Social Media Week 2010: Unleashing Social Media on the Sports World

A Social Media Week 2010 panel titled Unleashing Social Media on the Sports World, hosted by The New York Times at its New York headquarters, brought together moderator Gary Vaynerchuk, partner and co-founder of VaynerMedia; National Hockey League director of social media and business communications Michael DiLorenzo; founder Matthew Cerrone; Tyler Kepner, national baseball writer for the Times; and SB Nation chairman and CEO Jim Bankoff.

The panelists weren’t overly concerned about athletes getting themselves into trouble with thoughts they share via social-networking sites, a hot-button topic of late, with Vaynerchuk saying, “We prefer them to say something crazy. All publicity is good publicity. Everybody wants to control the stupid stuff.”

In terms of use of social media by management, sportswriters, bloggers and the like, Kepner chimed in:

As soon as it passed your own test for what I would put in the paper, then put it out there. Everything you tweet, people are going to take seriously. You’ve got to make sure you stand behind what you say. If you poke fun at someone, people are going to take that as your definitive take on them.

Vaynerchuk added:

If you break news wrong three times in a row, you will be stunned at how quickly your brand is dead. If you do enough things wrong, you’re done.

“Good journalism is critical to start the conversation,” Bankoff said. “It always will be.”

And DiLorenzo discussed an early mistake that he has since corrected:

I was using Twitter as a one-way communications device and quickly learned the mistake I was making. It’s not a speaking at or listening device — it’s talking to our fans.

The panelists had varied opinions on the type of control sports leagues and individual teams should have over athletes’ social-media interactions.

Speaking of NHL clubs, DiLorenzo said:

My preference would be to let the organizations figure out if it’s appropriate for them or not. I sincerely hope that they get religion around this and figure out a sensible way to allow their players and their managers to get involved.

Vaynerchuk said:

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having rules. This can’t be complete chaos. You want to make them as soft as possible.

Speaking of one particular client’s attempt to regulate tweets and status updates, he added, “It’s not a ‘to say’ list. It’s a ‘do not say’ list.

Saying that players today come from a younger generation that grew up with Facebook and Twitter, Cerrone added:

The guys getting drafted, that are in high school, that are coming through, all have Facebook pages and have since they were 13 or 14. They all know what Twitter is.

One team has to do it and make it work, and then they’re all going to go in that direction. I’d like to see the Mets be more a team of the people and adopt that.

Touting leagues’ greater acceptance of blogs, Bankoff said:

We have five people credentialed for the Super Bowl. The NFL wouldn’t have dreamed about having five bloggers credentialed for the Super Bowl, even last year.

The panelists also differed on athletes’ acceptance of social media.

Vaynerchuk was bullish, saying:

This is an amazing opportunity for athletes. If the organization doesn’t anoint you as the face, you’ve got a real shot to build a business for yourself. No longer does ESPN or the New York Yankees decide who the face of the franchise is. The Internet is an absolute level playing field to build brand equity.

Cerrone added:

I’ve talked to guys on the Mets about some of these things and they are intrigued about potentially being able to jump over the reporters and say what’s on their mind.

Bankoff said:

Athletes can use other outlets. They’re not going to tweet all the time. They’re not going to have 10,000 Facebook fans. As bloggers, we offer athletes an unfiltered medium. They have a forum to speak directly to the fans.

Kepner, however, felt, “I think the majority of guys still don’t want to bother with it.”

Chad Ochocinco
and Steve Swisher came up during the conversation as athletes who are exceptionally active in social media.

Kepner on Ochocinco:

When he’s tweeting, I feel like that’s really him. I don’t think it’s some publicist saying, “What should he say?” You want that guy versus the guy whose agent says, “Hey, I think this would be good for you.”

Vaynerchuk on Ochocinco:

I think Chad Ochocinco is a lot funnier and more interesting than the stuff written about him.

Kepner on Swisher:

His tweets are so benign. He’s a guy who’s comfortable putting himself out there and wants to raise his own profile.

On dealing with negativity that may pop up, either independently of or directly due to social media, Vaynerchuk said:

The biggest problem for most brands, whether they’re sports or not, is how to engage the negative. No one is going to stop talking about Toyota’s problem. You’ve got to know how to deal with it. Our forgiveness level is very high. The problem is that when you just try to bullshit it, people go crazy.

Bankoff added:

The message still matters. The medium isn’t going to solve the problem. But if you use the medium properly, you’re going to have that authenticity.

The panelists stressed the idea that while the same information is going to be available all over the Web, bringing a unique take to it will be what brings traffic.

Bankoff said:

I can turn to one of 300,000 Websites or media outlets to find out who won something. How do you distinguish yourself? You distinguish yourself with your insights. The only reason spectator sports exists is for conversation to happen around it.

Vaynerchuk added:

Your unique spin and flavor is going to be the game. Who’s the best story teller? Who’s the best DJ? DJs don’t sing songs, but they get paid a crap load of money to go to Vegas and mix it.

And Cerrone said of the plethora of media outlets: “They’ll provide the facts, but somebody’s still going to have to put it all in context.”

DiLorenzo addressed the unique challenges the NHL faces with its popularity and TV ratings far below those of the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and the National Basketball Association:

I don’t think we have the luxury of complacency because of how our game is distributed, particularly through television. I think we have to have a more entrepreneurial spirit.

We love all of our children equally — even the ones who are not enlightened. Inside the league and with all of our clubs, we’re trying to raise our collective IQ.

Speaking specifically about Twitter-organized get-togethers for hockey fans, NHL Tweetups, he added:

We’re really proud of the fact that people aren’t just sitting in front of a computer screen — they’re getting together around our sport. Monetizing a relationship doesn’t mean I have to get someone to take out their credit card while they’re sitting in front of their computer. For us, it’s an audience-development tool.

Finally, some of the panelists gazed into the crystal ball and attempted to guess where the future of the relationship between social media and sports was headed.

Vaynerchuk had several ideas:

I think one of the best opportunities to monetize is geolocation — foursquare and Gowalla. It is absolutely super-sexy for businesses to send you somewhere physical. Give Darrelle Revis signed jerseys away for doing it, and there won’t be a backlash.

Filtering and aggregating of the noise is going to be a huge marketplace.

DiLorenzo said, “I see a future, and I hope we will get there soon, where we have alumni moderating during games.”

And speaking specifically about MLB, Kepner lamented the league’s iron-clad control over where its content appears, saying:

If I go on YouTube, I can show (my son) 10 different versions of Michael Jordan’s greatest dunks, but you can’t find any baseball highlights.