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Professional sports are ahead of the game in social media

5 min read

Social Media

It comes as no surprise that sports are at the forefront of industry adoption of social media. Everyone has a local allegiance, and fans tend to be outspoken in their opinions. We have an emotional craving to be connected to each other and to our favorite teams.

Just as importantly, leagues and agents are savvy about stewarding brands and finding new ways to commoditize teams and individual players. They are so much so that athletes — especially if they are not premier players — are increasingly using social networks to build businesses for themselves, much in the same way that we’re all experimenting with personal branding through these channels.

In some ways, professional sports are uniquely suited to social media. Developments in the sporting world happen fast, and Twitter and YouTube are ideal tools for keeping up with franchise-changing trades, career-ending injuries and season-making plays as they happen. Few experiences are more social than going to a Super Bowl party or packing into a stadium with a community of like-minded fans. And if you can’t be there in person, cheering and smack-talking via Facebook are the next best thing.

Certain athletes and organizations have forged the path for social media for pro sports. @The _Real_Shaq jumps to mind, with his more than 2.8 million followers on Twitter, as of this writing.  The National Hockey League is the organizational standout, having formed a social-media department nine months ago with the goals of decreasing the distance between the teams and the fans, and syndicating fan passion for the game.  It takes an active role in educating the franchises how to use social-networking tools, most notably Twitter (for which I’m personally thankful every hockey night in and out of Pittsburgh.)

Being a massive fan myself, one of my favorite events at Social Media Week was Unleashing Social Media on the Sports World, Gary Vaynerchuk’s moderated discussion at the new New York Times building. Aside from being the mind behind Wine Library TV, with about 850,000 followers on Twitter, his consulting firm VaynerMedia advises the NHL, the New York Jets and the New Jersey Nets. Vaynerchuk’s not just another “J-E-T-S Jets-Jets-Jets” fan.

Refreshingly, almost the entire session was a Q-and-A with the audience.  And given the killer panelists, there were way more questions than time for answers.  Here’s a synopsis of a few of the best exchanges.

Has there ever been a better time to be a sports fan?

No way. “Teams no longer control the message,” declared Jim Bankoff, who’s SBNation site hosts more than 200 fan-led communities where fans do the programming. It’s fascinating how powerful the fan voice is, both individually and in the collective, he said. “We know already that their expectations are exploding and will impact commerce in a big way,” Vaynerchuk added.

How can sports embrace social media if teams and leagues are trying to muzzle what athletes can say?

People, in general, are afraid of unknowns, Vaynerchuk said. One team owner came to VaynerMedia demanding a list of 33 things they could say on Twitter, and Vaynerchuk says he walked out. But things are changing. “Culture is shifting and it’s really smart to ride a wave instead of jumping against it,” he noted. “36 months from today, sports teams will get rid of that rule,” since all publicity is good publicity. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having rules, but make them as soft as possible so you can get the biggest return,” he said.

What if athletes say or do something stupid or portray themselves (or their teams) negatively?

“Our forgiveness level is very high,” said Matthew Cerrone of MetsBlog. The real question is how to explain the negative, and the only way to deal with it is by owning it, he said. “You may as well jump into the mix and help shape the news as best you can,” he suggested. “How do you play in an era of transparency? You play with authenticity,” Vaynerchuk added.

How are sports writers using social media? Do athletes tweeting undermine your reporting?

“No,” answered Tyler Kepner, who has covered the New York Yankees for The New York Times, “because the athlete’s view is just one person’s perspective.” Journalists provide the all-important context, and there will always be a need for that, he argued. “Personally, I use it to listen to what fans are saying, but don’t talk back,” he said.

Why has the NHL been so progressive when it comes to social media?

Like many of us, Michael DiLorenzo, NHL director of social media marketing and strategy, started dabbling in social media to build defensibility for himself. He says he soon realized that these channels might provide a level playing field for the NHL to build brand equity.  “We doesn’t have the luxury of complacency.  We need to be entrepreneurial to get market share,” he said.  Some franchises have taken quickly to social networking. It hasn’t been simple, though, because self-promotion is not in most hockey players’ DNA, he added.  And many of us fans love them for that.

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