, New York’s Carmelo Anthony, Boston’s Paul Pierce and Phoenix’s Steve Nash, among many others.
NBA-related entities occupy 10 slots in the 500 most-followed Twitter accounts, far more than any other sports property.
Social Bowl XLV
Super Bowl XLV this past February quickly became known in some circles as the Social Bowl, as many of the game’s advertisers debuted their spots and conducted supplemental contests and fan activities on Twitter and Facebook.
Volkswagen’s ad went viral before the Super Bowl.
The shift dramatically changed the time-honored playbook of corporate marketing in and around the game, and effectively extended the advertising window for companies well beyond their 30- and 60-second spots.
Among the Super Bowl advertisers most active on social media were Volks-wagen, which leaked its Star Wars-inspired ad several days before the game and saw it go viral with more than 12 million views by Super Bowl Sunday; and Lipton Brisk, whose animated ad featuring Eminem pushed viewers to the company’s Facebook page. There, consumers found additional videos, and could submit their own stories and enter to win an Xbox 360.
Shaq touts his future
Legendary NBA center Shaquille O’Neal often has had a keen sense of the moment, and he showed it again in June when he announced his retirement from the league. O’Neal did the customary press conference, but he first broke his news through Tout.com, a startup, real-time video messaging service.
O’Neal saw an opportunity to break new ground with Tout.com, and reached out to the San Francisco-based outfit. After a series of negotiations, Tout.com had a major news event to boost awareness in the market, and O’Neal gained an undisclosed equity stake in the company.
O’Neal’s 15-second retirement video on Tout.com gained more than 500,000 views in the first three hours after it was posted, and he has since made numerous additional videos for the platform. Tout remains in an early developmental stage, but has raised $2 million in venture capital funding.
Dana White gets punchy
UFC President Dana White is widely known as a brutally candid, outspoken executive. Those traits have lent themselves powerfully to social media, where the league has more than 6 million fans on Facebook, and White himself has 1.5 million Twitter followers.
The UFC president is known to hit back via Twitter.
Like many other sports entities, the UFC employs help from social media consultants, and the UFC itself works with Phoenix-based agency Digital Royalty. Specific social media-fueled initiatives for the mixed martial arts property include streaming live undercard matches on Facebook, and rewarding fighters a total of $240,000 in cash for creatively tweeting and building larger followings.
But the centerpiece of the social media initiatives is White himself, who has been known to use his Twitter following to excoriate high-ranking executives such as EA Sports President Peter Moore and respond to some fan questions with a terse, “Total BS.”
The approach at once fits the graphic, confrontational nature of the sport and removes any sort of public relations veneer.
NHL heats up Winter Classic
The NHL for years has boasted a fan base younger and more technologically adept than many other properties, making its full-throttle entry into social media over the past several years a natural extension of what had already been happening on its various digital platforms.
For its midseason showcase, the Winter Classic, the league in January partnered with NBC to conduct a Watch-and-Win promotion on Facebook, blending social media with the traditional on-air broadcast.
Fans were asked to register at the league’s Facebook page. During the game, names of selected winners would appear on the TV screen. Those fans would then receive phone calls from NHL staffers with questions related to the Winter Classic game. Prizes including a Honda CR-Z and a trip to the NHL All-Star Game were awarded for correct answers.
The effort helped boost awareness and usage of the NHL’s Facebook page, now with more than 1.7 million fans. The game on TV also grew to an average audience of 4.5 million viewers, the largest draw for a regular-season NHL game since 1975, though a rain-delayed shift to a prime-time window also played a key role.
Speed slows down for questions
Many networks in recent months have sought to boost interaction between broadcasters and fans during telecasts, such as answering questions on air submitted via Twitter and Facebook. Speed is the latest to pursue such a strategy, employing the Speed Social Tracker for the Sprint All-Star Race in May at Charlotte.
The effort involved a social media dashboard featuring more than 20 network personalities answering fan questions, including Kyle Petty and Darrell Waltrip, and posting analysis of the race on Twitter and Facebook.
Coordinated under several hashtags, including #sprintallstar and #speedQA, the dashboard also pooled all other driver and fan comments on the event. The Speed Social Tracker generated more than 67,000 views on the day of the race, and helped boost Speed’s Facebook page by 54 percent during the month.
Ratings for the race on Speed grew 1 percent overall, and by 58 percent among men ages 18-34, helping amplify a broader resurgence for the sport on TV.
Shaun White works some corporate magic
Champion snowboarder Shaun White appeals strongly to a younger demographic fully engaged with social media.
The action sports star has found ways to give exposure to his many sponsors.
White boasts vibrant followings on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and one of the largest sports Q Scores for any current or former athlete. Where White particularly excels in social media is integrating his battery of corporate sponsors.
Companies such as Oakley, Stride and BF Goodrich are given exposure on his social media channels without crossing over into blatant and constant commercialism.
During a recent promotional trip to New York, White gave away free Oakley sunglasses to Twitter and Facebook followers who came to the company store armed with a code word.
EA’s gaming turns social
There’s little debate in the industry that gaming is a red-hot segment of social media. Until recently, the space has been dominated by smaller entities, many of which did not have any licensed intellectual property within their games. But now the major players are taking notice.
EA Sports, after several initial efforts around Facebook-based gaming, is applying a broad social media element to “FIFA 12,” the upcoming version of its largest-selling title. The EA Sports Football Club, a free service included in the purchase of the game, will inject real-world happenings in soccer into the game, allow users to conduct challenges against others, earn experience points and share accomplishments on external social channels.
The effort seeks to blend all the interaction of social media with a full-featured gaming experience not possible on Facebook.
He’s now retired from cycling competition and probably will always be under suspicion that he used performance enhancers during his run of seven straight Tour de France titles. But few current or former athletes aside from Shaquille O’Neal have adopted social media as early and readily as Lance Armstrong.
With nearly 3 million Twitter followers, 1.8 million Facebook fans and an active channel on YouTube, Armstrong aggressively uses the platforms to promote his Livestrong Foundation and global health causes.
After a most recent set of doping allegations in May on “60 Minutes” from former teammate Tyler Hamilton, Armstrong posted on Facebook, “20+ year career. 500 drug controls worldwide, in and out of competition. Never a failed test. I rest my case.”
My tenant hits .300
In the lower reaches of affiliated and independent minor league baseball, housing can sometimes be a big challenge for players. With call-ups, trades, injuries and outright releases all constant threats, signing leases for rental property can be a difficult proposition for players earning minimal salaries.
GARY SOUTH SHORE RAILCATS
Host families pose with their RailCats players.
For many collegiate summer baseball leagues, where the only income for players is typically outside odd jobs, the housing issue is even more pressing.
As result, many individual clubs and leagues have successfully turned to Facebook to find host families to provide places for players to stay for the summer, relying on the viral nature of the platform and the ability to reach fans where they are spending significant time as opposed to more static forms of outreach.
The Gary (Ind.) South Shore RailCats of the independent Northern League were one team that recently went to Facebook, under the front of its mascot Rusty, to find player housing from local fans.