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Sports and The Social Web: Twitter and the NFL Draft

May 17, 2009

According to several social media pundits, April’s NFL draft was a watershed moment for sports and the social web. As THE most anticipated off-season event on the pro football calendar, fans sought an interactive forum from which to participate in the draft and they found it on twitter. A blog on Social Media Strategies ( correctly points out that twitter facilitated an unprecedented discussion between fans, players, journalists and teams that was both organic and authentic. Even Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner, tweeted throughout the draft on his @nflcommish twitter handle. As Renan Borelli points out, “pro football finally had its own Field of Dreams moment; Twitter built it, and the sports fans came”.

Li and Bernoff, the authors of Groundswell: winning in a world transformed by social technologies must have been smiling. As the book points out, a groundswell “is a social trend in which people use technologies to get things from each other instead of from companies”. The NFL and its associated stakeholders clearly understood this concept and made a brilliant strategic move by shifting themselves from a “company” (as defined by Li and Bernoff ) to a trusted source in the community. Rather than fighting the groundswell, they embraced it and built even stronger relationships with fans by giving them what they want: control of the discussion.

From a business perspective, giving fans an interactive forum with which to interact with your brand is gold. There is no doubt about that and the NFL should be praised for the success of the event. Logically, one would think that increased fan loyalty increases the value of companies who have partnerships with the NFL, right? Well, when it comes to networks, I’m not entirely convinced.

Let me elaborate. The broadcast deals that ESPN, CBS and FOX have with the NFL provide enough revenue to pay for team payrolls on their own. Obviously, that is a huge chunk of business. So how does ESPN (the exclusive broadcaster of the draft) feel when a few teams, notably the New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers, shared their picks to the team’s twitter fan group prior to the official TV announcement? In light of the fact that the teams definitely made no intention to disguise what they were going to do(, if I was ESPN, I would be a little upset. I want people watching the drama unfold as it happens solely on my network.

Is it cool to give your fan base exclusive access to information? Absolutely. I’m sure many of the Patriot’s twitter fans loved knowing who the pick was minutes before everyone else and providing exclusive content is hallmark of the groundswell. Is it cool to do it while biting the hand that feeds you? No, it’s not. Partnerships are the lifeblood of the league’s income stream and they need to be respected.

So, though the event was an overwhelming success, my main suggestion is for the NFL to create broad social media guidelines for teams to follow. In essence, the guidelines should force teams to answer the question: does my strategy benefit BOTH fans and business partners? If so, go for it. If not, rethink. After all, teams cannot exist without the league and the league cannot exist without partners and fans.

In the case of the draft, let the network announce the pick and then give the inside scoop to your followers after the fact. Tweet about your thought process, about how your strategy changed during the draft, how you think this pick will improve the team etc. It’s still exclusive, “insider” content, but it supports, rather than undercuts, the environment in which you work.

And it goes without saying that other leagues should emulate and learn from the NFL’s success. I’m interested to see what guidelines Commissioner David Stern implements for the NBA draft in late June!

Jeff Sharma

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