The challenge of social media for major league sports is how to engage fans without disengaging them from the game by interrupting those all-important moments of play. After all, sports are probably the last redoubt against time-shifting. The moment is everything in sports.
Participants at Friday's "Sports Meets Social" panel at Bloomberg, part of Social Media Week, talked about integration without interruption, its challenges and opportunities.
Don Sperling, VP of entertainment for the Super Bowl-winning New York Giants, concedes that keeping fans focused on the game while engaging them in social media requires a back-and-forth approach.
"We frankly compete against ourselves," Sperling said. "When you promote a game in a stadium like MetLife, the real goal is to keep fans loud when the other team has the ball. But at the same time we are trying to create platforms and take care of our business partners with replays and tweeting, etc. But it's a distraction. At one point we want fans loud; on the other hand, we are giving them reasons to look down at their iPads and smartphones. It comes down to weighing priorities and goals."
Major League Soccer has the same issue, according to Chris Schlosser, the league's director of digital strategy. He said that if anything, soccer requires even more of fans' undivided attention, as the action tends to be nonstop. "We have supporter groups cheering for the whole 90 minutes of a game,” Schlosser said. “We don't want to take away from that passion. But social media and technology can amplify it, whether it's sharing with photos or unique experiences."
He said engaging fans via social media is worth the trouble because it doesn't so much create a culture that didn't exist before as much as support one that has already been central to the experience. "Fan groups are by nature social," he said. "They come together on Saturday night to watch games, and they are already using digital tools to talk to each other." He said his job is to give them tools to do what they are already doing, and find ways of rewarding them for doing it -- such as a fee-ticket program around the MLS team Sporting Kansas City.
Both Schlosser and Sperling said that stadium infrastructure is table-stakes, which would seem obvious -- except that a lot of stadiums aren't even wired. "It's about giving fans the ability to control their experience and access information where and when they want it. So if they miss seeing a goal while they're at the stadium, they can see it [on a mobile device.] We are working with clubs to make sure they are wiring their stadiums."
The NFL is engaged in a similar league-wide initiative to put more technology into stadiums, which Sperling said will actually help fill stadiums -- a problem the Giants don't have, but many teams do. But he said that although the Giants have a brand-new stadium at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, at the end of the day, the best game presentation is a winning team.
The sports leagues also use social to keep momentum going during the off-season, especially when events like the lockout threaten to disconnect fans. The Giants conducted a social media program last year during the off-season and lockout in which fans could vie to have their faces appear on game tickets. And the team also ran a social media night around the Super Bowl game, via a partnership with Google+. The program involved four Giants engaging fans on social media.
And Schlosser said that for MLS, Twitter is the world's best customer service tool. "We use it constantly on game night to answer fans' questions," he said. "We spend lots of time with our social media people on what to say and how, and on who to go to for approved responses. We have done lots of work to inform executives that it's important. It may be Saturday night, but we can't wait until Sunday or Monday to get them an answer."