I recently struck a nerve on Twitter and in my classroom, when I suggested that athletes should engage in social media while the game is in progress. This quickly created opposing sides of debate, with folks leaning toward notions of, “You are crazy” and “It will ruin sports.” Many believe that tweeting and posting on Facebook would distract the players and take the focus off of what really matters: winning the game. I believe that is a very myopic way of thinking, because there should be a way to accomplish in-game engagement with fans by the players, while not affecting performance on the field.
Most times, when a new concept or technology enters the playing field, the sports purists backlash and scream foul. I remember not long ago that the instant replay rule was the “ruination of football,” and the cry of “just let them play” was being screamed from the stands and the living room. Now, virtually every sport is looking for appropriate ways to adopt instant replay rules to enhance their specific sport. Over the course of time, many forms of advancement and fan engagement have been scoffed at, but they have entered sports and made the experience better. Social media engagement is just the latest of these, and should be embraced by teams and leagues for the betterment of the experience and to increase fan avidity. Many say that winning takes care of that, but considering that only one team ultimately wins in each league every year, it is not a great plan to rely on winning.
The opponents to social media engagement during game time are quick to interject, “How would you like that distraction if you were a manager or coach?” If I held either position, it would not make me happy and I would be against it. But, if owners only made business decisions on how to increase consumers based on the thoughts of a coach or a manager, many teams would go bankrupt. The fact is that managers and coaches only have one agenda: winning. By the way, that’s what their agenda should be ~ unfortunately, only one in each league actually becomes a winner each season. As an owner of the team, although winning is the number one priority, it is also a business, and fan engagement is a huge part of it. Remember, without fans there is no business of sports. Ownership has to balance helping build relationships with fans and generating revenue without hurting winning on the field. Just because a coach doesn’t like something, doesn’t mean it will prevent the team from winning.
I have a little experience with just that. When I was CMO of the New England Patriots, I wanted to take up to fifty current and potential customers on the team plane for every away game to entertain and do business. I will tell you that Coach Belichick was not thrilled with this concept, and if given the choice, he would have preferred to have no one other than players, coaches, and “essential staff” on the team flight. I had my agenda, he had his; neither of us was wrong. Ownership weighed the pros and cons, and determined that having guests on the plane would not hinder the team from performing at the highest level. There were rules of engagement in place, and because we all stuck to the plan, we not only coexisted, the team actually won three Super Bowls while our clients flew on the team plane. It proved that Bill was such a great coach that he could make the proper adjustments to allow us to do our job, yet still be champions.
So, I’m a bit spoiled in my thinking, and because of my experience, I believe athletes, under set guidelines and rules, can engage in social media during game action. I think some sports would be more difficult than others, and I would assume Coach Belichick would be against players tweeting on the sideline. But, I also believe if he was told it had to be done, he would find a solution to make sure it didn’t negatively affect the performance on the field. In fact, knowing how much coaches like an edge, he would probably find it useful when a player tweeted to the crowd ~ “GET LOUD.”
But let’s get off the sideline and into the dugout for a minute. Baseball was made for social engagement. The speed of the game lends itself to talking in between pitches, looking at batting averages, keeping score, and a myriad of other activities ancillary to the game. Baseball and social engagement are like baseball and hot dogs. They fit perfectly. Picture this: one of the pitchers in the starting rotation, pitched the night before and will definitely not be ready to go for his next turn in the lineup. That said pitcher could provide great inside stuff for fans to draw them closer to the game and increase avidity. Three or four tweets during a nine inning game by this player does not have to affect the performance on the field, assuming proper measures have been taken. Guess what? There are even direct revenue benefits ~ let’s say that pitcher takes a photo from the dugout of a new cap hitting retail that day and states that if you stop by the pro shop and pick yours up before leaving the park, you can purchase the hat at a special offer, driving traffic and sales with just a 140 character tweet.
The fact is that a player engaging in social media and winning do not have to be mutually exclusive. With a well-thought-out plan, there is no reason both can’t coexist and actually build stronger relationships with fans. The key is having a solid plan that takes into consideration all aspects of the game and its surroundings. So, to all leagues and teams: it’s time to think about evolving in the social media space. Major League Baseball tweets from the dugout are a natural. Time to get working on your 2012 in-game social media plan; there are opportunities currently being missed.