Every sports team and league has its diehards. But every team and league also knows they can’t thrive at scale on diehards alone. That’s why so many are perpetually chasing the casual fan. The curious observer that can one day turn into a diehard. And even the biggest, most established leagues in the world still don’t have 100% penetration, there is always room to grow.
If cultivating more fans is a challenge for the longstanding major pro sports leagues, imagine an upstart league with an emerging sport. This was what the Premier Lacrosse League and its founders Paul and Mike Rabil were and remain up against. Lacrosse participation is growing, sure, but the viability of the PLL rests on its ability to bring its sport, teams, and players to the masses — whether they’re lifelong players and fans or just discovering it for the first time.
But it’s happening. They’re doing it. The PLL is still just getting started, but RJ Kaminski, the league’s Director of Brand who has been there from the start, sees fans being borne. His charge and his efforts are a big part of it. Kaminski recognizes that fans aren’t built in a day. There are steps along the way as the fan goes from just noticing the PLL to consuming more to the point where they’re buying swag and making plans to go to a game. For Kaminski, to see the process in action is so gratifying.
Kaminski described it: “The most satisfying part has been watching the fan who really doesn’t have an interest in the sport of lacrosse, but something along the way — a campaign that we did — sparked their interest enough to follow along, which led them a little bit further down the fan funnel to potentially watch a game with us, and then they’re really in it. And then they’re potentially picking a team and then they’re potentially appearing in person.
“Watching some of those fan journeys just on Twitter as you can see when someone follows along or when you see someone start to engage and then see them actually come to a game — watching that probably has been the best part.”
There is no one way, no magic pill campaign that can create fans. But the path to fandom involves emotion, getting fans to care. For the PLL, playing a sport with which the majority of people are not familiar, this means highlighting plays and players to inspire awe, empathy, and exhilaration. Kaminski talked about bringing out the stories of their players, citing an example of Redwoods star Myles Jones recounting his dreams as a kid playing lacrosse. Those human stories can ignite the initial intrigue.
“[The Jones story] was an inspirational bit [and makes them ask] ‘What is the PLL? Who is Myles Jones?’” Kaminski explained. “And then they follow along and whether it’s just from a passive capacity and they’re just keeping an eye on what we’re doing or whether they’re ready to come to a game or turn on the TV to see a Redwoods game, whatever it may be — there’s an interest sparked.”
Once fans have a reason to care, Kaminski and the league can watch them dive in, while showcasing what makes the PLL so great. Start by making fans care, then connect, and then fall in love or find someone or something to latch onto. Clearing this pathway is why Kaminski and his colleagues mix the slick shots and moves with scenes that show the human side of the players.
“So you’re sitting at home and you’re watching someone like Myles Jones barrel someone over and put it in the back of the net from two and then you see him in the locker room with his shirt off drinking a beer, celebrating with his teammates, making jokes, and singing along to his favorite Drake album,” he said. “Those are the moments that humanize our players and really deepen the fandom that already exists there and potentially attracts a new fan to follow along with someone like Myles.”
So there you go, right? Drive fans to find players they can love and who can make them go wow in highlights. That’s not the finish line, though. Such fandom may play well on social media and stories off the field, but the most invested and engaged fans care about the final score, too, and not just who scored the sickest goals. The PLL has had fans of its players from the earliest days of the league, but creating fans of the teams is more challenging because of the nature of the team.
The eight Premier Lacrosse League teams don’t represent a city or state like most of the PLL’s pro sports counterparts. They’re relatively arbitrary. But the PLL knows the best fan experience involves them cheering on a favorite team to win the game, bringing an intensity that only rooting on one side and against an opposing side can deliver. Kaminski talked about why getting fans to pick a team is an important objective for the PLL.
“It’s [about] building rivalries, man,” said Kaminski, who can be seen hosting a lot of the PLL social media content. “It’s getting the opportunity to have competing fan sections at games. It’s what you see in the more traditional sports media landscape.
“It’s being able to attend a Redwoods-Whipsnakes game, and have one part of the stadium cheer when a ball goes in one net, and then the same for the other side. That’s happening and we’re progressing there, but there’s a lot of work that goes into actually getting a fan to pick a side, to pick a team or pick two teams or just follow a superstar.”
So how does the PLL go about differentiating the teams, such that being a fan of one and not another really means something? Social media plays a big role here. It’s where, through the content shared, the tone, the personality, the sights and sounds — where all that can create a vibe and, eventually, a unique brand for fans to choose to wrap their arms around and identify with. That’s easier said than done, of course, because it has to fit. A team shouldn’t have a jokey brand if its players exude intensity. So Kaminski and his colleagues take care in building these team brands.
“It’s largely driven by the culture that’s developed from the head coach and the players of those clubs,” he said.
“For example, I think Chaos is one that we can start with — a team that quite literally is incredibly chaotic in the locker room. Pregame speeches, and for those that don’t know who are listening, the Chaos are led by Andy Towers, who’s an incredible head coach. He’s about six foot five, he’s bald and you can hear him from a mile away. [He] gives incredible pump-up speeches, usually has an incredible anecdote to get his guys fired up, and it usually goes viral the next day for how he got his guys going in the locker room. “
All the best marketing, human stories, and entertainment wouldn’t get the PLL all the way there. They’re a professional lacrosse league, their primary product is the game its players are paid to play. But Kaminski is confident that once fans get in the door, they’re not leaving. The PLL has a winning product, so, while conceding that it’s not easy or a given to keep fans in the fold, that he’ll bet that fans who sample it will stick around for the long run.
“Retention can be one of the hardest things to succeed in for a sports league,” he said. “But when the product’s there and the product’s the best out there that combines [with] what we’re doing in the broadcast side and the talent in the booth, to me it’s gonna be tough for them to flip the channel.”
Even the best ‘KPI’ in social media can’t cover everything. Sorry, nope, it’s not so simple.
That’s a feature, not a bug, for social media and sports. It’s powerful because its definition of success can be versatile and multi-faceted. And that’s why it’s integral to build a mutual understanding of ‘what are we trying to do here?’ in the macro and micro sense.
Jared Kleinstein has these conversations a lot, pretty much every time his agency Fresh Tape Media embarks on a project with a client, most of whom are in sports and entertainment. Because the most holistic measures of success and best-constructed initiatives go beyond the traditional metrics.
“[We] set expectations early on about, ‘Do you care about the views? Do you care about the stats? Because in that case, shoot, we can just repurpose your highlights over and over again,” said Kleinstein who is Founder and CEO of Fresh Tape Media. “Do you care about community engagement? Do you care about creative reputation? All those things.”
“So I think that you have to get into the intangibles and you have to think about is the brand or somebody you’re working for — are they making money off it? Does it help their bottom line because it’s a part of a brand campaign, in which case they can start selling more and more things like this?”
The traditional metrics — the “public-facing metrics,” as Kleinstein refers to the stuff like # of comments, likes, et al. — still matter. Kleinstein also noted that their public nature is a signal to everybody else (other users, fans, potential fans, potential partners, etc.). But if you ask ‘why’ a couple more times, it turns out that social media delivers much more.
“[Also consider] are there soft things, like, does this [content] help them win any relationships with a player? Did the player have such a good experience with this that they [will be] more willing in the future to collaborate on creative executions?,” explained Kleinstein, who worked for Twitter/Vine before starting Fresh Tape. “So we love making sure that, for every project we do, that the athlete experience was good, that internal people got what they needed in terms of did they make money off of it and all that stuff, and then did it help the brand overall in terms of engagement and exposure.”
That’s a lot of objectives that social media can touch. Pretty good, eh? But go a little deeper into the evaluation and we can get even smarter. It’s easy to look at the social media feeds and compare one team or brand with another, making snap judgments on content concepts, quality, execution, and the ‘public-facing metrics’ they elicit. One can even consider those ‘softer’ things that Kleinstein alluded to. Kleinstein and Fresh Tape have an advantageous view, too, because they’re basically hired guns. A team or league or network or brand or whoever hires and pays them to accomplish whatever those objectives may be. And, regardless of which numbers comprise the KPIs, there is a cost and benefit look to the ledger. Discreet (countable) metrics, as Kleinstein stated, can serve as a bit of a consistent scorecard to track how good the organization as driving them. He’s seeing more scrutiny in that direction in recent years.
“I think [what] it is more valuable nowadays now that there have been years of foundational data to calculate your year-over-year engagement for each platform, and for each tentpole event and stuff like that, to compare your year-over-year engagement and your return on your investment,” described Kleinstein, who is also Founder and President of social media credits and measurement platform Gondola. “I think people are getting more granular about ROI in terms of like, ‘Listen, we got a million more views. Last year we were at 46 million, this year we’re at 48 million, 2 million more, right? But we spent $50,000 more. So did we get the ROI on that?’
“So people are definitely being a bit more granular about the ROI.”
Kleinstein also brought up that some of the most valuable engagements happen beyond owned and operated channels, so every ounce of engagement can’t be tracked and dissected. Again, that’s the power of social media, the viral capability of content that stretches success in a number of directions. We may not talk or think enough about earned media.
“Earned media is probably more valuable than ever,” said Kleinstein. “So just not just looking at your own stuff, but looking at the distribution of your content outside of your own channels. Are meme accounts picking it up? Are major media outlets picking it up?
“And [to track] earned media, there are a bunch of tools out there. Gondola is only one of a few other tools that are doing a really great job helping people track and find the reach of their content beyond their owned and operated channels.”
Okay, so there’s been a lot of thought-provoking, advanced points about what makes for ‘good’, ‘successful’ social media and sports content in this article. It can be dizzying, really, because the goalposts often move and the industry also improves in the ability to measure, understand, and articulate these goals. At the same time, so-called ‘best practices’ and winning ideas are as ephemeral as TikTok trends.
But here’s the thing — as the platforms change, new features evolve, more metrics come about —the keys to quality, needle-moving content largely remain unchanged. Kleinstein has seen it. Kleinstein has lived it — from Vine (where he once worked) shuttering to Snapchat and TikTok coming and Instagram continuously adding features; amidst all the change, the most important elements are pretty much the same. Kleinstein recounted speaking recently at a Denver Startups Week event, where he showed how the substance of a deck he had from over six years ago remained the same today. The core principles of great content were the same then as they are today.
Said Kleinstein: “I’m gonna say a few sentences that have not shifted in forever: People’s attention spans are shorter than ever. Literally. Vine was a six-second platform, we were saying back then the same thing about TikTok and everything now. Creating evergreen content that shows player personalities and really gets to emotional attributes, that’s gonna be wins — hasn’t changed.
“Little things like when you’re framing for social media, don’t think of it like framing for a traditional interview. You only have so much square footage on the screen, so where a traditional interview may do a three-quarter shot or you can see somebody sitting back and you see from the top of their head down to their belly button — on social, you wanna be more faces. So getting more faces and showing more personality is great…
“I think the biggest learning about the state of the creative industry is that what makes great content isn’t changing…”
Everything is more ephemeral nowadays. The rapid coming and going of TikTok trends is a microcosm of the sports business and fan engagement space in general. Heck, there was that week when everyone started grabbing their Mastodon handles as Twitter’s ability to stay functional seemed tenuous.
The metaverse. Discord servers. TikTok. NFTs and other web3 initiatives. Going into these new-ish spaces and others is not a bad idea, some will stick around for many years to come. But there is such thing as trying to do too much, especially amidst the post-pandemic realities of leaner staffs and smaller budgets.
All we can hope to do is stay true to the undying principles of fandom. To understand what lies at the root of all these ideas — community, social capital, emotional connection, and everything in between those core tenets.
So as we close the door on 2022 and look ahead with anticipation and excitement for 2023, it’s time to combine the power of the art and science of it all. Here are five areas in the greater sports and engagement that are top of mind as the calendar gets ready to flip.
It’s always exciting when a post takes off. When a TikTok gets millions of views or a tweet racks up thousands of retweets. More reach means more opportunities to bring casual fans into the fold and can drive revenue from more volume and more value of sponsored content.
But in 2023, it’s hard to ignore that the time is ripe to build and maximize superfans. The fans that live and breathe you, who are eager to invest their hearts, minds, and money in you. Look around and you’ll see Twitch viewers paying a little extra for custom emotes or chat privileges, gamers that spend a few bucks to don their favorite digital apparel, Patreons and premium Discord members, and, yes, even the privileges of Twitter Blue.
We’ve grown so accustomed to chasing scale (rightfully so) in sports, that it’s easy to forget how the 1000 true fans theories can be applied, and scaled up, for sports. Who are the fans that joined that small Discord server? Or the couple hundred that always tune in for the postgame Twitter Spaces? The goal with superfans used to be confined, primarily, to creating season ticket holders. But the new paradigms and opportunity of microtransactions offer so much more.
What more could we do to give and get value from superfans in sports? There could be NFT-based communities, exclusive apparel, more loyalty and rewards programs, displays of identity, premium content and access. Superfans want and are willing to pay for more. More ways to activate their fandom, more ways to feel heard, and more ways to be recognized.
In 2023, don’t forget about your ride-or-die crew.
Influencers (but not the ones you’re thinking of)
This ties along with the previous section, kind of, in that everyone can be a potential influencer. One superfan can evangelize their way to recruiting more fans and superfans. Any individual whose content gets seen by at least one other person can technically be a digital influencer.
Hyperbole aside, there is value yet to be realized with microinfluencers and nanoinfluencers in sports. There is an arbitrage opportunity in social media is to stop thinking solely about broadcast; instead to reach the niches, the most engaged communities and transform them into fans or superfans.
Because they’re out there. How many uber-specific audiences lie behind TikTok’s FYP algorithm? Or how many user segments exist on on Amazon? Niche groups on Netflix? Your content can’t be everything to everyone, nor is it feasible to try and program for every niche and cranny among your potential fan base.
A tactic we talk about in the fan development world is to identify points of intersection — the beloved musical artist that’s also a diehard fan of the team, the player that’s also an avid Call of Duty streamer, the newest food concoction at the team’s arena or stadium. Identify the nano-influencers in specific areas because you’ll never match their authenticity and, often, the ROI they bring.
Snark is here to stay
At least it is in 2023. Because it works, it’s successful. At least in the way we most measure success right now.
If one of the key adjectives in social media is ‘evocative,’ well, snark or savagery often evokes a response. And that leads to big numbers and a lot of that catch-all term ‘engagement.’ It may not lead to love as much as affinity and pride and social proof, but those latter elements matter, too, and can bring the community of fans closer together. Collective joy and collective schadenfreude can make communities closer and more ardent.
But how can snark evolve in 2023 and beyond? How will it? In the end, it’s a positive sign that the ‘stories’ are working. When the home team wins, it feels natural to celebrate the defeat of the enemy as much as the victory of the home side. If one of the core parts of a story is the battle of good over evil, triumph over conflict — then it all kind of makes sense. It may come at the expense of personality, however, if overused or unoriginal. Standing out from the crowd has value (and we’ve seen the recent trend of ‘shocking’ content play into this) and it takes greater effort for content to cut through the increasingly complex algorithms and currency of attention on emerging platforms like TikTok, Reels, and Shorts. There is greater challenge and greater opportunity.
A challenge because your content isn’t guaranteed to be seen by as many of your followers, but that’s also the opportunity. If your cleverness and originality combines with some entry point of affinity and identity for your team, that is. Otherwise, it’s lost in the sea of sameness. Snark can feel like that sometimes, in 2023 it’s time to evolve.
Swinging for the fences
Let’s put this in terms of sports. In Major League Baseball, we’ve witnessed the prioritization of going for home runs — strikeouts and base hits be damned (kinda). In basketball, they got good enough at hitting threes that it made more sense to go for a more valuable, but lower percentage shot.
As social media and sports teams enter 2023, some with fewer resources, many with raised expectations, there’s a growing need to work more for home runs than singles. Quality over quantity. In some cases, that may mean sacrificing the numbers that volume brings, but the home runs can make up the difference. That may mean working off templates more often or outsourcing some work, but the thought, time, and effort put into the home runs will deliver an oomph of deeper engagement that’s greater than the sum of the lesser parts.
As metrics get evaluated after every week or month or season or year, don’t only pay attention to the aggregate sums. Are the highs getting higher, is the slugging percentage — so to speak — going up (on whatever KPI or qualitative/quantitative strategic objective)? The team can also seek to get better at hitting home runs, whether that means squaring up a pitch down the middle (a predictable well-performing post, but ensuring the high hits higher) or knocking some over the fence when the pitches are tough. (I’ve taken this baseball analogy too far, haven’t I?)
You’ll end up with some whiffs along the way, but it’s those big hits that will achieve the most lasting results.
Content for Audiences
Who are we making content for? It’s not a simple or single answer, sure, but is it for casual fans, for avid fans, for informed fans, for specific interest groups, for whoever cares to see it?
The strategies have been honed over the years to produce for the platform and what works well for the platform. Great content always wins, there is no doubting that, but there is still something of a platform strategy to execute in order to reach and engage your fans.
But then TikTok came along and flipped the paradigm 180 degrees.
Now, you hand over your content to TikTok and their recommendation engine finds the audience for it. And there’s an audience for just about everything — it’s not always huge, but it often feels like there’s no subject matter too niche, no rabbit hole too deep. This bringing the right content to the right audience feature is growing beyond TikTok, too, with each platform hoping their own algorithm can deliver exactly the content you want to see, even if you didn’t fully realize it.
There are still benefits to having followers — the audience you know best and that knows you best. But the opportunities are broad and endless. If you want to reach a certain audience, you just need to program for that specific audience. Then drop it into the TikTok machine and let it do its thing. The numbers won’t always be huge, but that may not matter, that may not be the point with every piece of content.
It’s about reaching the right audience, whatever that may mean based on the organization’s goals. If you build it, the algorithm will deliver it. This all doesn’t mean it’s easy, far from it. It forces us to understand audiences so much more, learning in-depth what a given community of users likes, cares about, and consumes, both within and beyond the core interest that comprises the community.
There will still be conversations and think pieces and data around gaming the algorithms to amass the biggest numbers. But there’s a better way in 2023 and beyond. The algorithms are only going to get even better from here — and more welcomed plus intentionally affected by users. Ride the distribution wave and focus on building the content that will reach the audiences you want to reach.
The social media and engagement space continues to evolve a mile a minute. It makes us all appreciate more the core principles of community and engagement, which is a good thing. Many of the notions in this post are pretty timeless. But the rapid change of platforms, the fleeting nature of trends and ‘best practices’ — it all keeps you on your toes and keeps you young (but also ages you).
There’s no telling what 2023 will bring. But we can focus on creating and providing value, serving audiences, and leaning into remarkable originality. The directions that people can direct their passion and attention only grow more numerous, so lean into it, and give fans a reason to direct it to you. Now more than ever attention and passion must be earned.
Listen to episode 234 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, a best of, featuring parts of conversations with:
- Ryan Delgado, Then: Tampa Bay Rays, Now: Atlanta Falcons — full episode
- Brandon Berrio, Then: LSU Athletics, Now: LSU Football — full episode
- Ed Cahill, Then: Orlando City SC, Now: AMBSE (Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta United, Mercedes-Benz Stadium parent company) — full episode
- Matt Lawler, AEG, Global Partnerships — full episode
- Oli Shawyer, Then: Australian Football League, Now: Rugby Australia — full episode
- Brad Friedman, Then: Minor League Baseball, Now: STN Digital — full episode