I arrive late to the Germany-Brazil World Cup game on the assumption that I have plenty of time before the match really heats up. This turns out to be completely wrong, and I've in fact arrived amid the most tweeted single sports game—of any kind, ever.
"Our banked Brazil content will probably not be seeing the light of day," Bryan McAleer, ESPN's associate director of marketing, says ruefully as soon as he's done shaking my hand and introducing himself. He's an energetic guy, upbeat and attentive, with long reddish hair and a thick beard.
A few of the others sitting close by—mostly clean-shaven, friendly guys with much shorter hair—say hello, too. There is John Twomey, associate manager of social media, Tomas Ferraro, marketing coordinator, and Brendan Gillen, marketing manager. If any of them is a day over 28, it would be a surprise to me. McAleer is pacing back and forth between ends of the table, soliciting opinions and offering feedback. Everyone is glued to the game, which is already on its way to a 4.1 rating (a record for a World Cup semifinal).
The picture of the instant is of an elderly Brazilian man in a funny hat covered with pins, clinging desperately to a World Cup trophy replica with a look of unmistakable misery on his face as his team gets beaten at home for the first time since 1975. All the cheers in the world aren't going to fix this.
Brazilian fans are still holding on to hope. pic.twitter.com/ztrwLJ0xea— ESPN (@espn) July 8, 2014
The ESPN social media war room is, appropriately, at the Lincoln Square Armory up on 66th Street, where ESPN's offices sit across from slightly less opulent digs housing the news division. The nerve center itself is just a boardroom below street level behind some glass doors; the walls are festooned with ESPN-commissioned posters by Brazilian artist Cristiano Siqueira of every major soccer team's star players. The huge conference table that takes up most of the room has a close-up graphic of short-mown grass stretched across the table's surface, as though every meeting in this room took place over a patch of soccer pitch or football field.
You can barely see the grass under all the laptops, though. Fifteen people sit huddled over computers, tossing out stats and suggesting ideas for content on the company's social media feeds—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine—and tailoring the material appropriately. Some folks are capturing video to be cropped and converted; some are monitoring the direct feed the company is getting from FIFA. Between the two big monitors playing the game, there's a third, smaller TV showing a six-column TweetDeck feed.
German goalie Manuel Neuer makes an incredible double save; Twomey, who has been kindly giving me a rundown of the group's processes, grabs a quick replay video and socks it away for posterity. The whole room is a fun mix of high-level technical competency and twentysomething fans who probably know too much about a single sport than is healthy. Ferraro (who is Argentine) keeps dropping factoids into the conversation—who fouled out of the last game, when the most recent rout this dreadful was, what the country spent on competition it's now losing. Twomey watches the replay and makes a funny "doozzh!" impact-imitation-noise (you know, kind of like this) under his breath as he captures the ball whacking into Neuer's chest and then getting slapped away during the second shot.
Brazil is getting dominated in a serious way. "So much for our Hulk and Fred images!" says McAleer, exasperated. The team has cooked up some cool graphics of two of Brazil's biggest stars in case they distinguish themselves on the field. They don't.
"Can you get a Vine of the score scrolling like that?" McAleer says, struck by sudden inspiration. "Wow. They've never had to scroll the score before."
It's true. Soccer is usually such a low-scoring game that each goal can run in a Chyron with the player who scored it attributed on the same line. Now the Chyron has to scroll to show all six—no, wait, now it's seven—names. There's further discussion of this, but the Vine they eventually go with—German fans celebrating—pops up on the feeds of German fans far and near.
Seth Ader, who oversees most of the departments represented in the room (he's senior director of sports marketing, where he oversees the company's NFL, NBA and MLB marketing strategy, too). He's just back from Brazil and concerned; the mood in Sao Paulo, for which several of the team decamp in the morning, is bound to be bleak after this game, and he's worried. If Argentina passes Brazil in the next round, it will be bleaker still.
The game is over, and not just in the way that the game has been over since the half. Ana Livia Coelho, the publicist minding me (who is of Brazilian origin herself) is trying to be a good sport around a lot of Germany fans. She speaks Portuguese, so she tells the room what they're hearing over the raw feed as Brazilian star player David Luiz chokes back tears. "I'm so sorry," he is saying. "I'm sorry to all Brazilians. I just wanted to see my people smile. I couldn't do it."
In the room, people are sympathetic, but busy. Pictures are patched together and posted—the final of Germany's Miroslav Klose over a German flag breaks the standing record for Facebook likes on the ESPN page.
It's a carefully calibrated machine. At the other end of the room is a little chill-out area with a penny arcade-style basketball goal where one particularly tense staffer goes to shoot a few hoops and then comes back, smiling. The workers who are pacing or standing contract around the table and decide on more and better final images for the social feeds. "Did you get into it?" McAleer asks me, smiling. I say I did, improbably—I'd thought I'd be more invested in the American games but the tension of the higher-bracket games has me hooked. "It's gotten huge," he observes. "I mean, I'm a lifelong fan, so it's nice to see." I ask if he was ever played. "As a kid, badly," he laughs. "I learned my limitations."
He apologizes for the poverty of tension in the game and I mention that it's been interesting to see the social team scramble to find interesting material they weren't expecting. "Yeah," he says, "but there's even more going on when it's really close."
McAleer and his team start to talk about the score. "How should we visualize that?" one person asks. "Let's put everyone's faces on their goals," McAleer says. Another voice pipes up: "Let's list the goals in order, so that it just counts up more and more and at the bottom there's this big stack." McAleer claps his hands together and points at his teammate. "Great," he says.