Social Media and Sports: Natural Teammates

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MLB Photos via Getty Images

American League All-Star Chris Perez of the Cleveland Indians tweets during the State Farm Home Run Derby at Chase Field on Monday, July 11, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Social media and sports are natural teammates. Enthusiastic fans are eager for updates on their favorite teams and the opportunity to rant about what went wrong in the playoffs or why their coach should be fired. On the flip side, modern franchises love nothing better – except perhaps winning — than extending their brand into potentially profitable new areas. From Facebook and Twitter to websites and mobile apps, social media satisfies both sides.

Analysts at Nielsen Media Research reckonfour out of five active web users visit social networks, eating up nearly 25 percent of Americans’ online time. Meanwhile, at least one in four also regularly head for sports sites. So not surprisingly, teams, supporters and web-savvy companies are increasingly visible online.

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NFL teams still get a big chunk of their revenues from more traditional media – the latest broadcasting deal saw upwards of $4 billion dished out between the teams, although digital streaming is now a part of this. But social media also plays a key role in the branding that facilitates such big dollar deals. U.S. teams now widely utilize Facebook and Twitter, and fans are flocking to their sites. It’s no coincidence that the Dallas Cowboys, which Forbes ranks as the most valuable NFL franchise, also has the most Facebook followers, at nearly 3.6 million. The NFL itself ended 2011 with more than 4 million fans on the site — a 474% increase on the previous year, Mashable notesin its article “How the NFL Is Dominating Social Media.”

Jeff Berman, General Manager of NFL Digital, told the site he was pursuing an ambitious outreach strategy online. “We’re rebuilding the fan base and the avidity of the fan base — if non-fans get engaged, casual fans get more involved and avid fans become super avid fans — then we’re doing our jobs. And social can help enormously with that,” he said.

The loudmouth New York Jets seem particularly well suited to social media. Nielsen found last year that Gang Green grabbed an 11.9% share of all NFL-related social-media activity, the best among the league’s teams. Not surprisingly, the league and its teams are flooding their respective sites and pages with contentto attract – and keep — these fresh eyeballs. The New Orleans Saints, with an outsized Facebook following of more than 2.3 million, given their small-market team status, post on their page as many as 12 times a day. Meanwhile 2012 Super Bowl attendees, the New England Patriots, run a recurring “Ask A Pat” wall feature for their 2.8 million site fans in which a different player responds to fans’ questions in a video.

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Baseball is also (belatedly) getting in on the action. For a long time, the MLB was thought to have the worst social media strategy in sports – rigidly banning any highlights appearing on YouTube. But things may be starting to change. During the 2011 season, it ran an innovative online feature called The Fan Cave. This consisted of two guys watching all of the season’s 2,429 regular-season games and the playoffs and recording their reactions on social media. A simple set-up perhaps, but the resulting statistics were impressive: the MLB proudly announced 100 million page impressions, a big jump in Facebook and Twitter fans and the enviable average audience age of 30. The Cave is reportedly back for the 2012 season.

Meanwhile, clubs are making big plays of their own. The New York Yankees, which Forbes said last year surpassed English soccer team Manchester United for the title of sports’ most valuable brand with an estimated marketing worth of $340 million, are becoming as aggressive online as they are on the field. With more than 500,000 Twitter followers, nearly 5 million Facebook fans and a web site arguably as good as any in professional sports, they look well placed to capitalize on their popularity.

It’s not just franchises and associations fighting for traffic; start-up sites are competing for hits, too. Across the pond in England, where Manchester United remains the most profitable sports team in the world with a market value of $1.86 billion, according to Forbes, online innovators are capitalizing on the country’s obsession with soccer.

A new site — sharethematch.com — and its accompanying mobile app launched late last year as a “Facebook for football.” It caters to crowd-sourced content, such as upload pictures and videos,  allowing users to follow friends and comment live on games, as well as providing match updates for every club in every major league worldwide. With sports fans’ seemingly insatiable appetite for social media, it’s unlikely to be the last launch of its kind.

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