Will the ‘Lasting Legacy’ of the COVID Sports Shutdown Be Athletes’ Embrace of their Platforms?

Every season the number is shrinking. We’re not far away from sports leagues where every athlete will have been born into a world in which Facebook, Twitter, smartphone cameras, and ubiquitous social media are the way of life.

But that moment can wait. Because this extended period of sheltering has accomplished as more than any generational shift ever could. Over this strange spring of 2020 just about every athlete experienced the epiphany — that fans still care, that they still have notoriety, and that their platform can still be powerful even when the games stop.

Maybe that connection is growing because the walls are being broken down and athletes are being seen at eye-level.

“This is the time where people feel like they’re just like these athletes, because they’re doing the at-home workouts, and they’re just like you having to wear a mask and not going to the gym, not traveling and not going and sitting courtside,” said Jacqueline Dahl  of 1UP Sports Marketing on a panel for the recent Leaders Week.
“So I truly think this is such an opportunity for athletes to engage with their audience because they feel just like them.”

It’s more than that, though. Many marvel at LeBron James not just for his prowess on the court, but also because he has seemed to understand the power of his platform and his brand from day one. As this public health crisis has ensued, many more athletes are realizing they too have a potentially powerful platform and that fans want to hear what they have to say. They always had a feeling they were influential, but now many are acting more like influencers.

“What’s been interesting with athletes is a lot of them are at home and they’re using Facebook and Instagram — they’re used to using these tools, but now they’re becoming power users, which has been amazing to see.,” said Kevin Cote, Facebook’s Director, Sports Partnerships on a panel at Leaders Week. “Leveraging our tools in new and creative ways, doing it themselves…seeing them use tools like Instagram Live to both entertain, but also to inform and support.”

Things really hit home when Dr. Anthony Fauci went on Instagram Live to discuss the coronavirus and the nation’s health and safety. His interviewer/host — not some national news anchor or reporter, but former NBA MVP and true national influencer Stephen Curry. Sure, not every athlete has the clout of Curry, but every one of them is an influencer of some degree and all it takes is to post a bit more personally, engage and interact, and those same athletes have their eyes opened what an enormous audience is there listening, watching, and talking on the other side. Cote took a visionary view, commenting on what this period could mean moving forward.

Coronavirus: Obama joins Stephen Curry's talk with Dr. Fauci - Los ...

“What athletes have especially shown is that they have these massive audiences, they can go directly to these people and connect in so many different ways,” he said.

“…In this moment athletes are stepping up in so many different ways, to identify themselves as they are human beings as well, there’s an ability to connect directly with their fans, directly with other public figures for good. And I think that’s going to be one of the lasting legacies of this time.”

Pro Athletes on Social Media: A Difficult Dichotomy - SMW Toronto 2019

How long would it have taken for so many of these athletes to get on TikTok, Twitch, and Instagram Live without this extended idle time at home? When would these same athletes have realized what they’d been sitting on all this time? When you combine the inherent clout of an athlete with the intent and mindset of an influencer, there is incredible power unleashed.

There are far more important concerns as we all hope this pandemic passes. But these strange circumstances have perhaps helped to usher in a new era for athletes on social media. And even things aren’t quite the same when sports start back up again en masse, the door has opened, athletes have seen the light, and for many things will never be the same again.

(PS: Learn more about Leaders Week)

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Do This to Get More Fans Posting and Creating More Content About the Team

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We’ve never had more idle time. The quarantines and sheltering has caused social media usage and messaging to increase massively in the recent months amidst the pandemic. Meanwhile, sports teams, leagues, and media brands have exhibited incredible creativity, devising new ways to engage their fans and get them to interact with content and interact with each other. But while many users are eager — using platforms more than they ever have, maybe for the first time in ages, and trying new features and new apps — it’s important to not take for granted that all those fans know what to do with a Snap code or Instagram effect or find your Instagram Live. If we can make fans better at social media, if we can help them do more of what they want to do — create cool posts and messages, while being a fan of the team – we can unlock a ton of value. And unleash a ton of fangelists into the field.

That integral importance of social media in the absence of sports means that activating fans is key to keeping fans engaged during this tough time. So many of us are stuck at home and scrolling our feeds yearning for the sports and sports stories that keep us engaged with our favorite leagues, teams, and players 24/7/365. It’s why now is the time to empower and educate fans on how to use social media to keep the power of sports alive, even in their absence.

This is a call to treat educating and empowering fans on social media as an imperative. What does this mean?

Fans are still fans, but without games and storylines to argue about, it’s harder to activate one’s fandom. Furthermore, people in general, many confined to their homes, are desperate for human connection and for something to post about on social media or message their friends and family. How can sports teams and brands help this?

Become a resource for your fans when it comes to social media, become their coach and their enabler to manifest their fandom while giving them an ‘excuse’ to post or create something on social media! This can take several forms:

  • Think like a teacher. Teachers have resources, they have lesson plans, and they create assignments and projects. Think about the spectrum of social media users among your fans — there are some who may have never posted before, some that want to become more of a master, and some that want opportunities to showcase their skills. Create the 101 content for the relative newbies and show them (with videos, with screenshots, with articles) how to do things like:

    • Post an Instagram story and use your team’s stickers
    • Subscribe to your YouTube channel
    • Create a great TikTok
    • Use the filters and effects on Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat
    • Find your team GIFs when posting to Twitter and even when texting or messaging privately in iMessage and WhatsApp
    • How to use hashtags and why
    • How to use lists (and even help them follow your players with a List on Twitter, for example)
  • As noted, teachers also assign projects to give students an opportunity to practice the knowledge they learn. Teams can do the same! As you teach your fans, give them opportunities to put those skills to use! Create contests or sweepstakes that involve using your IG filter or GIF sticker, or to participate in a TikTok challenge, to post a photo or video of an in-game experience, and much more!

 

  • Give fans an excuse to post. Fans are eager and anxious to share content, but they often need a reason to do so. Once you educate, then empower and mobilize them! Brainstorm clever and unique UGC contests — as simple as submitting a pic of them at a game and advancing to best use of your filter, making a meme, or using your stickers. Or try to find your star students and talented fans by having them submit an edit of a photo or recreate a photo, play or trick.

  • Empower fans to connect. One of the most important parts of sports is community and shared experience. Without the live experience of a game or watch party, fans can be anxious to recreate that feeling of connection. Teams can create ways to help fans connect with each other while we all wait for games to come back.

      • Find the niche communities within your fans (gamers, families, diehards, X’s and O’s nuts, super fans of ‘x’ player, trivia buffs, fans from ‘x’ country, fans that also play the sport, etc.)
      • Create opportunities for shared experiences. That could be ‘watch parties’ online with classic games, a gaming or trivia tournament, a fan pen pal program, or many more fun ideas. When fans can virtually communicate, congregate, or even digitally ‘high-five,’ some sense of that community is created that will keep fans together during this time.
      • Create conversation among fans. Think like a barbershop and bring up those fun debates that fans can go back and forth on, whether related to the team or the sport. It’s clear that nostalgia has value here, too.

  • Help fans become storytellers. Your fans are full of personality and incredible stories of their experiences with the team. Leverage and activate those stories! Ask fans for their memorable player encounters, their first memories of going to a game, about the relationships they formed over the years via their fandom, their crazy traditions and trinkets, and much more. Then, don’t just retweet them, but enhance and activate them.

In this uneasy, uncertain time in which fans have little to connect to and to stoke the fires of their fandom, it is so important to embrace social media more than ever. The ones that play offense and seek to put their fans into position to succeed will come out of this better than ever. It can start today. It has to.

A couple great examples here from from Bleacher Report

 

Episode 169 Snippets: Uni Watch’s Paul Lukas on the Sports Uniform Geekiness and the Community That Can’t Get Enough

On episode 168 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Paul Lukas, founder and writer, Uni Watch.

What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.

Episode 168 Snippets: Missy Perez on the Social Media Structure and Strategy for the Philadelphia Phillies

On episode 168 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Missy Perez, Coordinator – Interactive Media for the Philadelphia Phillies.

What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.

Episode 167 Snippets: Jay Hickson Goes Deep on the Keys to Creative Strategy in Sports

On episode 167 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Jay Hicks, Sports creative veteran, Jay Hicks Studios, Sports Creatives Podcast.

What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.

How Social Media and Sports Can Pivot During this Pandemic

Talk to a lot of social media pros in sports and many will tell you they’re working harder than ever. There may be no games, no practices, road trips, scrums, and suits – but they’re pooped. Because it’s not easy to come up with content to fill every day, try to create value for sponsors, and – most importantly – keep fans engaged. To assure fans will remain just as avid even as their favorite teams and players aren’t competing.

There has been a lot of creativity at this time — from pick ‘em posts to trivia, Q&A’s, watch parties, kids activities, UGC, and so much more. The creativity goes beyond sports, toom as platforms like TikTok, Twitch, Houseparty, and Instagram Live all growing rapidly. Everyone is starting to think differently. For years, sports teams have become more like full-time content companies. It may be tougher to create content without the built-in routine and flow of stories from games and news, but these organizations are still content machines teeming with talented creatives and strategists.

So it’s time to think outside the box, right? Games aren’t coming back before the summer, it seems, so what can do social media and sports do to pivot right now?

Experiment

In case you weren’t sure, yeah – social media usage is way up during this COVID-19 quarantine. In times like these, there are few truly dumb or bad ideas. It’s time to brainstorm! With fans consuming more content on social media right now, how can you experiment – and think like a content company first, and a sports team second?

That’s ultimately what this article is about. One area to explore, given the trends, are uber-specific social media accounts that can build an audience while having some tie to the team, however loose. What if your team created a Twitter account to post one random player from the team’s history every day or an Instagram account that only posted sick dunks or blocks daily, or a TikTok account that curated trick shots, or a YouTube account that taught dances, etc. etc. 

There are so many areas of passion that thrive on social media — sports, fashion, music, and more — and so many ways to build content around them. Lean into those skills and that knowledge now, and experiment with new ways to build an audience that can become fans of the brand, not just the sport the employees of that brand typically market and play.

Content Creation

This is a topic that can manifest a number of ways (and plays out all the time as teams create GIFs, stickers, Instagram Effects, lenses, and the like). But as TikTok and Instagram Live, in particular, grow at this time, fans are leaning into performative content more than ever. I mean, what else are they doing stuck at home, so why not create a TikTok themselves or with their kids?

Teams are certainly leaning in here, with a ton of creative UGC campaigns, celebrating fan creations. But a recent article on TikTok got me thinking about the role teams could play in providing the similar value that TikTok and other platforms do in making available effects, audio, and other creative accoutrements. How can teams use their bank of content to give their fans such creative enterprise, to create their own quasi TikTok with highlights, sounds, and maybe even some effects with which fans could create content. Challenges and trends could also play a role, as could team staff, alumni, broadcasters, and ideally players.

The trend that TikTok has been creating and riding has been driven by the incredible energy, enthusiasm, and talent of its network. They’ve provided the tools and sometimes even the prompts, and they’ve let their users take it away. Teams may have the machinery and tools and content to do the same, or some sense of it whether on their platform or influencing use of another.

Entertainment companies

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings famously said his company’s biggest competition was sleep. Meanwhile, sports teams see platforms like Netflix and Twitch as their competition. It comes down to earned attention – but teams don’t have the new highlights and stories that help that earn that attention right now.

But it’s about focusing on what we do have and trying diverse ways to entertain fans with content. There’s an ecosystem of influencers (players and talent), a bank of brand and proven content, and a talented team of content producers. How can all this be deployed? Could you write a recurring comic strip (like the Philadelphia Flyers tried), create a short children’s story or a cartoon, a cooking show, a talk show, short fiction stories, musical and performance guests, motion effects games, and so much more. Step out of the tunnel a bit on the routine content and become a student of producing entertainment in general.

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Community Relations

Many teams right now are doing extraordinary things to help combat the coronavirus pandemic. They’re opening up their venues for use in storage or medical services, they’re donating and helping to prop up local businesses, and using their platforms to deliver information to masses of fans they’re able to reach. 

What are the typical things community relations would be doing at this time and how can digital and social media help keep those activities and that mission alive? It could be reading to kids, much like a player or team member would at a school visit (the Dallas Mavericks had a video of JJ Barea reading a story to his kids) — how much of a typical school appearance could be re-imagined for a livestream or digital distribution. (At both a broad social and direct to school level). There aren’t enough FaceTime calls to go around, but even a few to children’s hospital wards I’m sure would be welcomed, and excerpts could be cut to share on social.

The goals of community relations, as well as fan development, remain important, so the type of applied ideation we’re taking to fan engagement can be taken to these parts of the organization, too.


Visual Entertainment

Something that has caught my eye recently has been the success of street magicians on TikTok. Getting users to say ‘Wow’ is one way to win engagement on social media and the magic, along with the reactions of the people in the videos experiencing it, make for fun content. This isn’t to say teams should crowdsource magicians and magic content (but maybe they could), but the quick hit entertainment is the key idea to hone in on.

Take inventory or brainstorm around ways to make people feel those certain feels that drive social media engagement (mad, sad, inspired, awed, laughing, learning), particularly in quick hits. Maybe it’s shots of celebrations, stupid human tricks, quick artistic creations, trick shots, fitness performances, and, yes, even magic tricks. There may be something here, there may be nothing, but the point of this post is to explore what it means to think like an entertainer first.

Learn from other masters

Of course, we should all always be students of the game. And now more than ever, time permitting, it would pay to study those that are winning this game. The top Instagram creators, YouTube influencers across the board, and TikTok talents that dominate the platform. There are plenty of examples in sports, too, whether it’s Dude Perfect, House of Highlights, or so many more, including individual-driven channels. 

How can teams and sports organizations consider utilizing their talented content teams, influencers, and individuals to mimic the success of these established masters? Sports commands mega audiences on social media, but without games the playing field is acutely level on social between them and the behemoth individuals that have amassed audiences in original ways on social. Teams shouldn’t necessarily imitate them, but they can learn and adapt insights and ideas into their own strategies, as they seek to keep fans coming to them for however long it’ll take to defeat this pandemic.

Hang Out

There has been some impressive content on live social media platforms in the time since this quarantine started. Live musical performances, in particular, have been pretty cool. But there have also been plenty of live sessions when audiences congregate, but, well, not much is happening besides a notable person hanging out. Even just a couple days ago, Barstool Big Cat got almost half a million viewers for his Periscope that featured him hanging out and eating ice cream while engaging with fans.

Many gamers have built huge audiences for live streams on Twitch, more so for their personality and conversation, with the games serving more as a backdrop. So many prominent athletes and alumni are sitting around with not much to do and so many fans would welcome any chance to hang out with them. Even better if it’s hanging out with a group of them. These players could be watching an old game, playing Words With Friends, or a version of the Newlywed Game with each other, or just enjoying a glass of wine and chatting. How can teams get fans opportunities to hang out — with each other, with special guests, with broadcasters, with celebrities?

Help Players and Fans

I have another article on this topic, but it’s worth reiterating — help players and help fans use all these shiny social media platforms right now. It is easy to take for granted that everyone has a basic understanding of all these apps, let alone an advanced fluency with all of the nuances and tricks to get the most out of them. 

This article started by linking to some stats around the growth of social media usage right now. People are jumping on more than ever, including the players, and teams could do a tremendous service by educating all of them. How to make your first few TikToks, go live with a friend on Instagram, navigate Twitch, try an effect or lens or GIF or sticker, and tag someone in a pic on Twitter. Give them the knowledge, the tools, and then the opportunities to engage, to create, to practice the sport that is social media.

What an exciting, inspiring time it is right now for sports and social media. There is so much creativity and originality playing out every day, and I’m psyched to see what more will come in the following weeks. It’s time to expand the playbook. The only bad ideas are no ideas at all.

Episode 166 Snippets: Brad Friedman is Spreading the Stories and Joy of MiLB’s 160 Teams through Social Media

On episode 166 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Brad Friedman, Social Media Manager for the Minor League Baseball.

What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.