Sports entities must adapt a new game plan to reach fans

Shaquille O'Neal may be one of the sports world's leaders on Twitter, but most athletes and sports organizations are still working to understand the space.

Shaquille O'Neal may be one of the sports world's leaders on Twitter, but most athletes and sports organizations are still working to understand the space. The constant communication can be beneficial, but can also lead to blunders, like when San Diego Charger Antonio Cromartie complained about training camp food on Twitter – and was then fined for it.

With an increasing number of fans on social media, hungry to learn more about their favorite clubs and athletes, teams and leagues must step up and join the conversation. In addition, they need to be ready to engage and consider social media as a mandatory part of their communications strategy.

Involved from the start
The NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, formerly the Seattle SuperSonics, used social media, specifically Twitter, to build awareness for the new team throughout the 2008-09 season. When Rumble the Bison, the club's mascot, was introduced in February, he used Twitter and Facebook to connect with fans.

“It's been successful in terms of direct contact with a large group of our fans and followers,” says Dan Mahoney, VP of corporate communications. Going forward, he adds, the organization plans to integrate Rumble's online presence with that of the basketball club, as well as its dance team.

Brian McCarthy, VP of communications for the NFL, says the league started investigating Twitter during its last off-season, allowing time to analyze strategy before jumping in.

He calls social media “just another part of the communications toolbox.” It can be used to learn what people are saying about the sport and teams, send messages to media, or correct misinformation that is being spread.

In terms of individual team usage, the NHL has a hands-off approach, says Michael DiLorenzo, director of social media marketing and strategy for the league. Teams develop their own plan. Some are more innovative and interactive than others. The NHL itself hosts its own social networking site, in addition to using Facebook and Twitter.

As for players' social media usage, DiLorenzo says the league almost self-regulates.

“With the culture in our dressing rooms, it just would not fly for players to encroach on a team environment, introducing some sort of social media” during a game, he adds.

McCarthy agrees: “Clubs, like any other company, don't want to put themselves at a competitive disadvantage by having players reveal strategy via tweets.”

The NFL recently released guidelines on social media usage for players, coaches, football operations personnel, and anyone representing a player on a social media site. Those guidelines prohibit social media usage starting 90 minutes before the game and until media obligations are finished after the game. The league also clarified that media are prohibited from releasing play-by-play information via social networks or Web sites.

“This isn't anything new,” says McCarthy, noting that media outlets were already prohibited from releasing play-by-play content, as the rights are owned by the league. “We're encouraging fans and media to talk about the game in progress, but don't tweet to attempt an approximate play-by-play. It's just applying the same guidelines and philosophies to this new social media.”

While there are risks involved in allowing players and teams to candidly communicate with fans, Rick Liebling, global director of client management and head of digital and emerging media at Taylor PR, says the value is worth the risk.

“By participating in this genuinely, I think you can use it to your advantage to a greater degree than you can get in trouble,” he suggests.

“The overwhelming majority of the messaging is positive,” adds Dan Opallo, director of marketing for the NBA, of social media outreach. “As in any form of media, there are always going to be things that a player or team could say that might be called into question, but I don't think that social media perpetuates it in any way.”

Other sports figures on Twitter

@serenajwilliams
1,000,000-plus followers
This tennis champion continues to build her brand, tweeting about topics including her book On The Line and media appearances

@DetroitRedWings
Nearly 18,000 followers
New media department oversees the official Twitter page. The team has also redesigned its Web site and started LinkedIn groups

@taylorphinney
11,000-plus followers
The Olympic cyclist uses Twitter to build his fan base in the years between races. He's no Shaq yet, but he's gained fans


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