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When professional sports teams first started using social media, it was primarily as a marketing and communications platform to engage existing fans and amplify marketing messages being sent out to fan bases. Since that time, social media has become an important tool for discovering new audiences and creating new opportunities for direct engagement between fans and their favorite players. So how will social media’s impact on sports continue to grow over the next few years?
Fan loyalty and personal brands
Not only are engaged fan bases following their favorite teams, but also they are following their favorite athletes on social media. In the case of some superstar athletes, the total size of a single athlete’s fan base may exceed that of an entire team. Moreover, it’s now the case that a player straight out of college might have a sizable personal brand that can be leveraged immediately in a variety of different ways by professional sports organizations.
The rise of personal brands has led to some remarkable developments in the ability of sports teams to pack in a full house and attract large viewing audiences every night they play. For example, in the past, fans were loyal first and foremost to their home team. Now, they may be loyal first and foremost to their favorite athletes, each of them with their own social media brands. If your favorite team is playing on Channel A, but your favorite player is playing on Channel B, which one do you watch?
As a result, it’s no longer the case that “small market teams” can not compete with “big market teams” (i.e. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago). What matters now is not population density but social media density. If your team’s social media accounts are big enough, it can overcome physical limitations imposed by geography or demography.
Athletes as influencers
Social media has given professional athletes a much bigger platform to influence broader debates taking place across society. With a single tweet, a star athlete can weigh in on racial issues and influence how people view certain social, cultural or political issues. Thanks to the amplifying effect of social media, we’ve reached a point where an athlete like Colin Kaepernick is extremely relevant, even if he never touches the football or ever plays another down in an NFL stadium.
More broadly, star athletes are using social media platforms to become culture influencers. For example, the Wall Street Journal recently highlighted how LeBron James has become one of the most important wine influencers in the world. With a single Instagram post detailing which wine he is drinking, he can influence which wines will be ordered at restaurants around the nation. And don’t forget about the world of Hollywood, where social media has made it much more likely that athletes with sizable social media followings have the chance to become the next Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Digital marketing innovation
Perhaps most importantly, social media is accelerating the pace of digital marketing innovation. Ideas and trends percolating in one part of the social media world inevitably are picked up by professional sports teams as part of their overall marketing and branding strategy. Just think of how podcasting and livestreaming have become mainstream within the world of sports, or how some technologies – such as virtual reality – are now viewed as possible audience development tools. At one time, the only place to watch sports was on traditional TV. Now it’s possible to watch a live stream on Twitter or Facebook on your smartphone.
Going forward, it’s clear that social media will continue to have a huge impact on the world of sports. In some cases, it will mean the rise to prominence of new sports (just think of how ESPN is experimenting with e-sports), and in other cases, it will mean the rise to prominence of teams in smaller markets such as Cleveland. But one thing is certain: social media will continue to make sports “must-watch” programming every night of the week.