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.

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.”