Social Media is Not the Savior of Major League Baseball

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Major_League_Baseball.svgI was always baseball guy. Growing up in the pre-steroids, post-free agency era of Major League Baseball, I knew nearly every player by name. I memorized their stats. I studied their swings and emulated them on neighborhood ball diamonds. (I had a mean Von Hayes impersonation.) I could score a game — still can.

Saturday mornings were reserved for This Week in Baseball, followed by the Major League Baseball Game of the Week. Growing up in Iowa, I watched entire games on TV, since I rarely got to see them in person. There was no social media then, so my second screen was an APBA Baseball game board.

My friends and I collected baseball cards. And we probably still have them, unlike the generation before, who will tell you their collections were tossed by an annoyed mother, or destroyed in the spokes of a bicycle. I followed teams and players, and each World Series was more epic than the last.

I loved the game — more than football or basketball.

Baseball is different today, and I’m less of a fan now. Some of that’s me — getting older steals your free time, and being a baseball fan requires a lot of it. The game has changed, too. Some of what’s different is good, but recent history has tarnished baseball, perhaps permanently. Tradition also haunts the game.

The league has experienced record revenues — yes — but its fans are long in the tooth, and younger viewers are going elsewhere. Nielsen reports MLB has the oldest median TV audience — 56 years — compared to 49 for the NFL and 41 for the NBA, according to Adweek. Fading interest among young people is especially troubling. During the past four years, MLB viewership among 18- to 24-year-olds dropped 3.4 percentage points. Of the last five World Series, four have been among the least-viewed in MLB history.

From Experience Matters: A look at the declining interest in Major League Baseball among young viewers.

From Experience Matters: A look at the declining interest in Major League Baseball among young viewers.

What will help Major League Baseball overcome this trend? Not social media.

I give a lot of credit where it’s due to social media, but alone it will not bring a slew of younger viewers to ballparks or MLB Network broadcasts. Social media will not speed up the game, make it easier to watch online, improve stadium experiences, or soften a nearly 150-year-old institution. It’s just not that simple.

Can social media help? Absolutely. Strong, engaging and targeted social content already resonates with many millennials. The start of the 2016 season proved why social media is part of the conversation for changing baseball — and for connecting with young fans.

First, the #CapsOn promotion to mark Opening Day was brilliant, and drew simple and authentic user-generated content from young fans everywhere.

#CapsOn synced with other digital and non-digital tactics, too, including 30 geo-targeted SnapChat lenses, a custom Twitter emoji and massive cap giveaway. It was a league-wide campaign and an impressive way to help fans break out of winter and get excited for the boys of summer.

Stronger ties with social media platforms go a long way toward drawing a younger demographic, too. Another season-long SnapChat partnership is smart, as are the countless filters available to fans, teams and players. That being said, with just a handful of Stories planned throughout a 162-game season, the SnapChat push feels underwhelming. And a March 11 “SnapChat Day” just underscored the strict, social media-unfriendly rules that can limit MLB team and player creativity and connectivity.

Live video has potential, and social media will likely be a streaming destination. Despite some softening of blackout rules, fans still hit roadblocks to this all-important connection to their favorite teams. It’s encouraging to hear MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred talk about potential partnerships with Facebook or Amazon, and I hope the league chooses fans over finances.

No, baseball’s biggest barriers to growth lie with game itself. It’s long, slow and trapped by its own traditions. These are things no snap or tweet can remedy.

“We are so enamored by the idea of what we think the game should look like that, we fail to see how it could be seen,” writes Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa in this brilliant piece in Sole Collector. “Baseball is a beautiful sport, it’s our sport. We have a responsibility as the baseball community to progress the game forward and be ambassadors of the game.”

Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper fired perhaps the biggest shot across baseball’s bow, calling the game tired. “You can’t express yourself,” Harper told ESPN in March. “You can’t do what people in other sports do.”

Both are right.

Baseball must adapt — from game mechanics to how its current crop of stars interact with each other on the field. But saving baseball is bigger than allowing bat flips and flashier uniforms. It’s more fundamental.

The game must maintain that beauty Mr. Correa describes, but let go of some of its tradition that holds the game back. Despite Commissioner Manfred’s sentiment that today’s young players are “going to decide what’s acceptable on the field,” the game needs an overhaul that comes from actions off the field — led by owners and league leadership. 

In the meantime, social media will not save baseball. But it will continue to do what it does best — keeping fans connected to this game that, for generations, has been more than a sport. It’s our national pastime.

Thanks for being a fan.

Social Media’s Land of Opportunity

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Opportunity

The term is so tired, I even had to use a tired stock image to emphasize my point.

Opportunity.

This multipurpose word uplifts and undercuts from one sentence to the next. Consider “land of opportunity” — a prideful, slogan-ish term with patriotic undertones. We stand proudly behind the idea that we live in a vast land of opportunity.

Contrast that with the opportunity to do better — as in, what you originally did kind of sucked.

Opportunity in this sense is a much-maligned, corporate-fueled term that lands at the top of many hated buzzword lists — including this one. As a veteran of the corporate world, this is an overused, lazy way to offer feedback.

Social media presents tremendous opportunity, too, and has for years. But is it promise-filled or buzzword-y? We’re into our second decade of the social era, and social media users and professionals continue to evolve — sometimes at odds with each other. And opportunity continues to mean different things to different people, especially in social media.

Case in point: Red Lobster and Beyoncé.

Last month, Beyoncé shared details on Instagram about her new single, which included reference to Red Lobster in one rather off-brand lyric. “When he f**k me good I take his ass to Red Lobster.”

The internet sat back and waited for Red Lobster to respond. I mean, it was practically handed its own Oreo Moment, right? That opportunity to cash in on a pop-culture-moment-in-time that would endure their brand to marketing lore and endless sales.:/

But Red Lobster did not respond immediately. No clever tweet. No Oreo Moment. It took an internet eternity of eight hours to respond.

And that just wasn’t good enough — of course — for the Twitterati or for marketing second-guessers. The vultures quickly circled.

“The overly conservative brand is being left behind while the non-stop train known as the internet continues to move,” wrote Jay Lled, social media manager at creative agency 180LA, in this AdWeek piece. “Authentic communication in advertising is crucial for brands trying to create a deep, meaningful connection with their audiences.”

Was Red Lobster’s so-called missed opportunity truly a mistake — something damaging to the brand and reflective of the quality of its food and service? Or was it another example in the long line of faux criticism amplified by the piling-on effect of social media?

Of course, this is a ridiculous argument. Red Lobster will not succeed or fail because it “missed out” on creating a tweet that capitalized on a pop-culture event. It will succeed or fail based on how well it delivers on its primary mission — the quality of its food and service. (Interestingly enough, Red Lobster sales actually spiked 33 percent after the release of Beyoncé’s single.)

Yes, Mr. Lled makes valid points regarding diversity of social media teams. He should also reference the pressure facing social media managers who, on top of running their teams, must be experts in public relations, content marketing, media buying and the now 24/7/365 pop culture news cycle — not to mention endure endless negative reaction to promoted content.

It’s ridiculous, not to mention unrealistic, to put all of this on a social team — even one afforded the luxury of content teams, agencies and ad budgets.

Let’s be real. Red Lobster’s social media team did not “fail its audiences.” The internet wants you to think that, and so do the publications that eagerly pile on when these non-stories arise. Red Lobster can only fail by delivering a poor customer experience. And pithy tweets about pop stars have nothing to do with that.

Unfortunately, there’s a fixation with scoring a content home run, despite the fact marketers are actually losing sight of the incoming pitch. My friend and respected digital marketer, Augie Ray, sums up this content craze:

“Instead of getting people sharing because the brand does something clever but vapid, we need to focus on how to encourage peer-to-peer sharing and dialogue about the product, service or mission,” Augie told MediaShower earlier this year. “People don’t talk about Nest’s content, they talk about the product. People don’t praise Uber because it has a viral video but because it offers a game-changing experience.”

Sports and social media are not immune to this phenomenon. Industry pros share ideas and debate at length over the quality and effectiveness of social content in sports. We even chat about it every Thursday night during #SMSportschat. It’s often a healthy, open and honest discussion.

So it’s my hope the #SMSports community does not fall into the social media marketing trap — one that constantly second guesses and snarks. There’s enough of that on the internet. And this is truly a community — one that has enriched my life and career — and I would imagine many others. (Thank you, Chris Yandle, for the reminder.) It’s also helped sustain this blog for five years.

Sports-related or not, when it comes to social media content … walk a mile in someone’s shoes before you rush to judgment. Understand that social media is one small part of a team or league’s brand. And, in some cases, sports ranks low in a college or university’s identity.

So just like you do your favorite team, cheer the wins and encourage constructive dialogue and discussion around the opportunities.

Thanks for being a fan.

Facebook Loves ‘Live’, and So Should Sports

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Live is a new form of Facebook content that should draw the attention of sports teams, leagues and athletes.

Safe to say I was an early skeptic of the Facebook Live feature. Truth be told, I’m generally bearish on anything related to Facebook. I’m a Twitter guy, after all.

Then my friend and former TV news colleague, Craig Rickert, started using Facebook Live. Craig is the main news anchor at KAIT-TV in Jonesboro, Arkansas. He has an active Facebook page, so Facebook Live was an option — and a darn good one.

Craig began streaming updates before the news — just ahead of a broadcast or earlier in the day — letting viewers know what he and others in the newsroom were working on. A bit ho-hum, but it was live and on Facebook. Then, Craig started broadcasting on Facebook Live during the 10 p.m. news — like through commercial breaks or when weather or sports was on the air.

Seriously awesome access.

Craig’s behind-the-scenes looks at the studio and newsroom are fun and engaging. He’s good on the air, and just as good with an iPhone, selfie stick and a live feed direct to Facebook. And he has a captive audience of more than 8,000.

That’s when I started to get a little more bullish on Facebook Live. I also thought it was something the sports world should embrace. Turns out, some already are. But there’s more who are missing out.

So, here are three key reasons others in the industry should be bullish on Facebook Live, too.

fblive1. Media companies like Live. Huffington Post, Fusion and TMZ are jumping on board, citing immediacy and ability to interact with correspondents as obvious upsides to live video on Facebook. But just like my friend, Craig, has shown, Live is also simple to use and offers unlimited potential for media outlets and reporters. And sports teams should be thinking — and acting — more like their own media outlets. There’s better control of the message, the delivery and the reaction. Plus, Live allows teams, leagues and athletes to give something to fans — until recently — they could only get from the media.

2. Facebook’s algorithm likes Live. Not long after its release, Facebook noted it will begin prioritizing live video, as it tweaks the all-important News Feed algorithm. That’s big news and added incentive for any page owner to use this feature. I like the approach the Detroit Tigers (see example below) and San Francisco Giants are taking this spring — incorporating Live into their daily content mix. (Bravo to two hard-working, smart dudes — Mac Slavin and Bryan Srabian.) What happens between the games keeps fans engaged, and Live can help fill those gaps nicely.


3. The boss likes the cost of Live.
Seriously, what does it take to create images, highly-produced videos or even GIFs for use in social media? They take time and people — resources — and most organizations lack these precious commodities. Live video streaming essentially takes an iPhone and a person running it. Voila — instant content. Whether it’s Facebook Live or Periscope — plan for the growth of live streaming video — serious growth — in the next year. You’ll not only create compelling content, you’ll do it on the cheap while likely outperforming posts that took a lot more time and effort to pull together.

As with anything Facebook-related, I worry marketers will abuse Live or lack any strategic approach when using it. So be smart about how you use Live. Don’t be afraid to try new things, but don’t just use it to crack Facebook’s algorithm. Fortunately, fans are interested in even the most mundane things — like locker room tours, batting practice or player Q&As. But don’t be surprised if marketers of non-sports brands abuse Live, or at the very least, use it ineffectively.

Live can and should complement any content strategy. And athletes in particular should use it judiciously. Too much of a good thing is not always good thing — especially on Facebook. There’s opportunity to complement what’s happening on other platforms (Snapchat, Twitter/Periscope) and with other content, so get the most out of Live content with some thoughtful planning. The boss will be happy, and so will your followers.

Are you bullish on Facebook Live? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks for being a fan.

The Uplifting Tweets to Michigan Punter Blake O’Neill You Probably Didn’t See

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What if, on your worst day ever at work, hundreds of people took to social media to ridicule and shout you down? What if some of those posts were hateful, violent and disgusting?

Some say Saturday was University of Michigan punter Blake O’Neill’s worst day ever.

The fifth-year senior, rugby-style punter from Melbourne, Australia, fumbled a snap during the final seconds of the game against rival Michigan State.

The play astounded the college football world and lit up social media immediately. Astonishment, however, quickly turned much darker. So-called fans and others posted hateful vitriol on Twitter — which national news media quickly reported with sensational headlines. Some tweets included death threats.

This is the awful side of social media — the one you hear about from the media. The one that gets passed around the echo chamber that Twitter can often become when these seemingly unbelievable and equally emotionally-charged plays occur in sports. It’s the same one that makes people shake their collective heads and discourage student-athletes from using the platforms.

But an interesting thing happened in the hours since Mr. O’Neill’s fateful fumble. Twitter — it turns out — has a softer side. It’s one you won’t likely read about on your favorite sports news site.

Blake O’Neill is human, and — yes — he had a pretty awful day. But it’s just a game, and today is a new day. And some people — many more than you probably realize — are letting Blake O’Neill know that.

Twitter sentiment around Blake O'Neill's tweets was actually 75 percent (or more) positive.

Twitter sentiment around Blake O’Neill’s tweets was actually 75 percent (or more) positive. (Via Sentiment140)

In fact, sentiment around Mr. O’Neill’s Twitter mentions was trending 75 percent positive, as more and more tweets of encouragement began pouring in.

It’s quite remarkable when you begin to actually read some of the heartfelt and uplifting tweets — coming from Michigan fans, but also others who have no reason to tweet a student-athlete, other than to give him some encouragement following a pretty horrible day. So, here are a few more.

https://twitter.com/willydacoach/status/655748649889210368

It’s never OK to post death threats or other hateful messages — especially directed toward student-athletes. If you see these tweets, report the user to Twitter and encourage your followers to do the same.

But my point is — don’t throw the baby out with the bath water when it comes to sports and social media. Seek the good and you’ll be surprised how many others like you are out there. Social media has a definite dark side. But not all of us are drawn to it.

Thanks for being a fan.

Coaches Who Impose Social Media Bans Miss the Mark

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Twitter ban

Coaches and college administrators who impose social media bans are failing their student-athletes.

Social media is a learning lab for anyone willing to dedicate time, attention and passion to it. Name the interest, and you can find and learn from people, content and events shared across today’s platforms.

So why do coaches and administrators — at institutions of higher learning no less — continue to demonize social media and the opportunities they provide?

ESPN recently reported Clemson and Florida State banned all social media for the 2015 college football season. For FSU, this continues an in-season stoppage started in 2011. “We don’t need any distractions. It’s no big deal,” one Clemson player told The Post and Courier about the ban.

In 2015, this confounds me as a sports fan, and as a communications and social media advisor to senior business executives.

Let me be crystal clear: When used appropriately, social media is not a distraction but rather a tool to help achieve your goals. For every reason a coach can dream up to ban social media, I can find multiple counter-arguments that make it worthwhile — even in-season.

Here are three gold standard rebuttals:

1. Teachable Moments

College students are in school to learn. There is no better time or opportunity to teach them about social media — and I mean everything about social media. Missteps happen, but as I’ve written here previously, social media mistakes are not forever. Done right, education can provide players (and coaches) with the ability to effectively use social media — no matter the season.

Create curriculum that highlights these teachable moments — hire someone if necessary! Recognize past mistakes but learn from them and become better. Talk as a team about parameters and safety nets that are already part of your culture of winning. Be there for one another on the field, in the classroom — and online.

“The best strategy is to educate. Help them understand just how big social media is, that the world can see every tweet,” writes Kevin DeShazo, founder of Fieldhouse Media and author of iAthlete: Impacting Student-Athletes of a Digital Generation. “Banning your players from tweeting is taking the lazy way out, and it’s doing your student-athletes a disservice.”

2. Life Skills

From the highest-profile student-athlete (like the one who may someday play professionally) to the Division III bench-warmer, social media provides life skills that translate beyond the playing field and classroom. Social media reinforces basic writing and grammar. It opens doors for creativity and expression in photography, video and design. It provides opportunities to deal with sometimes volatile negative feedback, to learn from adversity or to manage distractions during stressful times. 

These are all things student-athletes encounter in the regular experiences of college life — and eventually life after college. Let social media add to the richness of those experiences.

“A player’s social media account, and, by extension, his smartphone, is the compass through which he navigates the world,” writes Zach Barnett, college football writer for FootballScoop.com. “Might as well teach him how to read it.”

3. Personal Branding

Perhaps social media’s most important asset is personal branding. Instead of teaching student-athletes to fear it, instill in them the skills to put social media to work for them — to set them up for success in life after graduation.

A coherent and upbeat Twitter or Instagram feed provides potential employers, business partners and friends with a better look into your world than anyone else can provide. This isn’t about creating a a facade but rather enhancing how you interact with people face-to-face. It’s an asset that — as sports business writer Kristi Dosh notes — 93 percent of employers check before making a hiring decision.

Student-athletes have 100 percent control of that message! And for those few elite athletes, social media may one day be the place they can make — and break — their own news. This is already happening! (Just ask Tom Brady about it).

Some sports leaders make sure to provide guidelines and education for their athletes — while not banning it. Guys like George O’Leary at the University of Central Florida get it. While he doesn’t use social media personally, O’Leary embraces the learning opportunity it presents his players. “That’s part of life. That’s part of teaching,” he said recently. “I do give out dos-and-don’ts on social media to them. What they should do and what they shouldn’t do. I would never ban that.”

Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long gets it, too, and even took to Twitter to counter the recent news of social media bans.

Demonizing social media does not benefit the student-athlete. Instead, tackling the issues associated with social media reinforces a learning environment and opens doors to new opportunities. Let’s coach our student-athletes to succeed at life, not just sports.

Thanks for being a fan.

Front Office Sports Opens Doors for Aspiring Sports Business Pros

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Front Office Sports logo

Front Office Sports is a resource for students and young professionals in which they can access our extensive database of informational interviews, infographics, and tips.

Sports business people give, and give, and give some more. Why else would a guy with few connections and little experience get to talk with talented, smart people in a highly competitive industry?

Four years ago, that guy was me. I took a chance, started a blog and hoped to fill a couple voids. One was an outlet for writing, which I desperately needed. The second helped fill a gap, because few were covering this curious intersection of sports and social media.

It was uncharted territory. Yet there was a community here, with plenty of guides willing to help me find my way … willing to share and give.

Since then, an explosion of social media in sports led to other voices in this space, and it’s been incredible watching so many with similar passions approach topics affecting the fans consuming the content, as well as those creating it. Talented people like Sunny CadwalladerJessica Smith, Neil Horowitz, Bob McKamey, Tariq Ahmad, Kevin DeShazo and many others.

While it’s a seemingly small pond, it can feel like a vast ocean for those trying to make a splash — and a career — in it today. Adam White likely had that feeling a year ago when he founded Front Office Sports, an educational resource for students and young professionals interested in sports careers. More than just a blog or Twitter feed, FOS is a community that connects the industry’s big fish with those hoping to make it big.

“People who work day in and day out to make all of this happen deserve to have their stories told,” Mr. White told Fourth and 140 recently. “When we think of interviews, we think of players and not actually people behind the scenes. That is why our motto is ‘the game behind the game’ because we are telling the stories of the people who are working behind the scenes.”

Mr. White wanted to create a resource to connect professionals and students on a more personal level, a seed planted by his professors at the University of Miami-Florida.

Adam White photo

Adam White is the founder of Front Office Sports.

“Many times I heard, ‘Connections are so important in our line of work because the industry is so small’,” says White, who juggles his FOS duties with a part-time job and full class schedule at Miami. “I figured if I was going to talk to people, why not share their insight with everyone, so those who were too afraid to reach out or didn’t have the means to could still learn everything I was learning. The whole idea was to help myself learn and give others opportunities to work on the blog while educating others at no cost or effort to them.”

Front Office Sports recently celebrated its first year of operation, and using a team of contributors, now cranks out content daily.

“We cover everything from how they got their start, to their favorite memories, to tips for students,” White says. “This content is important because it is relevant, real and not sugar-coated. The people we interview keep things clear and straight-up, which gives those who read it an unadulterated view as to what sports business is all about and if it is actually for them.”

In the past six months, White says Front Office Sports went from averaging 100 visitors a week to more than 100 per day. He credits the growth to quality content from volunteer staff contributors who also use their networks to draw in new readers — and new content.

“It has been remarkable to see the reaction of those in the industry,” White says. “They didn’t have to do it, yet they chose to take anywhere from 30 minutes to sometimes two hours out of their day to speak with us.”

White freely admits he hasn’t made money from the site, but believes the connections he’s building are invaluable. After a year of publishing, people now reach out to FOS, offering to contribute articles or share stories. In the coming year, he hopes to post more video interviews, establish Google Hangout panels, sell FOS merchandise, and start a scholarship — among an ambitious list of goals.

A true student of the industry, White says building Front Office Sports provides incredible learning opportunities, fueled by a sports community willing to share their time and talents. It’s not unlike the journey I’ve taken — albeit as a non-traditional student of the sports business game.

“Without FOS, there is no way I would have been able to talk to over 110 professionals from across the globe,” White says. “These people are such a well-connected group, but a group that is never afraid to reach out and lend a helping hand. They’ve not only helped catapult FOS to where it is now, but have truly impacted many other lives. That is a true testament to their characters and personalities.” 

I couldn’t agree more, Adam.

Thanks to this community for being so gracious … and thank you for being a fan.