How Brands Activated Their Stars on Social Media for Super Bowl Ad Campaigns

Super Bowl commercials are about much more than what airs on the big screen during the game. What started as calls-to-action to visit a brand’s .com website grew to requests to ‘like’ them on Facebook. Today, most brands that air Super Bowl ads plan and execute multi-faceted campaigns across digital and social platforms, often spanning several days before and after the actual football game. 

But wait, there’s more. The celebrities that pepper the Super Bowl commercials can yield enormous additional value to offer when they activate their social media channels, too. The question is: Are brands paying for the celeb[s] to play a role in their commercial or are they truly partnering with them for a campaign? With that in mind, here’s a look at how the ambassadors/stars of the commercials for several prominent brands used their social channels on and around Super Bowl Sunday.


Verizon had a mission to go after the gaming audience and ensure everybody knows that Verizon 5G is the only way to game. Their ambitious, video game-themed ad starring Samuel L. Jackson capped off a lot of activity, particularly with a roster of NFL players, to amplify Verizon’s campaign around gaming in the days preceding the game. Most of the NFL players did their part by quote-tweeting a Verizon tweet, as opposed to posting a native tweet (perhaps by design, perhaps just for simplicity and convenience). JuJu Smith-Schuster, a noted gamer and wide receiver, posted a retweet sweepstakes with prescribed copy on his timeline. Meanwhile on Super Bowl Sunday, Samuel L. Jackson got his hands on a GIF and directed a tweet with it to JuJu. The Jackson tweet properly put the period in front of JuJu’s Twitter handle, too (a glaring omission made on a since-deleted brand tweet by another brand celeb on Sunday…see later in the column). The campaign took place almost entirely on Twitter only and they were able to activate a lot of ambassadors, some better than others.

General Motors

GM had a star-studded ad that included Kenan Thompson, Awkwafina, and Will Ferrell in an ad that went after Norway in a comical way to promote GM’s dedication to producing electric vehicles (and help the US surpass Norway with the most EV’s per capita). While Ferrell adds a lot of value on-screen, he does not maintain an official Instagram or Twitter account, so only ⅔ of the ambassadors even had channels to activate. Both Thompson and Awkwafina posted the 30-second ad on their respective accounts (Instagram only for Awkwafina). They each also went a little beyond by posting on their Instagram Stories, including Thompson sharing a full-screen image and having a poll, text, and swipe-up link on his. It’s hard to come off earnest when promoting this ad, but going the extra step of doing a little on Stories helps add a bit more authenticity from the effort. Looking at GM’s own brand account you can see they had a few videos cut for IG Reels that performed very well; such video cuts could have been something unique to provide to their two stars, too. Especially with the way Reels rack up views. But celebs may also choose to keep Reels less-produced and more personal. Overall, they had their ambassadors with social media do their part.

Bud Light

Bud Light had a catchy commercial in which it was raining lemons in the neighborhood, to promote their Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade and a play on 2020 being a ‘lemon of a year.’ (They also later had a nostalgic Bud Light Legends ad). The lemons ad may not have featured a high-paid celebrity, but they did have an onsite ambassador, who happens to be a viral Internet celebrity — @dudewithsign (run by @fuckjerry), who boasts over seven million Instagram followers. He is known for, what else, holding signs. So, moments after the commercial aired, the broadcast cut to @dudewithsign there at the Super Bowl, holding a sign with lemons and wearing a Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade mask. His IG and Twitter accounts soon posted pictures of his Super Bowl appearance, racking up over a million engagements and driving good exposure for Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade. Sure, it was just a couple posts, but all those that know him from social media had their attention grabbed and when they went to their phones there was the proof that he was in on it. That real-time nature matters for engagement.

Mountain Dew

Mountain Dew had a clever campaign that had fans tweeting after the ad aired. The commercial promoting Mountain Dew Melon starred John Cena and also featured a bunch of bottles of the soda bouncing all around the screen. The call on social media was for fans to tweet their guess for how many bottles there were in the ad using a specific hashtag for a chance to win $1 million. Cena posted similar messaging, along with a native video (that earned ~ 200,000 views). The conversation results included approximately 300,000 tweets with the hashtag and massive follower growth (compared to other Super Bowl brands). The most notable part of Cena’s involvement was a tweet a week prior. In the tweet, Cena re-shared Mountain Dew’s Twitter video (adding a huge # of views to Mountain Dew’s video and therefore social proof). It also teased the ad and made use of Twitter advertising’s ‘like to remind’ feature, garnering over 43,000 likes. And the tweet still appeared via ‘Twitter for iPhone,’ adding a bit of authenticity to the tweet (as much as a tweet with that many links, handles, and hashtags can be).


Cheetos grabbed at a bit of nostalgia with a play on the Shaggy single “It Wasn’t Me” (which came out all the way back in 2000). In addition to Shaggy, the commercial starred Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis. The ad was around stealing a few Cheetos (and getting caught red-handed, as one does when eating Cheetos). Cheetos did a good job activating across channels, including an AR filter, and their ambassadors did a little bit on game day to support the ad. Kutcher posted video on his Instagram last week with language that sounded pretty natural to him. (Mila Kunis doesn’t have official social accounts). Shaggy’s supporting posts on Instagram look neither planned nor produced — and that’s kind of why they’re great, too. Send ambassadors product, let them post however they see fit, in their real house, with their real phones (or at least send them photos that look like that). Cheetos could have some fun with that more ‘raw’ content from the actors, too. The Cheetos brand account itself has been posting video clips from the ad going back to mid-January. [Cheetos also did some interesting stuff with Snapchat and scanning their ad to win free chips, but we’re just focused on the endorsers in this column].

Amazon Alexa

The Amazon Alexa ad came late in the game, but the commercial starring Michael B. Jordan had already been shared quite a bit on social media throughout the week, well before the game kicked off. This spot was definitely more than just a TV ad, with Kevin Hart joining the campaign and setting off a course of engagement with Jordan that continued through Super Bowl Sunday. Hart posted a fun, authentic-feeling video on Instagram a week before the game and also posted to Twitter a few days before the game. With Hart’s posts it’s notable that they included a text-only post, a lot of hashtags/handles in others, and multiple tweets with YouTube (as opposed to native) videos. This likely resulted in lower views overall (the goal could have been to maximize YouTube views, of course). Michael B. Jordan did an admirable job, including putting up (and annotating) content on his Stories on game day calling out Kevin Hart. He also posted multiple times to his Instagram feed, with the full ad spot also on his IGTV. The use of real-looking footage, Stories, @ mentions, and multiple posts were effective for Alexa. It’s great to see ambassadors ‘engaging’ with each other over social, though some IG comments and Twitter replies could be low-touch, effective ways to add even more to the campaign.

A Few Others

State Farm

One of the catchiest ads of the day was ‘Drake From State Farm,’ a wonderful play on the well-known ‘Jake From State Farm’ ad campaign. And State Farm (both the Jake and the brand accounts) did a good job engaging on social throughout the day. Their superstar Drake, however, erred with his tweet (I’m not here to assign culpability). His tweet mentioned the Jake From State Farm account at the beginning of the post without inserting a “.” before the handle, which resulted in the tweet not going in the timelines of all 39 million of his followers, but only those following both him AND the Jake From State Farm account. It was later corrected, but that’s one to learn from for brands as a lot of engagement and measured reach were lost along with the original tweet.


Toyota’s ad with Paralympian Jessica Long was the clear winner of the day among any ad trying to conjure up emotions. Looking at Long’s social media posts on her Instagram feed, which included the full spot earlier in the week and a still-photo on Super Bowl Sunday, she came off very genuine. One could tell she was excited and proud. The humanity and relatability were also evident on her Instagram Stories on Sunday, showing her family watching the ad featuring her on the broadcast together and reacting. She quote-tweeted Toyota on Sunday, too, instead of tweeting natively, which may have been (even likely) by design, in order to add to the video’s 12M+ views. With an ambassador like Long, there was probably no shortage of content she would love to post across her channels, so supplying her with more than enough assets could’ve augmented the volume even more.


A quick look at the Jason Alexander ad with Tide and accompanying activation shows a couple of posts on his channels. The tweet included detailed text, clearly supplied by the brand, and a link that generates no preview on the Twitter timeline. He posted the full spot to his Instagram over a week before the game. It would have been good, even just a Story post, to have something on his Instagram on game day when the ad aired.


Here are the two posts from Dan Levy to support his commercial with M&M’S.

Uber Eats

UberEats had very little going on on social from their Wayne’s World-themed ad and its stars. Dana Carvey had nothing on his social, Mike Myers does not maintain Twitter or Instagram accounts, and the biggest social media darling of the ad — Cardi B — did not offer access to her massive social audiences. (Maybe that costs more!).

Door Dash

The DoorDash ads with Sesame Street did not get much support from Sesame Street’s sizable social channels, just a single IG Story frame on game day.

Rocket Mortgage

Tracy Morgan gave Rocket Mortgage some impressive tonnage across his social media channels to support his ambassadorship and ad campaign with the brand. He had a ton of posts all over his Twitter and Instagram feed with different cuts, creative, and copy in support of his endorsement of Rocket Mortgage. Dave Bautista also posted on his Instagram feed before and after the ad aired (with just a quick cut pregame). Morgan, in particular, provided a lot of access, and Rocket Mortgage tried to make the most of it with different messaging, creative, even trying to goose their YouTube, and more. The only notable misses were nothing on his Stories and the purely white thumbnails on a couple of the IG feed videos.

The Super Bowl ad campaigns continue to integrate more fully with social media each year. And the celebrities they pay big rates to be at the center of those campaigns can and should deliver value beyond their screen time during the spot. Effectively activating ambassador/star social media channels is not about itemizing a certain number of posts or other stipulated social media support in a contract. No, it should be a partnership — both parties should stand to benefit.

The social media posts or content the ambassadors make should be valuable for them, too, showcasing them in a brand-building and positive way. The brand (and its agency) can also equip them with a bunch of cool content they can post on their own, whether with messaging direction or not. Advertising is often about ‘have to,’ while partnerships come off more authentically, more about ‘want to.’ Hopefully every year, outside of the obvious hashtag #ad or tagging, it’ll be harder to tell which social media posts are prescribed/mandated for celebs and influencers, and which were posted at their discretion, by their hands.

The advertising, endorsement, and broadcast commercial paradigm is overdue for transformative change. The industry picked up a few more yards this year, but we’ve still got plenty of room to go to reach the end zone.

Re-Air (by demand): Matt Lawler on How AEG Worldwide Activates Sponsorship on Digital and Social Media

We’ll have a new episode out next week, but we still wanted something fresh in the feeds this week! Since I’ve been referencing this episode (and it got mentioned to me) in multiple recent conversations, I figure it’s great to revisit my chat with Matt Lawler of AEG. It’s a great crash course in how one of the biggest live event-focused sports and entertainment companies in the world monetizes digital and social media.

Listen to episode 164 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, in which Neil chatted with Matt Lawler, Director of Digital Media, AEG Global Partnerships.


Audio Player00:0000:00Use Up/Down Arrow keys to increase or decrease volume.

57 minute duration. Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or listen on Stitcher

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How the Arizona Coyotes Connect Social Media Strategy to Business Objectives

Social media has to wear a lot of hats. For a sports team, they have to learn a lot of positions, if you will. Social media is marketing and fan development. It’s communications, community, customer service, entertainment, partnership marketing, and it’s the most visible and powerful manifestation of the brand.

Many may sum up social media with metrics like engagements, views, reach, taps, clicks, and swipe-ups. But while those numbers can signal the success of tactics, strategic objectives sound more like those important to the business — customer development and acquisition (attracting fans, growing the database), customer retention and user experience, brand awareness and sentiment, and, ultimately, making money.

“I think the most successful social media teams are thinking about revenue every single day,” said Marissa Mast, Vice President of Social Media and Brand Strategy for the Arizona Coyotes NHL club. “I came in with a journalism background, storytelling was my passion. Over the years I’ve spent a lot more time learning about how do we bring in revenue on social media? How can we continue to grow there? And think about different ways to really meet the team goals.”

The pathways to reach those goals can be complex, but goals themselves can be clear. They want to create more fans from all walks of life, drive attendance, enhance love for the brand, and produce value for sponsors. With this (admittedly oversimplified) list of objectives in mind, it was enlightening to hear from Mast, now in her sixth season with the hockey team, walk through many of the ways her team attacks their goals. Mast told me about the team’s recent investment in influencer marketing, which includes working with local and national celebrities or influencers and typically having them attend a game. The goal of the influencer marketing tactic is not tied to those social media metrics like double-taps and video views; it’s about activating fandom. About showing different audiences what it’s like to be a Coyotes hockey fan.

“A big push for us in recent years has been influencer marketing. And having people showcase what it is like at a Coyotes game because we all know hockey on TV and hockey live are just two very different experiences,” said Mast, who worked for E! Online and NBC’s Olympics coverage before coming to the Coyotes. “So for us it’s all about if somebody is not physically in our arena, how do we bring them? 

“I think a big part of our strategy has been more the micro-influencer, who lives in Arizona, talks to people who live in the Phoenix area all day long. And having them showcase what a game day is like and why people should want to come to a game or should want to buy the cute beanie — all those elements that can go into it. Not just showcasing the game, but we love when they show the food options, the drink options, what they did before the game, what they decided to wear.”

There are thousands of different experiences and perspectives at every pro sports game. When teams can showcase and amplify those diverse points of view, the different people and ways to relate to the excitement and value of going to a game — that’s inviting, reaching, and bringing in new fans.

Fan development and growth. Marketing the game experience. Check and check. Mast and the Coyotes know they’re more than a hockey team and more than an entertainment option. The team can bring together Arizona like no other businesses can. So it’s vital for Mast and her team to appreciate that they’re stewards for a brand that can and does mean a lot to a lot of people. The Coyotes need to be a brand people can be proud of, want to support, and one to which they feel a familial connection. That’s a heck of a responsibility and an essential objective.

“We really want to be a brand with a purpose,” said Mast. “We want to showcase how much we are giving back to the community and really how important sports are to the fabric of the community. (It’s) so much more than just ticket sales and a game day. It really is, I think, a huge part of the culture of a city.”

In order to achieve all of these goals and help fans fall in love with the club, the players, and the brand, teams have to earn attention. Because of this mandate, social media staff for sports organizations often have to think like companies that make their living off earning attention. It’s why the kind of content sports teams produce often bears resemblance to Netflix, Hollywood, and TV networks. Stories are currency and are inherent to the unpredictable nature of the season. But when teams have programming and content that fans will want to consume regardless of the team’s record, the success of their strategy is not as contingent on the elements ‘wingagement’ (credit to Mast for that term!). And, just like media companies, there arises opportunities to monetize quality content. Entertain fans, help fans fall in love with the players and team, and drive revenue through partnerships. That’s a tic-tac-toe beauty of a goal right there.

“We’ve always taken the approach that we don’t need to rely on wins to have ‘good’ social media. I think at the end of the day that we’ve had that (mindset) for so many years,” says Mast. “(Because) we’ve been able to think creatively and think like a media company or an entertainment company, we’ve been able to do things like ‘The Bachelor Report’ or ‘Home Trippin’…That’s allowed us to entertain fans and…give people a reason to follow us besides just in-game action.

“From there, we were then able to pitch it to White Claw and White Claw loved that it skewed female. It was this perfect success story of creating great content and then bringing in a sponsor and then bringing in revenue.”

It’s true that social media was once left to entry-level employees or interns (I was one of them way back when). But those days are long gone. Social media is the most powerful lever brands, sports or otherwise, have their disposal. Hearts and minds are captured on social media, brands are manifested and felt, and the ingredients of business strategy come together on social media. Social media has grown into an adult, and the organizations that fully embrace and activate its capabilities will come out on top.


Episode 187 Snippets: How the Arizona Coyotes Built a Valuable Social Media Strategy By Putting Fans First

On episode 187 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Marissa Mast, Vice President, Social Media and Brand Strategy for the Arizona Coyotes.

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 187: Marissa Mast Discusses Driving Brand and Revenue with Social Media for the Arizona Coyotes

Listen to episode 187 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, in which Neil chatted with Marissa Mast, Vice President, Social Media and Brand Strategy for the Arizona Coyotes NHL club.

63 minute duration. Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or listen on Spotify or Stitcher

Posted by Neil Horowitz Follow me on Twitter @njh287   Connect on LinkedIn

Episode 186 Snippets: Storytelling and Social Intelligence in Digital and Social Media Strategy

On episode 186 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Jenny Fischer, Digital and Social Media with the WNBA and NBA G League.

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 186: Jenny Fischer (WNBA, Marquette Athletics) on Telling Athlete Stories and Appreciating Social Intelligence

Listen to episode 186 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, in which Neil chatted with Jenny Fischer, Digital and Social Media Content, WNBA, NBA G League, and NBA.

80 minute duration. Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or listen on Spotify or Stitcher

Posted by Neil Horowitz Follow me on Twitter @njh287   Connect on LinkedIn

Social Media Changes but Humans Mostly Don’t: A List of Needs to Heed for Sustained Success

As a new year begins, there will be no shortage of prognostications, trends, and visions in the social media world. Some (though increasingly fewer) industries take years to evolve, but in social media, seismic change can happen overnight. While the social networks evolve, the packaging looks different, and the surface-level behaviors may alter, they are all tied to principles of intrinsic human nature that pale any platforms.

So, before you jump on the next emerging social media trend or network, consider what behavior, what natural human want or need is being activated or exploited. Here are 7 ideas that form the roots of so much of what we have seen, continue to see, and will see in what takes off in social media.

1. People want to be seen and heard

Look at the trends emerging in platforms today. Twitch has made streaming more interactive than ever, and users are even paying for premium emotes to ensure their favorite streamers notice them. Meanwhile, the greatest thrill continues to be appearing on the video board at an arena or stadium. The only thing that can come close to equaling the hormone hit for a fan is getting a reply, retweet, or DM from their favorite team or athlete. The individual that has their question responded to in an Instagram Q&A, or whose comment leads to the team posting a specific photo from the pregame warmup, or whose video gets reposted by the team — all help fulfill that fan desire to be seen and be heard.

At a deeper level, people want to know they’re seen and heard in bigger decisions. It may be polling fans on the littlest of decisions or taking into account their collective thoughts on a highly visible or significant decision. Even the appearance of fans being seen and heard can yield considerable cachet. If more fans are feeling seen and heard, you’re doing something right. Embrace this idea going forward and always think about elements of engagement that make fans feel like someone’s paying attention to them out there.

2. People want to feel connected to others

Several months without large gatherings only reinforced this human need. But it goes beyond simply being around other people. It’s about shared experience, yes, but also shared emotion and shared interests. And, to conjure back the previous point, to know somebody else out there sees or hears them. How else could so many of us (myself included) have survived 2020 without painful feelings of loneliness? Social media lends that feeling, however real or artificial it may be, of connection. It’s why it’s difficult to enjoy a sporting event, a piece of social media content, or any moment at all unless there is someone to share it with.

A lot of times in social media, especially in sports, the primary source of content and attention is front and center. And while it’s fun to watch the Verzuz showdowns, for example, it’s even more fun to feel connected to so many others that experienced it or are watching it alongside you live (digitally). How can we continue to uncover new ways to drive human connections in 2021 and the years to come? As social platforms keep evolving, keep in mind this why and less about the shiny new toys and the ‘what.’

3. They like to feel anticipation and reward

As social networks, most notably TikTok, prioritized video completions to help inform their ‘For You’ algorithm, many creators realized they could leverage our human enjoyment of surprise. The chemical and hormone-induced excitement of uncertainty, suspense, and anticipating a denouement is enthralling. It’s one of the many reasons we love sports and the unpredictable, tension-laden action. It’s why, for years, movies and TV shows have made us wonder what’s around the corner. And it’s reinforced by comedians working their way up to a punch line as the audience holds their breathe for that payoff. Heck, it’s even part of some of our favorite music, which often builds to an awesome riff.

This buildup of suspense is becoming more intentional as the social platforms place greater importance on users spending the time to get to that payoff. And publishers on social media strive to play off that formula of creating anticipation (sometimes even explicitly with notes telling us to ‘Wait for it’ or ‘Watch til the end’). Strive to creatively come up with ways to build those feelings of what’s coming and what’s gonna happen, and give them a payoff feeling complete. And maybe even anticipating the next journey you’ll take them on.

4. We want to feel feelings (the emotional roller coaster)

Whether it’s in social media content, entertainment programming, marketing, or storytelling — the best stuff makes us feel something. Awe, joy, delight, anger, fear, sadness, inspiration. We feel alive when we feel. When sports came back following the pandemic-induced pause, whether our teams were winning or losing, something just felt invigorating about feeling feelings again, getting back on the emotional roller coaster.

We think and talk all the time about goals and metrics and executing (or gamifying) our way to those goals and metrics. But it can help to start with the feeling. What feeling do you want to induce and how successful is your content in creating that feeling? And then work from that point. Because if the consumer isn’t going to end up feeling something — anything — it’s not going to break through.

5. They want to socialize and need a reason to do so

The group chats, the social feeds, even the phone calls all light up when something wild happens in sports or significant news drops. Groups (in normal times) gather together at a buddy’s place or a bar to watch the game together or head out to the arena for a night out. And when sports went away, so did a source of connection and of socializing with friends and family.

How can we help foment friendships, start conversations, and give more and more reasons for others to socialize, converse, or message with each other? The best part of experiencing the excitement of a Woj bomb, a buzzer beater, or watching a hilarious or awesome video isn’t in the moment itself. It’s that it is an invitation to talk about it, share it, or experience it with others. To restart that previously dormant group text, or to slide into someone’s DMs. Keep this in mind moving forward. Entertainment and information is great, but as a source of kindling for friendship and socializing, it’s even more powerful.

6. People want things to talk about

I won’t wax poetic on this one quite as much, because it very much relates to the previous point in #5. We all want something to break the silence, something to bring up besides the weather. Among the most important, valuable things sports provide is something to talk about. There has been a renewed effort throughout 2020 to embrace this need, because there were no games or transactions to fill the void. And we could only talk so much about ‘these unprecedented times.’

All of a sudden the constant trend was teams and brands asking questions [or its relative, ‘pick/choose one from the choices presented’. Looking for users to flood the replies and comments. And while this kept engagement up during a time when nothing much was happening to talk about, think and go further moving forward. There is just as much value in the conversations being created (and the fodder being served up help start them) that happen outside the comments. The interest and enthusiasm won’t ever wane in the team or sport if it’s providing a bountiful font of conversation topics. We all want something to talk about.

7. We want to remember and recall personal memories

Nostalgia ain’t new. For years and generations we’ve realized the power of nostalgia. South Park satirized the proliferation of nostalgia with their ”Member Berries’ storyline. But something else is happening now, too, making nostalgia more personalized. Because just about everyone loves nostalgia, but we’re not all nostalgic for the same things. Social media isn’t segmented by generation, but when it’s more personal, it’s easier to activate. Not everybody recalls watching that game or playing with that toy, but everybody CAN recall (or look up) who their favorite player was at 10 years old or the first concert they ever attended.

How can we create opportunities for people to reminisce, to delve into their own personal vaults and pull out a memory? Every chance to revisit those times pours a little gas on the internal flames to keep them blazing. It could be from the earliest childhood memories to even where we were when something significant happened with the team or sport at any time in our lives. When the strength of the feeling and experience is conjured back up, we can all feel it. Nostalgia and memory will continue to play a key role and there will be more creativity and activity to evolve it in the years to come.

It can be easy to get caught up the trends and the trending tactics. To adapt or imitate, to ride the wave of proven concepts. But step back and ponder why something is successful and what base-level human traits and wants are being fulfilled. That’s what can help drive new ideas and original executions. And that’s what will keep you ahead of the curve, always. Because the platforms may change overnight, but human needs have been around, largely unchanged, for millennia.

Discovering What’s Next in Sports and Social Media

The coolest part of the so-called reputation of Gen Z is that they don’t simply subscribe to the way things have always been. That it’s good to question ideas and strategies that many proclaimed as just the way things are done or as best practices. Don’t just think outside the box, build a new box. Heck, build a whole set of new boxes.

With that inspiration in mind, I want to enter 2021 questioning every status quo. If something has been deemed the best way to do something for going on decades, make it live up to that billing today. Because fans look different, technology changes, culture evolves, and traditions and best practices are replaced by new ones. That doesn’t happen without challenging the way things are, first, and then testing new hypotheses in search of the next paradigm-shifting idea.

Here are five areas in the sports and social media ecosystem that could be ripe for disruption. Not just evolution but revolution. These are my ideas and what immediately crossed my mind, what are yours?

Sports Broadcasts Haven’t Changed Much in Decades. Why?

Ever since our parents or even our grandparents first began watching live sports, the broadcast paradigm has not evolved all that much. Broadcasts started off with an announcer providing play-by-play. Then a color commentator was added to complement the play-by-play with color and analysis. Monday Night Football added a third in its early days, boldly trying to make their broadcast more entertaining to a wider national audience over the years. The camera views and sound have improved greatly, sideline reporters provide eyes and access behind-the-scenes. But as we enter 2021, outside of cooler cameras and clearer views, broadcasts are not all that different from 20, 30, or 40 years ago.

Megacasts have provided an interesting experiment here and there, and Amazon Prime Video’s alternate audio for NFL games is a peripheral trial with good intentions. But a couple of Snoop Dogg appearances started opening the eyes to more. His commentary of a NHL game last year went viral and in late 2020, his stint calling a couple boxing matches for Triller were the talk of the town.

There is a marriage to tradition because so much of the country rejects any aberration from what they’ve always known. But what could it mean to blow up this paradigm? To make a broadcast weigh more on the side of entertaining than informative? There are plenty of contractual and technological barriers that perhaps stand in the way of such innovation, but time is running out. Younger generations of sports fans eschew watching live sports in favor of highlights and other entertainment. This is not because of attention span deficits — many watch their favorite Twitch streamer for hours. There is no single right answer and I’m not here to provide my own. Just to make us think ‘what if?’ What if broadcasters are not talking at fans but with them, not diving into the details of a specific play call but more on jokes or storytelling, not cutting to a sideline reporter sidling near coaches but cutting to a reporter watching alongside a crazed and costumed fan? The paradigm can’t change until somebody changes it.

Sports Teams are So Much More Than Sports Teams

One of the neat initiatives from teams across sports during the COVID-caused pause was the production of fun and even educational activities for kids. Some teams also had their strength coaches lead workout and yoga sessions. Other had team dietitians and chefs talk about healthy eating and perform cooking demos. Even mascots found creative ways to entertain fans of all ages.

Sports organizations are good at a lot of things. Building and managing a team of elite athletes, sure, but also event management, video production, graphic design, preparing food, physical training and recovery, mental performance, and so much more. Without games to cover, live in-person events to produce and manage, and tickets to sell, organizations had all this capability and talent at disposal.

What can teams do with this expertise and ability, many of which more closely resemble agencies than sports teams? Could teams produce scripted content, extensive educational programs for kids, educational programs for adults (who want to learn Photoshop, After Effects, Premier, Social Media Strategy, marketing strategy, data analysis, and more), fitness classes, a cooking show rivaling anything seen on Food Network, etc. etc.? Some teams have even built their own branded gyms, could hotels and restaurants be next? There are many boxes to think outside of, more opportunities yet to be explored.

The Bachelorette as Competition for Sports

It doesn’t matter how exciting the game or collection of games are that are playing at any given time. If The Bachelor or The Bachelorette is on, it will find its way toward or at the top of the Twitter trends. Perhaps only the Super Bowl could make fans turn away or post about something else. Maybe. With live viewership and share of heart and mind more competitive than ever, what is there for sports to learn?

I do not watch either of the aforementioned matchmaking shows, but it’s impossible to escape between Twitter, fantasy leagues, and active online communities everywhere. There is more storytelling in sports than ever, but is it mostly the kind focused more on turning casual fans into avid fans? Nowadays, there is more data for the growing gambling fans (many hope!), more sources of deep insight into the strategy and analytics, and great info on the athleticism and real-time decision making. But what disruptive thinking can get fans emotionally invested into every player, each game feeling like a drama unfolding? What can attract not just casual fans, but people who aren’t fans at all (yet)?

Showcasing the drama of sports is not a new idea, NFL Films pioneered that long ago. But how can that elevation be brought into the everyday, and into the real-time experience? There are steps getting us there with each game, each season. Is there a revolution to come out of the evolution? I can’t dream it up today, but perhaps somebody will, if there is such an avant-garde movement to come.

What Happens When Highlights are a Dime a Dozen?

Back in my day…well, my day wasn’t all THAT long ago, the omnipresence of video on the Internet and on social media wasn’t a thing. Such proliferation hasn’t even been around ten years. It’s easy to take for granted that missing a big play in a game, or just about any play in a game, doesn’t matter these days because the video will be on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, or elsewhere within minutes, if not seconds. But the more readily accessible all this video — and the more one’s timeline is everybody sharing the same clips — the more the currency of highlights gets diluted.

As the value of highlights diminishes by their widespread availability, what’s a team or account to do to add value? What does it look to like to upset the status quo of game highlights? There has been some evolution in the space, with some leagues dispatching correspondents into places bigger broadcast cameras can’t go, grabbing unique angles and access for fans on social. More advanced cameras, too, can give fans 360-degree looks at a play. There is room for even more innovation for the real-time phenomenon of highlights as it enters its second decade.

If the focus is less on providing a volume of highlights (or changing how that volume is shared), there exists more leeway and time to produce something different, something original that turns a highlight into something more. It could be adding in data about the action in the play (which some have done), enhancing the video with special effects, production elements, and music, making them interactive (whatever that may mean), providing them to creators or fans and letting them produce something cool in the moment, or any number of other ideas one can cook up. When scarcity starts to dry up as a value proposition, that’s the sign of an opportunity to innovate and to try to pivot to what’s next.

The Power of Player-Led Content

One of my favorite things to take off in recent years, and 2020 especially, is the passive camera opportunity for players, particularly in the NFL. You’ve no doubt seen the ‘Showtime Cam’ from games where players celebrate in front of the video screens in the end zone after touchdowns or turnovers, watching themselves ham it up for a national audience. A handful of NFL teams similarly set up cameras at training camps inviting players to participate with a prompt or just giving them the lens to do whatever they wanted. Athletes are more comfortable creating content and filming themselves than ever before (thanks in part to the prolonged sports pause and period of sheltering). And they appreciate the value of that content more than ever, too.

Something’s just different when players can perform and seek out attention on their terms. To make it onto the team’s or league’s platforms, when they don’t have to be reliant upon to a reporter or team associate coming up to them or get requested by a media member. Or have to awkwardly interact with and perform for the person behind the camera. The results have been content gold with more unfettered player personality and endearing fun. Players have their own accounts and their own autonomy to tell their story, sure, but they’re also gaining more agency over the content going on team and league platforms, too.

The best content teams can produce comes from the players themselves. The old paradigm of players as subjects only has been disrupted and will continue to evolve. They’re co-producers and directors now. They’re more authentic and more fun when they’re not performing for somebody but instead embracing ‘just do you’ (and maybe here’s an idea if you need one). I look forward to how this trend comes together, with players able to figuratively raise their hand more to be part of content and teams partnering with players on content instead of feeling like it’s a give and take relationship. The status quo with player relations has always been more rigid, but 2020 helped all sides realize that at the end of the day we’re all playing for the same team. We’re all coworkers looking out for the short-term and the long-term success of the organization. This box is bursting and it’s been a long time coming.

Ask Why and What If More Often

Not many will call 2020 a great year, but it sure was an important one. The status quo was questioned, demanded to pass muster or be struck down. Younger generations are leading a new awakening, just over 50 years after the late ’60s saw a similar movement. A difference now is that it’s not just about a young generation with new ideas, it’s the first that has grown up and come of age in a time when transformative change (led and accelerated by technology) seems to happen every year.

Give yourself permission to question longstanding practices. The status quo may pass snuff, that’s fine. But there will also emerge opportunities to create a whole new world.

Episode 185: Best Of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast – Insights on NBA, MLB, ECHL, Gamecocks, and more

Listen to episode 185 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, Best Of episodes 123-129. Included are parts of interviews with

  • Kris Koivisto, now with T-Mobile and formerly with STN Digital and the Portland Trail Blazers (full episode)
  • Val Persinger, now with the Rapid City Rush, formerly with the ECHL (full episode)
  • Eric Nichols, South Carolina Athletics, formerly with Vanderbilt Athletics (full episode)
  • Jim Cavale, INFLCR, formerly with Iron Tribe (full episode)
  • Joel Hammond, The Adcom Group, formerly with the Cleveland Indians (full episode)
  • April Whitzman, Rover, formerly w/ Toronto Blue Jays (full episode)

94 minute duration. Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or listen on Spotify or Stitcher

Posted by Neil Horowitz Follow me on Twitter @njh287   Connect on LinkedIn