In sports and social media, there are no “winners”

A few months ago, I read a marketing agency blog post about Major League Baseball (MLB) teams on social media. The post looked at some of the major social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, and declared MLB team winners based on follower counts, fans, and pins. When I read it, I considered writing a reaction piece on the choice of metrics used to make these claims, but passed, choosing to spend my time on school and work instead.

Then, last week, Russell Scibetti (@rscibetti) posted an infographic on his excellent blog “thebusinessofsports.com” from a multi-channel marketing company titled, “Fandom in a Multichannel World.” The graphic looked at the most social teams in MLB. Again, I came away disappointed, as many of the barometers of success were follower counts. The infographic called the Yankees “MLB’s most social team” based on their 7,980,000 fans across Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, and Instagram.

What the Yankees have accomplished on social media isn’t unimpressive. It also isn’t difficult. For sports teams at the collegiate and professional level, acquiring fans and followers is as easy as picking a social network and creating an official account. If you build it, they will come. The real challenge lies in taking social to the next level. The challenge is engagement. The challenge is activation. The challenge is revenue.

Many teams, both in MLB and elsewhere, have created innovative ways to address these challenges. The Boston Celtics, Cleveland Indians, Portland Trail Blazers, and LA Dodgers are just a few. Yet, whenever a piece of content is published about the most social teams in sports, it’s follower and fan counts serving as justification for the claim. Why is that? Is it easier to estimate? Simpler to substantiate? Maybe it’s laziness.

Those are plausible answers, but I think there’s a bigger issue at play. In sports, as in life, we’re a society hell-bent on identifying winners and losers. And when we do so, numbers are more concrete than subjective anecdotes. I can claim that the Cleveland Indians, with their Social Suite and Tribefest, are the most social team in MLB. You could claim it’s the San Francisco Giants with their clever content and wired fan base. Neither of us easily “wins” that argument. If you argue that the Giants are more social than the Indians based on their larger number of Twitter followers though, I have no argument. Like Shakira’s hips, the numbers don’t lie.

Instead of ranting about the method by which we identify winners and losers in social media though, I want to propose a new approach: let’s stop proclaiming social media winners entirely. Social media isn’t a dragon to be slayed. There is no finish line to cross or mountaintop to climb. And while competition is natural imperative in sports, we need to realize that every team benefits from the gains others make in social media.

So I plea to sports bloggers and agencies everywhere: stop using follower counts and pinning boards as KPI’s to declare champions of a game that doesn’t exist. Start focusing on the innovative teams using social media to do great things. Take lessons from their experiences and share them with others to create a better social community.

If we do this correctly, everybody wins.

Upon further review, how the NFL mishandled the Monday Night Football controversy on social media.


I’ve been following the NFL for over 15 years now, ever since my dad took me to my first game in the fall of 1994. Along the way, I’ve seen my share of controversies and storylines, especially of late. It started with “Spygate,” followed by a sharp rise in the public’s awareness of player concussions, and the recent scandal known as “Bounty-gate.” For the most part, however, the drama surrounding the NFL has centered on off the field matters.

That changed this year when the NFL locked out the regular referees, choosing instead to use replacement referees for the beginning of the 2012 NFL season. The idea was, by all accounts, a failure, highlighted by the most recent Monday Night Football (MNF) game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers. The final play of the game, a Hail Mary by the Seahawks, has been dissected by several angles, and has largely been credited with the recent deal between the NFL and the Referee’s Union that has put the regular referees back in action this week.

Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks, NFL, Replacement Officials, Hail Mary

Largely ignored in the wake of the MNF controversy has been the NFL’s social media activity following the game. This has irked me all week, since I took exception to several moves made by the social media managers for the NFL that night.

Soon after the end of MNF, the NFL posted a status update on Facebook that read “Seattle wins on Hail Mary” accompanied by a photo of Golden Tate’s touchdown catch from earlier in the game.

The NFL's first Facebook status update following the Monday Night Football controversy

Within the hour, the NFL had changed the caption for the picture to read “FINAL SCORE: Seahawks 14, Packers 12.” The image, however, stayed the same.

Finally, the NFL decided to drop the entire status update, leaving fans to read the NFL’s previous official update from the game, which were video highlights of the Seahawks eight first half sacks.

So what are the problems here? Glad you asked.

First, the NFL’s social media managers greatly underestimated how big of a controversy this play and game result was. You might say that’s a fair mistake since the game had just ended, but anyone who watched the end of the game and any subsequent post-game show knew that the referee’s decision was going to blow up as a storyline. The NFL should have given the controversy the appropriate amount of attention online.

By posting a status update mentioning the Hail Mary without accompanying it with a picture of the play, the NFL seemingly assumed fans wouldn’t notice the difference or get angry at the misrepresentation. Guess what? Fans noticed, and they got angry.

The second mistake by the NFL was re-writing the update without any mention of the Hail Mary controversy. By doing so, the NFL looked as if it was trying to avoid the subject entirely, whether that was their intention or not. The problem with attempting to avoid the controversy (and really, any controversy) is that the subject was already too big to ignore. This is especially true in sports, where impassioned fans often overreact to plays and game outcomes that aren’t really that big of a deal. Did the NFL really think a game-altering call from a replacement referee wouldn’t result in outrage?

Finally, the NFL’s biggest mistake was deleting the post. Every time an organization deletes a controversial status update or tweet, numerous stories are published offering the reasoning for avoiding such a strategy. Yet somehow, organizations continue to delete entire posts on social networks. This includes, by the way, the NFL’s Twitter account, which tweeted “Touchdown or Interception? #GBvsSEA” and then later deleted the tweet. (Hat tip to Anthony De Rosa (@AntDeRosa) for catching that.)

The problem with deleting the post is two-fold: one, when controversy occurs, fans and customers want a soundboard on which to voice their opinion. This was clearly the case with the NFL, as their Facebook status update received nearly 10,000 comments in less than 45 minutes. That number is substantially higher than their other posts, which seem to average anywhere from a few hundred comments to a little over a thousand comments. By taking down the post, the NFL removed a vital soundboard, leaving angry fans to flock to other means to voice their opinions. Two, the deletion of the post furthers the perception that the NFL wanted to avoid the controversy entirely, an action that was neither smart nor even remotely possible at that point in time.

How should the NFL have handled the situation? They should have addressed the issue directly, acknowledging that Seattle defeated Green Bay on a controversial Hail Mary on the final play of the game, along with an image of the actual Hail Mary. Would fans have still written angry comments on the update? You bet. At least those comments would have been in one place though, making it easier for the NFL to manage information and respond if necessary. Additionally, they wouldn’t have been accused of masking the issue or avoiding it.

What do you think about the NFL’s Facebook practices in the wake of the MNF controversy? Should they have deleted the post? What would you have done differently? Do you think I’m overreacting? Please let me know in the comments.

Can you make your Twitter account private to gain publicity? MLB proves you can.

Yesterday was a fun day for Major League Baseball (MLB) on Twitter.

Yesterday morning, MLB announced that they were going to make their Twitter account (@MLB) private for six hours between 12-6pm ET, during which time they would be performing exclusive giveaways only viewable to those who followed the account before it went private. In the hours leading up to the promotion, MLB sent numerous tweets with the hashtag #MLBMembersOnly to raise awareness and get additional fans to follow the account so as to be eligible for the giveaways.

Sure enough, at noon ET, @MLB went private, complete with a new profile picture and background image explaining the promotion. Giveaways during MLB’s private hours included 2013 MLB.tv subscriptions, tickets to 2013 Opening Day, and tickets to the 2012 World Series. Twitter followers became eligible to win prizes by retweeting phrases tweeted by MLB, like “Opening Day tix? Yes please @MLB! #MLBMembersOnly”

MLB’s promotion was meant to reward current Twitter followers and add new followers in the hours leading up to the privatization. By MLB’s account, the promotion was a success. Josh Lukin (@coffeeon3rd), MLB’s Director of Advanced Media, cited a sizable increase in Twitter followers, rewarded loyal followers, a trending topic on Twitter (#MLBMembersOnly), and the #1 question on the weekly Thursday Twitter chat #smsportschat. A look at MLB’s twitter stats on TwitterCounter.com backs up Lukin’s follower claims. @MLB gained 12,078 fans on September 20th, a sizable increase compared to the four days prior. They gained 973, 689, 1,466, and 1,727 followers on those days respectively.

MLB on Twitter Counter.com

While the statistics indicate MLB’s promotion was a success, there were some valid concerns brought up on Twitter by established minds in sports and social media. Peter Stringer (@peterstringer), who serves as the Boston Celtics Senior Director of Interactive Media, questioned the move, citing the limitedness of viral promotion (the sweepstakes tweets were private and therefore could not be retweeted), and the policy of what Stringer called “like-gating” overall.

Russell Scibetti (@rscibetti), founder of theBusinessofSports.com, also raised a few concerns in an excellent blog post. Scibetti noticed that the number of @MLB followers was still rising during the time the account was private, leading him to believe (and confirm) that new followers were being approved by hand. Scibetti noted that the practice of manually adding followers after going private damaged the promotion’s reputation of being exclusive and made the promotion more similar to a typical Twitter giveaway. Scibetti’s post is worth a read and is viewable here.

AwfulAnnouncing.com also weighed in on the topic. They identified the promotion’s timing as potentially troublesome, as there were several baseball games that started during the time-period MLB’s account was private, with a large majority of those games involving potential playoff teams. Had something important occurred during any of the games, MLB’s tweets would not have reached the audience size they typically do.

We know how those mentioned above feel. How do you feel about Major League Baseball’s Twitter promotion? Was the promotion a hit? Would you have done anything differently? Weigh in in the comments section below.

A Social Media Reminder from Tony Hawk

Like a lot of you reading this post, I follow brands, athletes and celebrities on social media. I pay attention to tweets, Facebook status updates and Instagram posts. I occasionally comment, retweet or repost on Instagram, and I like statuses that make me laugh. Lately though, I’ve found myself bored with those I follow. The more I think about it, the more I realize why; brands aren’t engaging on social media, they’re broadcasting.

I see the same tactics used across various social media platforms. Promotions and announcements on Twitter, cheesy “like this status if you’re excited for Friday” style Facebook updates, and shots of coffee cups with vintage filters on Instagram. This isn’t engaging. This isn’t social. This is boring.

So when I saw a giant donut with the words “Randy’s Donuts” in my Instagram feed last week, I didn’t think anything of it. When I saw it was posted by Tony Hawk, I didn’t think anything of it. When I read the caption, “Just hid a signed skateboard under the white dumpster here,” I became interested.

Roughly 30 minutes later, Hawk posted another image of an Instagram user holding a skateboard with the caption, “Congrats to @easyuno! That worked quite well. To all future seekers, UNDER the dumpster doesn’t mean IN the dumpster. Ew.”

The posts did well by Hawk’s Instagram standards. Hawk’s first post generated 441 comments, much higher than his normal updates, which fluctuate between 80-200 comments. The two posts also averaged 1200 likes, higher than the average of the previous five posts, which was roughly 970 likes. These numbers say something, although the sample size is small.

I include the numbers, because people will ask about them, but this story isn’t about numbers. I can guarantee you Tony Hawk isn’t worried about the numbers. Businesses and brands, however, are worried about the numbers, and that’s part of the problem. Lately, social media professionals have become increasingly obsessed with ROI and measurement. Marketers have become so concerned with numbers that in some cases, they’ve forgotten that social media primarily exists so people can be…well, social.

I understand the obsession with numbers. If you run a business, numbers matter. Sometimes though, the numbers get in the way of what social media was created for in the first place. Have some fun on social media. You might make an impression on a few hundred fans. You might only make an impression on one fan. The number doesn’t matter.

Only one fan won a skateboard from Tony Hawk, but I guarantee you that fan is a fan for life now. For those followers who didn’t win, no doubt they can’t wait for another giveaway, and I’m sure they’ll be paying closer attention to Hawk’s updates than they did before.

Don’t lose sight of what makes social media so much fun. Engage with your fans. Have fun with your fans. Stop broadcasting. Stop talking at them. Start talking with them. Be social. It’s what these platforms were made for.

We can thank Tony for reminding us of that.

Why I’m starting this blog

A few thoughts for anyone that stumbles upon this blog before it’s officially launched. I’m starting this blog because as a sports and social media follower, I found there wasn’t a whole lot out in the blogosphere about how the two subjects interact. I’m hoping to fill that gap. I’ve written a little bit about me in the “about” section of this blog. Feel free to check it out.

“I’ve been a sports fan since I was eight years old. That year, while visiting my grandparents, I sat next to my grandfather while he watched the Philadelphia Phillies on TV. I had no idea who they were playing or what the rules of the game were, but it didn’t matter. I know that he cared an awful lot about what was happening on that screen, and I know I cared an awful lot soon after. That fall, I experienced my first heartbreak when Philadelphia Phillies reliever Mitch Williams gave up a World Series winning home  run to Joe Carter. I vividly remember crying myself to sleep that night.  A year after that, my father bought season tickets for the New England Patriots. A new owner, Robert Kraft, had bought the team, and on the same day he did so, thousands of others had bought season tickets as well. As a sports fan, my life would never be the same after I experienced my first professional football game in person that fall.

Over the course of the next decade, I became an obsessed fan, first with the only two teams I had ever really rooted for, and eventually with sports as a culture. I read boxscores for the whole league in the paper each morning, watched Sportscenter while making breakfast, and listened to the local sports radio station on my commute to school, and later, work. I prided myself on being the first fan to know breaking news, or being the fan other friends came to when they had a question about a player on a roster, a trade rumor, or a coaching change.

That all changed when I discovered Twitter. Since being founded in 2006, Twitter has changed the sports landscape by redefining breaking news. Transactions, rumors, and injury news used to break on TV for some, the morning paper for most. Now, news spreads instantly from media members, agents, or even the athletes themselves. For fans, Twitter has made it possible to connect with fans on a global level.

The results have been overwhelmingly positive. Athletes such as Lance Armstrong, Shaquille O’Neal, and Chad Ochocinco have used the service to enhance their personal brand by directly engaging with fans. Ochocinco once treated fans of an opposing team to dinner, while Shaq used the mico-blogging service to announce his retirement from professional basketball. There have been a few hiccups along the way. Larry Johnson was released from the Kansas City Chiefs for a negative tweet about his coach, and Antonio Cromartie saw his time in San Diego end partially due to his Twitter use. For the most part though, athletes are getting it.

For organizations, governing bodies, and leagues, the curve has been slower. Historically, a large amount of time has been spent creating social media policies for employees and athletes. We’ve only just recently arrived to the point where sport teams themselves are expected to have a social media presence. For those that do, a large percentage of them seem to use Twitter as a bulletin board, posting game results, player transactions, or team news only. Engagement has been slow to evolve.

Make no mistake though, we are entering that phase. Twitter is here to stay, and it will continue to shape the way sporting news is shared. While that relationship grows, I’ll be here to cover it. I hope you’ll join me.”