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.

#q1SFE15 in Review: There Is No Off-Season for Sports and Social Media

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The second annual Sports Fan Engagement Forum is March 2-3 in Kansas City.

The second annual Sports Fan Engagement Forum was held March 2-3 in Kansas City.

I’ve caught up on my sleep and let my brain process the knowledge dropped at the second annual Sports Fan Engagement Forum, held this week in Kansas City. Like last year, it was a chance to meet in real life people I admire — and have come to know thanks to social media.

#Q1SFE15 was also a chance to immerse myself in the sports fan’s experience, because after all, that’s what this blog is all about. Here’s what I learned — as a media partner, social media professional and fan — from a talented group of sports and social media leaders.

The Sports Fan is Boss

Whether it’s creating an incredible game-day experience or providing engaging social media content year-round, sports teams and leagues have the fan in mind with nearly everything they do. It begins with game day, but involves so much more. From tailgating, to in-stadium WiFi, to off-season social media content — and everything in-between: The sports fan craves what teams and leagues have.

At Nebraska, football game day is one of seven “state holidays,” according to Kelly Mosier, director of digital communications for the Huskers, who recently upgraded the team’s stadium to HD WiFi. This is tables stakes for teams now, even if it’s just satisfying a vocal minority of fans.

“Cell phones are this generation’s portable radio for fans,” Mr. Mosier said. “[Football] is more than us. It’s a community event. Even if it’s happening outside our stadium, we have ability to be part of that conversation.”

Mosier and his team monitor real-time social media feeds using sophisticated queries. The result is a plethora of engagement opportunities, and the ability to showcase the Husker product for fans unable to be in Lincoln on game day. This includes amplifying user-generated content and providing glimpses of fan activity that can produce authentic but also viral moments.

“We’re letting our fans across the country know it’s awesome to be at the game,” adds Mr. Mosier.

Create a Memorable Experience

The Indy Fuel are re-introducing professional hockey to Indianapolis, which presents much different challenges than an established sports brand like Nebraska football. “For us to be successful long term, we need to provide an experience that beings fans back,” says Lee Dicklitch, vice president of operations and fan experience for the Fuel. “We must share an experience that gets people to notice, and that ensures we don’t lose equity with our fans that we’ve worked hard to build up.”

The Fuel used an on-ice introduction video (see below) that puts an exclamation point on the need to amaze fans in-venue — because this might be the team’s only shot at creating a long-term fan of the franchise.

Sports is Always On: Embrace It

Game day is just part of the fan experience equation. Pre-game, post-game, off-season, training camp, free agency, signing day … you name it, fans want it.

TJ Ansley of the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers talks about ways to keep fans engaged in the off-season through social media.

TJ Ansley of the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers talks about ways to keep fans engaged in the off-season through social media.

“There is no off-season anymore,” says TJ Ansley, director of digital media for NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers. The team — under Ansley’s creative leadership — produces a crazy amount of content after the last buzzer sounds and before the pre-season tips off.

This can include re-purposing content from the previous season, or creating original photos essays, video recaps, highlight stats and team podcasts.

The Trail Blazers even played “hashtag games” as a fun and engaging way to generate conversation and collaborate with other NBA teams. The activity trending each time on Twitter — despite happening during a slow-called slow period.

But really, there is no down time for sports. No quiet period. No vacations. And that means there is no off-season for sports and social media. The demand has only increased from fans looking for ways to connect with their favorite players, teams and leagues — and with other fans.

It also stems from the growing role social media plays in our everyday lives. FOMO — or the fear of missing out what’s happening on social media — is something teams and leagues can capitalize on during slower times, to ensure fans stay connected and engaged through social.

What’s Next? Let the Fan Decide

Some believe social media will become a “profit center” and generate more revenue than any other channel. These opinions — and the activities behind them — were also part of #q1SFE15 discussions. However, I’m not sold on those speculations, and I’m not going into detail about them here. The ability to predict sports and social media trends is an act of folly. The fan will decide. [Click to tweet.]

What’s certain is social media — in whatever shape or form it becomes — has a place in sports and in the sports fan’s life. It’s up to the smart folks who attended #q1SFE15 — and their colleagues across the industry — to deliver what the fan wants.

Thanks for being a fan.

A post script: My thanks to Q1 Sports for including Fourth And 140 as a media partner for the 2015 Sports Fan Engagement Forum. One of my favorite things to do is meet people — in real life — that I’ve come to know through social media. And this event provided another one of those opportunities. 

A group of #q1SFE15 participants shared a meal together after the first day of the forum.

A group of #q1SFE15 participants shared a meal together after the first day of the forum. (Photo via @LisaMBregman)

 

The Sports Strategy of Vine

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Vine logo

Vine’s rapid rise hasn’t caught the full attention of the sporting world. Lack of strategic thinking could be keeping teams, leagues and athletes from jumping on board.

It didn’t take long for 2013 to bust out its newest, must-have social network. Vine debuted in January, providing a new micro-video service for its partner and big brother, Twitter.

If you haven’t heard of Vine, here’s the six-second explanation: You use your iOS device to record six-second video snippets and share them on Twitter. (You can also post Vines to Facebook, though the in-stream experience is not optimal.)

Vine speaks to the ever-decreasing attention spans of Twitter users while also reaching the creative and artistic Instagram crowd. Vine is hot, especially among 18- to 24-year-old iPhone and iPad users who already share short video bursts with friends through services like Viddy and Snapchat. Though there is no official count for Vine users (and no API or admin panel to tap into yet), the app took off. Just this month, Vine topped the charts among Apple’s free apps. (Now Android users patiently await the app in the Google Play store.)

Sports teams, leagues and athletes began using Vine immediately, including major professional sports leagues (and teams) from Major League Baseball, the National Football and Hockey leagues, and more. It was the new thing, and seemingly everyone gave Vine a try.

Vine is not spreading
However, like many shiny new social media tools, Vine withered (sorry, I had to go there) even before some teams gave it much of a chance (right, Dallas Mavericks?). Still other teams with impressive social media followings across several networks took a complete pass on Vine (right, Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers?).

What are the barriers? Similar to longer-form videos, creating Vines (good ones, anyway) requires planning and creative execution — two traits not synonymous with fast-paced, in-the-moment sports marketing, which is often done on a shoestring budget along with 100 other digital marketing/social media tactics. Simply put, snapping a photo is easier than shooting a succession of video clips.

Vine speaks to the ever-decreasing attention spans of Twitter users while also reaching the creative and artistic Instagram crowd.

Vine requires a strategy
It’s unfortunate Vine isn’t catching on more in sports. Not because Vine is a new and fun thing in social media (though it is), but because Vine provides value to fans. Vine complements content in a way photos and traditional video can’t, and that’s how strategic-minded teams, leagues and athletes use it. Vine is a chance to do more with less. It’s a highly creative and super-portable way to tell your brand’s story in social media. From a variety of angles, Vines can highlight day-to-day activities in ways text and photos can’t.

So Vine can and should fit into an overall social media strategy, but for some reason, it’s not catching on. I imagine some teams look at it as just one more social media account to maintain. One more beast to feed in the daily content grind. One more activity among a litany of others. This tactical point of view is short-sighted because Vine is so entwined with Twitter, much the way Instagram is baked into Facebook. These new visual mediums are not so much social networks as they are engagement sources and content feeders for the larger, flagship accounts.

Who’s doing Vine well in sports? Check out SportTechie’s solid review. Which teams and players do you follow on Vine? Leave a comment (or better yet, tweet me a Vine).

Thanks for being a fan.

Baseball Boring? Social Media Begs to Differ

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Major League Baseball is winning over fans in 2012 with its social and digital media strategy.

Major League Baseball fans have it good.

The league leads professional sports when it comes to reaching fans in new and innovative ways. The recent start to the 2012 season — and all the ways in which fans can connect to their favorite teams — proves that.

Baseball is NOT boring. It’s not dead. It’s alive and well and filled with energetic and engaged fans.

“Its traditions fit the fabric of spring and summer like few other elements of Americana,” says Joe Favorito, a veteran sports and entertainment marketing and PR consultant. “No other sport anywhere in the world can find ways to engage the casual and ardent follower for a night, a week or a year.”

Social and mobile drive fan interest and engagement. MLB recognizes this, and has doubled its efforts in 2012.

“Baseball is really a social conversation for us,” MLB.com’s director of new media, Andrew Patterson, told Mashable at the beginning of the season. “There’s a game going on, but there’s a conversation happening too.”

Conversation is important, especially when the season is so long. At 81 home games, the average fan has little chance to see every one in person. So fans watch TV, go online and use social media to follow the action. Specifically, they use social media as the action happens.   

“Sports have the whole social/TV engagement thing on lockdown,” says Josh Wolford, a staff writer for WebProNews. “83 percent of sports fans say they check sports-related social media pages while watching the game on TV.”

MLB recognizes this new and growing trend, and turns its sometimes slow and floundering product into 140-character, bite-size pieces.

“Integrating more social and mobile into the experience isn’t an aberration, it’s more likely to become the norm,” Patterson says. “The idea now isn’t just to package the content we have and put it out on social media — it’s to create content we know works well on social.”

Where is MLB winning the social media experience? Here are some of FourthAnd140.com’s favorites:

Social Media Clubhouse
Every MLB website hosts a Social Media Clubhouse, which is a one-stop shop for social-media savvy fans. For example, the Cleveland Indians’ Social Media Clubhouse makes it easy to connect with players on Twitter, follow all the official social media sites – including new additions Tumblr and Pinterest. The Social Media Clubhouse is somewhat hidden in the templated MLB team site navigation (under Fans>Connect with TEAM). The page is also very much a jumble of images and links, but it’s a start.

MLB FanCave gets bigger
Now in its second year, MLB FanCave boasts nine new inhabitants, who were chosen from a whopping 50,000 interested fans. The Cave uses online and real-life experiences to give fans added value, including musical artists and celebrities who will visit the Manhattan digs this summer. FanCave definitely speaks to the younger MLB fan, which fits well with its heavy social media reliance.

The Milwaukee Brewers take their campaign for All-Star Game votes to Facebook, with these easy-to-add Cover Photos.

Facebook is covered
MLB teams make it one-click simple for fans to customize their Facebook profiles this season with a series of pre-made, highly-produced cover photos. Check out what the Milwaukee Brewers offer fans who want to show team pride on Facebook, including some recent All-Star Game ballot propaganda.

Mobile apps go with you
MLB At Bat is a free app which offers player statistics, box scores and more. Subscribers can pay $14.99 for additional content, including video and live radio broadcasts — all right on your phone or tablet.

My favorite is the location-based MLB At the Ballpark app, a check-in service for those fans lucky enough to attend games in person. At the Park connects fans with other fans, and can track stadium check-ins — complete with win-loss records for the games attended. Users can unlock deals, order food and find seats once inside a stadium.

Tweetups and more
More MLB teams are adding in-game activities for social media-savvy fans, like social media nights or special seating. Cleveland wins this space with its Indians Social Suite — a dedicated box for Twitter-friendly fans, and other teams are sure to follow. (I feel a road trip to Cleveland coming on this summer.)

Where else is MLB winning with social and mobile? Add your favorites in the comments below.

Thanks for being a fan.

Five Offseason Twitter Activities for Major League Baseball Players

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Keep On Tweeting t-shirt design

Twitter doesn't take a break in the offseason, and neither should Major League Baseball's top tweeting players.

As early as tonight, the 2011 Major League Baseball season will be in the books. And as you read earlier this month on Fourth and 140, it was an extraordinary year for social media growth. But that doesn’t mean athletes, teams and fans have to stop connecting with each other in the offseason.

Klout recently published its list of most influential baseball players, and it’s a good reminder that the beginning of a long offseason – no matter the sport – does not have to be the end of social media activity, especially on a high-volume channel like Twitter.

So, I have five suggestions to keep Major League Baseball players tweeting – and their fans happy – during the long winter months ahead.

1. Stay active on Twitter
Engage with your followers. Ask and answer questions. Talk baseball in the winter. Even though the season is over, you can still build your personal brand and help your team when Spring Training rolls around. Fans who are with you in January will be with you in April. And August. And October.

2. Adopt a social cause
Most athletes support a non-profit or charity. The offseason is ideal for increased involvement, and Twitter can be a powerful promotional channel. Why? Your fans will support your efforts, which means they’ll tweet about your charity. And donate to it. And suggest their friends and family do the same. Get behind a cause, and bring your fans along via Twitter.

3. Share your workout
Keeping in shape during the offseason is a challenge for every athlete, so why not use Twitter as a motivator to up your game? Get your fans involved, too. You can inspire them to get fit, and they can motivate you to improve for next season.

4. Give stuff away
Got some game-worn gear? Reward your most active – or interesting – or funny – follower with free baseballs, caps or jerseys. Better yet, tie in your giveaway with a charitable activity by asking followers to re-tweet information supporting your cause. It’s a way to show them you’re human, fun and approachable. And you can unload some of that extra stuff just sitting around the clubhouse.

5. Avoid the mundane
This may be the most important suggestion on the list. (Let’s call it a requirement.) If you don’t have anything worthwhile to say, don’t say it. Too many times athletes discover trouble when boredom is expressed in different ways on Twitter. They end up challenging the athleticism of NASCAR drivers, making bizarre statements based on current events, or pissing people off with their politics. (See the previous four suggestions if you want to continue to tweet but aren’t sure what to talk about.)

So sports fans, what else do you want your favorite Major League Baseball athletes to talk about on Twitter during the offseason? Share your suggestions in the comment section below.

Thanks for being a fan.

World Series Caps A Social Year For Major League Baseball

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MLB Fan Cave helped generate new fan engagement in a sport that's seen dwindling attendance the past three seasons.

It seems odd to talk about fan engagement at the end of the sports season. The competition has boiled down to two teams, and, quite frankly, many fans have moved on because their teams are no longer in contention.

Still, Major League Baseball execs can bask in the glow of another Fall Classic knowing the past season was successful on several levels. Most importantly, attendance figures were up in 2011. Major League Baseball’s social media engagement were way up, thanks to some successful social media risk-taking and increased player participation on social networks.

The rising star in social media and sports is arguably Major League Baseball’s Fan Cave, a “first-of-its-kind immersive fan experience” housed in New York City and hosted by two super fans chosen from nearly 10,000 applicants. Talk about dream job!

The winners, Mike O’Hara and Ryan Wagner, were paid to watch all 2,430 MLB regular season games AND every postseason game. They shared the experience with the world on Facebook, Twitter and a blog on MLBFanCave.com.

It was an impressive run, generating more than 100 million social media impressions for Major League Baseball in just six months, according the ESPN.

“[The Fan Cave] accomplished exactly what we set out to accomplish, which was we wanted to become part of the online social conversation this summer,” MLB executive vice president Tim Brosnan told ESPN.

The Fan Cave experiment paid dividends in the traditionally tough and snarky digital realm, bucking a trend of low engagement and negative sentiment. ESPN reports 45 percent of tweets about Fan Cave were positive, compared to 15-20 percent for accounts representing the league and its teams. That just doesn’t happen in one season.

Social engagement is higher for Fan Cave, too, according to ESPN, a full 20-25 percent better than team and league pages. It’s a model other leagues and individual teams are sure to copy. Can you say New York Yankee Fan Cave?

While there’s no way to directly tie attendance to online efforts, Major League Baseball teams overtuned dwindling attendance figures in 2011. For the first time in three seasons, the leauge enjoyed growth in ticket sales.

In today’s economy – and the economy of the future – meeting the customers where they are has to include a social media strategy. For the most part, MLB Fan Cave did it right in 2011. Its success will likely lead to bigger and better things for sports and social media. And that’s a good thing.

Thanks for being a fan.

Tweetups Can Bring Fans Back to Major League Baseball

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Major League Baseball can learn something from the NASA Tweetup experience.

Major League Baseball is having an attendance problem this season. As of June 9, ticket sales are down nearly 500,000 from a year ago. Blame it on the economy, lousy weather, apathetic fans. Whatever the cause, it’s hurting the great game of baseball

Underneath MLB attendance woes, however, is a word-of-mouth problem. People aren’t talking about baseball. How can the league – and its teams – generate more interest in the game and bring fans back to the ballpark? It’s a multi-faceted approach for sure, but social media is (and should be) a growing area of focus.

The @MLBFanCave is one way Major League Baseball engages fans in a social space. Individual teams also make social engagement a focus, as seen with the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox.

Boston fans were recently invited to a tweetup at Fenway Park. I liked the idea, but thought the Red Sox marketing team could’ve done better. And perhaps they will in future tweetups. (It was the inaugural one.)

As a veteran of the recent STS-134 NASA Tweetup for the final launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, I believe Major League Baseball clubs could learn a thing or two about tweetups from NASA.

With that in mind, here are my nine tips successful MLB fan tweetup:

Don’t cheap out. Run a tweetup on a shoestring budget at your own peril. To maximize word-of-mouth, put some dollars behind your first effort. It’s OK to charge fans a price, but to get real engagement, consider selecting a few lucky fans to “win” a tweetup spot.

Give them good seats. Since attendance is an issue, good seats should be plentiful. Skip the luxury box, though. These are real fans who need to be seen and heard.

Give them swag. This could include a game program, game ball, team gear, etc. And provide matching T-shirts for everyone to wear (or order), so they can be easily recognized on the TV broadcast and scoreboard.

Snap a group photo. Make time to get everyone together – maybe even on the field – where you can capture the moment. Post the photo on the team’s Twitter feed and Facebook page so everyone can tag it and share it with their networks. 

Provide access to players, team leadership and stadium. Again, your goal is word-of-mouth, and nothing gets people talking on social networks more than getting access to hard-to-access people and places. This could include a tour of the locker rooms, front office and cool stadium areas (like the scoreboard or PA announcer).

Publicize. This is (usually) free and easy. Recognize tweetup participants on the big screen. Have your TV and radio broadcast teams mention them (and the all-important hashtag) on the air. Pitch the story to the technology reporter at the city paper. Promote the event frequently on Facebook, Twitter and your website.

Get players involved. Many MLB players use Twitter to interact with fans, so it makes sense to invite them to engage with tweetup participants and tweet about your event. This might be the highlight for some fans.

Invite a celebrity. Your team likely has a local or national celebrity who’s also on Twitter. Including them in the mix provides star power and one more reason to get people talking about your event.

Post-game follow-up. Publish a recap of the tweetup on your website, including photos and an archive of the hashtagged content. Link to blogs of participants. Post everything on Facebook and Twitter, too (obviously).

How does a team start a fan tweetup? There are a couple of options. The easiest is a lottery-style sign-up, or special ticket offer. But for your first tweetup, I’d recommend seeking out engaged fans.

In that case, consider creating a Klout perk. They’re relatively inexpensive and Klout will do much of the leg work identifying the most-engaged fans in your city, inviting them to your tweetup.

Whatever way teams organize tweetups, the goal is the same: Reach new fans through social media. Provide something unique to get fans talking about your team, players, stadium, etc., at a time when attendance – and interest – is lagging.

Word-of-mouth is what social media is all about. And a tweetup experience – done right – will generate the buzz MLB teams need to get folks in the seats. Have ideas to get more fans involved? I’d love to see them in the comments.

Thanks for being a fan.