Social media is rapidly transforming sports content, with fans increasingly devouring user-generated entertainment alongside media featuring the pros.
Even powerhouse ESPN has gotten into the user-gen game, running a regular feature on SportsCenter dubbed #Fantake. The program asks Instagram users to submit smartphone videos and then selects one to air.
Adweek commissioned a study by social analytics company Simply Measured to identify which sports creators are top scorers with users. Turns out, a cornucopia of teams, consumer brands, social media mavens and tech startups generate the biggest social reach—and marketers are taking note.
"Brands are focusing a lot more on partnering with this new mix of sports influencer networks and publishers that have massive audiences," said Kevin Shively, senior content marketing manager at Simply Measured.
Here are the top 10:
FC Barcelona, Social Reach: 116,168,676
FC Barcelona holds court with a digital audience of 116 million as effortlessly as its star Lionel Messi dribbles through defenders. Thanks to gigantic followings on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Vine, the team has become a media platform unto itself—promoting tweet-worthy players like Messi.
"The great sports content providers are like rock stars," said marketing consultant David Deal. "They capture an unbelievable passion and loyalty that is tribal in nature."
Deal and other industry experts contend that FC Barcelona has only begun to scratch the surface of its interactive branding prowess for partners such as Nike, Audi and Estrella Damm.
While FC Barcelona didn't respond to interview requests, it gave fans a glimpse last week into potentially what's to come, posting a rare brand-partner clip on Vine for Estrella Damm that garnered 200,000 views in a matter of hours.
The team would be wise to next debut sponsored behind-the-scenes footage, suggested Tim McCord, vp of digital strategy at GMR. "The best experiences, not only brought to you by, but made better by the brand, offer huge potential as brand storytelling finally comes into its own," he said.
That's why Barça—the world's leading sports social entity—will likely score bigger brand spends as it stands at a critical juncture of social and TV.
"It's crucial for marketers to stay on top of sports-related opportunities," explained Noah Mallin, head of social at MEC. "You're at the intersection of today's content consumption behavior, with fans watching TV while engaging with a mobile device in places like Twitter to talk about what they are seeing."
Real Madrid CF: 113,078,803
Right behind FC Barcelona, rival Real Madrid's massive Twitter audience (16.3 million) underscores soccer's (and its star Cristiano Ronaldo, l.) global appeal. The New York Yankees—baseball's marquee club—only counts 1.4 million Twitter followers. Sponsors like Adidas and Emirates will reap the benefits as Real Madrid's social advertising offerings evolve.
National Basketball Association: 58,147,800
The NBA is the only classic American sports league on the list. It deserves props for staying ahead of the digital curve by going beyond just hoops—posting fashion-savvy players on Instagram in their pre- and postgame attire. But the NBA's best work may be growing its Vine account to 1.1 million followers, which puts it atop the sports category.
Red Bull: 52,682,815
Red Bull took a page from Gatorade's sports marketing playbook and found innovative ways to reach a new generation of fans. There's its namesake Major League Soccer club—the New York Red Bulls—and a bevy of branded extreme-sports events. It comes as no surprise, then, that Red Bull kills it on platforms like YouTube and Instagram.
The Disney-owned sports giant made waves in late 2013 when it teamed up with Dunkin' Donuts to run the first TV ads created on Vine. ESPN also has a strong Instagram presence. ESPN The Magazine's June 22 cover featuring the Seattle Seahawks' press-averse running back Marshawn Lynch attracted 50,000 likes.
Monster Energy: 28,237,230
Like Red Bull, Monster Energy has found a winning formula blending social with extreme sports. The Corona, Calif.-based company even got millennials to embrace Facebook, doubling its fan base on the site in the last few years with dirt bike-racing videos and male-targeted, titillating photo series like #MonsterGirlMondays.
The mixed martial arts promoter strikes a balance of featuring brands and content on its social feeds. In between Vine posts touting its fighters on June 30, the UFC retweeted partner Reebok 10 times, quickly generating 5,000 consumer interactions. And those Vine clips? They created 350,000 views that day alone.
Dude Perfect: 20,814,232
This group of former high school hoops players never grew up—and millennials and marketers are loving the Peter Pan act. The YouTube kings ply their trade via clips of ridiculous trick shots. They’ve worked with Kraft, Fiat and Pizza Hut. Two recent YouTube videos incorporating the pizza chain accrued 18 million YouTube views. Score!
The high-def camcorder posted 130 Instagram photos or videos over the past eight weeks, and each received at least 100,000 likes. Such consistently great engagement is virtually unheard of in marketing circles. What remains to be seen is if GoPro chooses to monetize its social platform by offering third-party advertising.
Nike Football: 18,261,120
Marketers can learn a thing or two from Nike, particularly when it comes to working on Twitter with Brazilian (and FC Barcelona) soccer star Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior. Last week, Nike simply tweeted text with Neymar's handle (@neymar) several times and averaged more than 500 retweets and favorites.