From the season-ticket holder to the avid supporter who lives far away, social media tools are helping sports franchises keep all fans engaged.
Last fall, when officials from the Phoenix Suns NBA franchise noticed that an imposter was posing as star center Shaquille O'Neal on Twitter, their response was what some might consider unorthodox.
They enlisted O'Neal, one of the NBA's most popular and quotable players, to use the microblogging service himself, without monitoring by team officials.
As O'Neal has traveled the country with the Suns, he's published more than 250 Twitter updates, and more than 34,000 users of the service have signed up to follow those updates.
O'Neal is one of the more than a dozen Suns employees who use Twitter to connect with fans and business contacts. Together, they're bringing players to a more personal level, not an easy task for a team that is adored by thousands of fans at every home game, says Amy Martin, director of digital media and research for the Suns.
“The most effective part, really, is allowing fans to know the human side of the brand,” she says. “We have people on Twitter from the organization in all capacities... It's about the connection with fan[s] and just giving them an inside glimpse.”
The team goes far beyond Twitter with its social media outreach program. The franchise, which boasts popular players O'Neal, Steve Nash, and Amare Stoudemire, also operates the team-specific social networking site PlanetOrange.net, a “virtual locker room,” and a team-run blog site.
The franchise's foray into social networking has shown real-world results. Last month, the team hosted its first “tweet up,” an in-person get-together of Suns fans who discuss games, stats, and players primarily via Twitter. The event was a chance for Suns officials to hear the likes and dislikes of fans directly, Martin adds.
“We did one for a Friday night game – this was the first official sports tweet up,” she says. “It's very important for us to be engaging with the fans and make sure we are where the fans are.”
Sports fans gravitate toward social networking sites for the same reasons that they go to sports bars – to have camaraderie with other fans with whom they can discuss games, trades, or controversial moves. Social networking sites also serve as home-field advantages for fans who live a distance from their favorite teams, says Ian Hall, group director at Octagon, a marketing agency which specializes in sports and entertainment.
“Fans want to get engaged, have as much information as they can, and interact with other like-minded fans,” he adds. “[Social networking sites] are based in passion, interest, and loyalty to sport, team, and player. Teams were once considered local entities. That's not the case anymore... [Web sites] really help to reach that displaced fan of say, the Dallas Cowboys, who can feel as close being in Portland, ME, as they would in a suburb of Dallas.”
However, the freewheeling nature of the Web also means that teams have to accept that many comments about their teams will be negative, Hall adds.
“If you censor or put strict parameters around how people can express themselves, that's kind of counterintuitive or a conflict of interest with the nature of a social network,” he explains. “And you have to be OK with taking the good and the bad comment-wise. If you're not, you probably shouldn't be in that space.”
The Detroit Red Wings use MySpace and Facebook pages, as well as a Twitter account to keep fans across the US, and in hockey hot spots such as Canada, Russia, and Scandinavia, in check with the NHL team's latest moves, says Steve Violetta, SVP of business affairs for the organization.
“I think as a franchise, we are in a unique position because of how far the brand extends,” he adds. “When we talk about (Detroit nickname) ‘Hockeytown,' that's about the guy in Phoenix or Nashville who wears his Red Wings jersey when he goes to a game there,” he says.
The team's social networking efforts also allow it to reach a younger demographic, a key business goal because Red Wings tickets can be hard to get.
“We've been around since 1926... and for years, [the Red Wings have] been sold out,” explains Violetta. “[Social media] has been part of a strategy to connect with [people in their 20s]. The way to do that is not through running ads. The way to do that is digitally.”
While blogging may be considered an “old-school” way to reach out to fans by social-media standards, some teams still find it an effective way to connect with fans, especially on a non-sports level. The Los Angeles Dodgers, for example, have found a bridge to baseball fans who also enjoy a meal out on the town via the “Dining with ‘Dre” blog on the MLBlogs network, penned by player Andre Ethier. The blog, which features restaurant reviews and photos by the outfielder, has helped him connect with a different fan base, says Josh Rawitch, the team's VP of communications.
“It's helped to make him the restaurant connoisseur of Major League Baseball... without a lot of promotion,” he notes. “It's helped him cultivate a fan base that would not have been there otherwise. It's been very positive. It humanizes him. You can see it from some of the comments, [such as] ‘I thought I saw you at a pizzeria.'”
Sports and social media
NBA Fan Voice
Though many of its franchises have entered the social networking world themselves, the NBA has its own social networking Web site called Fan Voice, which features player blogs, forums, and a buddy networking system for members
The NHL's social networking Web site boasts nearly 50,000 members, who can post profiles, photos, and fan blog entries to the site. The portal also features more than 84,000 photos and 1,500 videos, all posted by fans
The Detroit Pistons launched Posting Up, the team's social networking Web site, last year. The team also operates a Twitter account, YouTube channel, and a news aggregation site as part of its digital outreach
*The title of this story in print appears as "Part of the game"