The Ultimate Social Sports Showdown


At this stage in the social revolution, every industry has adopted some form of a social marketing strategy. The sports industry is no exception. But how do the four most prominent leagues in the United States stack up against one another?

We examined Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and the National Football League, to see which sports giant was the social superstar.

Most improved: Major League Baseball. This year the MLB came out swinging during opening week. They kicked off Opening Day with their #MLBTVme hashtag promoting their MLB.TV streaming service.

The goal was simple, the longer the hashtag trended, the more prizes were given to fans. In order to keep the hashtag trending, the MLB’s official page tweeted trivia questions to fans. 

Fans who answered correctly, were entered to win exclusive prizes such as XBox 360s, iPads, PlayStation 3ds and Roku devices. In addition, all of the winners would receive free MLB.TV.  As of Monday, April 9, 2012, the hashtag was used 75,958 times.

The MLB also invested in a long-term approach to their social strategy, combining real-time updates with personalized fan experiences. MLB correspondents are to be stationed at each ballpark to report on players’ pre-game routines, lineup cards and other behind-the-scenes features, which will then be re-packaged and delivered through the MLB’s social channels. This tactic is a creative way to deliver a unique,  personalized fan experience using social mediums.

Lastly, the MLB has spanned beyond the traditional Facebook and Twitter channels to include Pinterest and Tumblr in their starting lineup. Their Pinterest account includes more than just merchandise, featuring fun mascot photography and an eclectic mix of baseball fanatics photographed across the country. They also feature images of delicious ballpark grub for the foodies to enjoy.

The defending champion: National Basketball Association. The NBA has proven to be a pro in the social sphere. They make their fans feel like insiders, because their campaigns are unique and intuitive, and their execution is flawless.

Their success (more followers, fans and people talking about this than every league mentioned) could be due in part to their overall mentality surrounding the idea of social media.

The NBA’s VP of Marketing, Melissa Rosenthal Brenner, put it this way: “Social media has changed the way we communicate, even on a very basic level.”

The NBA restructured its entire organization to fully integrate social media into their tactics. They institute daily social media strategy conference calls, and use their social channels as a way of completely understanding their following.

They have, in essence, created a mutually beneficial space where fans can discuss the NBA, and the NBA can use these conversations to directly target messaging to their fans.

They’ve even fully adapted to Facebook’s new Timeline layout by utilizing the Milestone feature to bring attention to historic events.

A key example of the NBA’s understanding of social media can be found in their most recent All-Star social campaign. Not only did they supply relevant updates, feature giveaways, and host engaging multimedia on their social channels, they took their strategy one step further and integrated an “ Social Spotlight” section on their website.

The section featured the best fan tweets, photos and videos in one centralized location. The campaign as a whole generated 2,949 Twitter and Facebook mentions per hour over the All-Star weekend. As a whole, the campaign was a slam-dunk.

The NBA has, above all else, proven they are social experts who truly understand the benefits created by social media. They engage fans on their social channels by asking questions, posting exclusive insider information and using a casual, conversational tone that appeals to their fan base. Instead of following the trends of social media, the NBA creates them.

The underdog: National Hockey League. The NHL seems to finally be recognizing the validity of social media. For the 2011-2012 season, the NHL announced they would be instituting their first ever Social Media Policy.

The policy is directed towards players and club personnel and its purpose is to promote the value of social media as a tool to engage and communicate with fans. While the policy clearly outlines that players and club personnel will be held responsible for their social behavior, it also gives them tips on the best ways to facilitate conversations using social media outlets.

While the NHL is taking a proactive approach to social policy and has a combined total of over 3 million followers and fans, they are still frozen behind the NFL and NBA in numbers. One thing they have demonstrated is their complete understanding of fan engagement.

The NHL frequently replies to fan inquiries and asks engaging questions to further interact with their fan base. In addition, both the league and all 30 teams provide fans with game updates, engaging multimedia content as well as relevant league updates to keep their fan base constantly involved and in the know. 

Another major success was the NHL’s recent social campaign around the 2012 Bridgestone Winter Classic. The NHL combined broadcast media with social media to give fans updates, incentives and exclusive multimedia content.

The campaign used Facebook ad buys, exclusive giveaways, such as cars, and a unique hashtag to promote the event. The result was an 83 percent increase in traffic driven to than in 2010, the #WinterClassic hashtag trended worldwide, and viewership to the actual Winter Classic event increased by 22 percent. The campaign generated 4 million impressions on Facebook and over 17 million impressions on Twitter. Pretty impressive. 

The league to watch: National Football League. In this past year, the NFL proved that they know how to tackle social media. It’s no surprise. In a Mashable interview with Jeff Berman, GM of NFL Digital, it was clear the NFL was starting to understand that social media was not just a tool to push traffic to their website.

As Jeff explains in the interview, the NFL went into 2011 focused on using social media for fan engagement, fan acquisition and to build a community.

As Jeff says in the interview, “It’s a broad change in terms of how we approach social — it’s not just a marketing platform but an extension of our publishing platform and a way to engage fans in much deeper and more meaningful ways.”

Some key ways the NFL progressed their social strategy was to implement a social content management system using popular social media marketing tool, Buddy Media.

They use Buddy Media not only to get a pulse on fan conversations, but also to measure the strategies of the 32 clubs in their league. If a particular club does something that generates a large impact, they can then leverage that data across the network. 

In addition, the NFL has created multiple Twitter accounts to discuss different topics relevant to football. They have their primary NFL account as well as a feed for Fantasy Football. They also work closely with affiliates such as NFL media and the NFL Network.

So who is this year’s winner? The NBA defends their title, but only barely. With their fresh, new outlook on social media, the NFL has positioned itself to be a contender by next year.

The NHL and MLB have made huge strides to try and create an engaged, social experience for their fans. Maybe with a little finesse, they could be poised to take the title.  Until next year, this has been your live coverage of the Ultimate Social Sports Showdown.  

Posted in: What We Think

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