Growing up as a basketball fan in a couple of small towns in Iowa back in the '70s and '80s, my access to news and information about my favorite teams and players was limited to a handful of box
scores in the local paper, a periodic feature story in Sports Illustrated and an occasional game on NBC. It was kind of like trying to suck a chocolate Frosty out of that tiny straw at
Wendy's. What little you were able to siphon out of that yellow cup of frozen goodness was extremely tasty, but not nearly satisfying enough -- always leaving you wanting more.
Fast-forward 30 or so years and that skinny red straw has been transformed into a raging fire hose of digital information. Thanks to team Web sites, fan blogs and social media applications we now have access to more content then we could ever consume, and I love it!
To get a behind-the-scenes look at what the digital revolution looked like from the inside of a professional sports franchise, I reached out to the Phoenix Sun's Vice President of Interactive Services, Jeramie McPeek.
Jeramie began working for the Suns 17 years ago as an intern while he was a journalism major at Arizona State University. After graduating in 1995 he was hired full-time and worked in the team's publications department, overseeing the team's monthly magazine, Fast Break.
Kory: How Did the Suns initially begin to leverage the Internet as a communication tool?
Jeramie: The NBA launched NBA.com and all of the team Web sites in 1995. I still remember getting the memo explaining what the league was planning to do in putting up this portal on the Internet Super Highway, and I had no idea what they were talking about.... I quickly fell in love with it, though, and thought it was really fun and cool to see the stories that I had written for the magazine also go up on the Web site.
Around 2000, I made the proposal to kill the Fast Break magazine and focus our efforts on Suns.com. We were spending around $200,000/year on the magazine and our season ticket holders would get it six weeks after we had written the articles. The content was outdated as soon as they got it. Our executive staff loved the idea and that was the turning point for us in terms of putting all of our efforts towards our digital products.
Early on the team Web sites consisted of the rosters and the team box scores. It took the teams quite a while to figure out how they could use it and it took the league a while to figure out how much they wanted to allow teams to do. I think we were the first team to really take advantage of our website and put a lot of effort towards it in the late '90s. We now have an interactive services department and an ecommerce / emarketing department that manages all of our digital media.
Kory: How has social media changed the dynamics of what you do online, and how you communicate with your fan base?
Jeramie: The change has been pretty dramatic. Back when MySpace started to get popular, there were a few teams in pro sports that got on MySpace and YouTube initially. My thought at the time was that Suns.com was our bread and butter. That's where we want everything. We don't want to dilute that and start to put out content on these other places because it takes away our page views & impressions from our Web site.
Some time in late 2006 or early 2007 I started to realize that you have to go fishing where the fish are. We've got all of these fans that are out there on MySpace and YouTube, at the time, who might never come to our Web site, but they consider themselves Suns fans so we started to change the way we thought about things.
We thought that maybe we needed to go where the fans were and connect with those people to build that relationship and hopefully be able to draw them back to Suns.com for certain great pieces of content that we have.
There was no reason that we couldn't put out content on some of those sites to communicate with those fans to engage them and grow that fan base. Ever since then we've been expanding what we do and now we're everywhere from iTunes to YouTubeto MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. We're trying to reach fans wherever they are. We also built our own official social network during that time period. We launched PlanetOrange.net in the fall of 2007, where fans can create their own profiles, blog, upload photos and video and make comments on all of the content as well.
One of my favorite stories is about a group of about 10 Suns fans from Australia and New Zealand. None of them knew each other until they got on PlanetOrange.net and connected and became friends on the site. They planned a trip from down under to come overseas and follow the Suns on a road trip for five games from Toronto to New York to Boston and Atlanta and ended up in Phoenix. That was an exciting thing to see that these fans met on our site, became friends and are such huge Suns fans that they decided to follow the team around the world. They blogged about it and uploaded photos on PlanetOrange.net documenting the trip.
Kory: Is there one medium that has been more effective that the other?
Jeramie: YouTube has been really effective for us. Our largest fan base is on Facebook with a little over 42,000 fans on our Facebook page. Twitter has quickly become the one network where we seem to have the most influence in the social media space and the most engagement with fans. I think that is because it is instant. We can send out updates, notes or quotes from our players and we get such an immediate response from fans replying or retweeting or asking questions. We've only been on it for six months now, but it's been the one that I think has had the biggest impact for us up to this point.
Kory: What is the most innovative thing you've done online?
Jeramie: Our virtual locker room, SunsLockerRoom.com, that we launched two seasons ago might have been the most innovative thing we've done. We worked on that for a period of about six months and got all 14 of our players, our coaches, alumni, dancers, mascot all on green screen for video shoots for our expansive virtual locker room where our fans could click around the locker room to go into the training room, the players lounge, the coaches office, even the shower. We actually won an Emmy award for that site.
Kory: Has there been any resistance to the type of access that you provide online from players or management?
Jeramie: Not really. We've been really fortunate that we've had such great buy-in from upper management. They really see the big picture and understand the value of what we do. They let us go into closed-door practices and the draft day war room. During the playoffs we've traveled with the team and shot video on the team plane. Everything that is closed to the media, we've been given access to.
Kory: How do you deal with filtering content that might not be appropriate or does not support your brand?
Jeramie: On PlanetOrange.net, since that is our official social network and it is one of our sites, we do watch that one a little more carefully. We want fans to be able to express their opinions and feelings, but we ask that it be done respectfully.
As far as Twitter, we can't control what people are saying there obviously. Although, we did launch a site back in April called SunsTwackle.com. We partnered with Octagon digital to build a Twitter site, which aggregates and displays all Twitter messages related to the Suns. It's also got some great filtering that keeps out people talking about the actual sun in the sky. That site is pulling in all kinds of positive and negative tweets about the Suns. We do have the ability to remove tweets there or block a user if something is really out of line. We try to let the fans talk about and discuss the team honestly and share their opinions as long as they don't get inappropriate with their language.
Kory: How do you leverage your digital media outlets to drive revenue?
Jeramie: We've done a fantastic job selling our digital properties, Suns.com, PlanetOrange.net, SunsLockerRoom.com. All of those sites have dozens of sponsors integrated throughout them.
The majority of those inventory items are sold as part of a larger package with the Suns that a marketing partner comes in and buys. They get TV spots, signage in the arena, have a promotion on court and then they also have some kind of promotion online that could be banner ads, pre-roll spots before the behind-the-scenes videos or sponsoring our online take show. We have flash intros that incorporate sponsors and our virtual locker room had 12 or 13 marketing partners throughout the locker room. There was a Gatorade cooler sitting on the counter next to Steve Nash's locker. There was a Verizon BlackBerry Storm sitting on Alvin Gentry's desk where you could click and read Alvin's latest tweets, and a Subway sandwich on a table in his office. The majority of these online sponsorships did bring in incremental revenue or were part of a larger package, but the online piece was a key element of that package.
In terms of social media, that's an area where we are still trying to wrap our arms around and figure out the best way to monetize our social media efforts without annoying our fans or ruining their experience engaging with us.
Our other big channel of revenue is ticket sales. We try to utilize all of our digital platforms as best we can to create revenue streams for the organization, while at the same time focusing on the fans and giving them the behind-the-scenes and exclusive access and coverage they want for our team.
It's clear that Jeramie and the Phoenix Suns have grown into a leading edge digital media powerhouse capable of turning on a fire hose of online content for hungry Suns fans across the globe. Speaking of hunger, I could really go for a Frosty right now. Who's with me?