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Professional sports discover the value in social media

By Stephanie Winiarski

The Philadelphia Wings of the National Lacrosse League made history on February 12, 2012. Of course, it's not unusual for sports teams to make history as records are often set and then broken for things like scoring the most goals, having the largest number of fans attend a game, or serving the most hot dogs before halftime. However, the lacrosse club from Philly made their mark far beyond the reach of the nine team indoor lacrosse league, and instead could be setting a precedent for every sports franchise in America. What exactly did they do that was so groundbreaking? The Wings ran out onto the Astroturf the night of the twelfth wearing jerseys donning players' twitter handles on the back in the spot where last names usually go.

Love or hate social media, there's no denying its ever-growing power and presence as the number of users on sites such as Facebook and Twitter continues to grow. And social media has grown beyond the binary system of just Twitter and Facebook. Today, maintaining a successful social media marketing campaign requires businesses to maintain profiles on at least three different social media platforms, with the caveat that they must also be aware of what the "next big thing" is going to be, and the sports industry is not exempt from this rule. Therefore, it shouldn't be a surprise that the line between sports and social media is beginning to blur.

Back in August of 2010, fan favorite NFL player Chad Ochocinco, who at the time was playing wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals, caused quite a stir when he tweeted live from the sidelines of a preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles. NFL policy states that players are not allowed to use social media sites ninety minutes before the official kickoff and cannot log back in until the conclusion of any postgame media sessions. Ochocinco was fined $25,000 for breaking the rules, but more important than the fine, were the questions raised surrounding how athletes should be using social media. At the time of the Twitter incident, Ochocinco was chastised by sports writers at NESN and NBC's Chicago affiliate, among a number of others, for his inability to stay off Twitter for five hours a week while his team was on the field and his seeming obsession with the social media site. The fans however all seemed to side with the showy star taking to the very same social media site that landed Ochocinco in hot water in the first place to dub the NFL the "No Fun League."

A year and a half later, professional sports' leagues attitudes towards social media seem to have turned, and not just in smaller leagues like the NLL. At the 2012 NBA All-Star Weekend, the National Basketball Association used every opportunity they could think of to engage and connect with fans. For the first time ever, fans held the honor of being able to crown the 2012 Slam Dunk champion by voting in one of three ways; through text message, on NBA.com, or by tweeting the name of the player with the best dunk and the hashtag #SpriteSlam. This new practice proved to be a successful strategy for encouraging fan interaction as over 3 million votes were cast from around the globe to crown Utah Jazz's Jeremy Evans as the winner. Fan voting through the same three channels also helped determine the MVP of the All-Star Game. League officials were quick to call the 2012 weekend-long event a social media success after results came in reporting that throughout the weekend the NBA engaged with 241 million followers globally and an average of 2,949 Twitter and Facebook mentions per hour over the course of the weekend.

In the pursuit to capitalize on the latest social media craze, a number of sports teams and leagues have been quick to jump on the Pinterest bandwagon. Pinterest is a photo sharing website that is modeled to look and work like an online cork board. Users are encouraged to develop themed "boards," and then "pin" pictures from all over the internet onto coordinating boards. Research firm comScore reported that approximately 68% of Pinterest users are women. However, the statistics about Pinterest that are making social media heads spin are that during the month of December 2011, Pinterest attracted 11 million unique visitors, and that in January 2012 those who visited Pinterest spent nearly 100 minutes on the site, compared with the average 19 minutes users spent on LinkedIn.

The question of course is how are sports teams and leagues, which have predominantly male audiences, using Pinterest in an effective and successful manner?

With Pinterest being so new, the magic formula of how sports teams and leagues should use the social media site has yet to be developed. The most popular uses of Pinterest for teams include creating boards to display fan-created content, advertise new merchandise, showcase team history, and exhibit fan culture. For instance, the New York Giants have a pinboard dedicated to tailgating culture. While some professional sports team boards are geared specifically to women, such as the Boston Celtics Jewelry pinboards, the majority are targeted to fans of both sexes. Only time will tell if sports teams can successfully engage the female-centric demographic of Pinterest, or if their social media efforts are better left to platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

The one thing time has already proven is that social media is a powerful tool, which professional sports teams and leagues would be foolish to not use.

And as for the Philadelphia Wings? Maybe replacing the tradition of having a player's last name on a jersey with a Twitter handle is too much, too soon. Then again, maybe in a few months we'll have already dubbed them "the team that Twitter built."

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