Sports at the Speed of Social: Key Takeaways

November 3, 2014


Last week, FleishmanHillard hosted a panel discussion for a packed room at the 2014 Holmes Global PR Summit on the topic of “Sports at the Speed of Social.” Arguably, no industry has been more impacted by the explosion, and constant evolution, of social media than the world of sports. Moderated by FleishmanHillard’s Mitch Germann, alongside executives from Major League Soccer, the PGA TOUR and Golf Channel, the group discussed best practices for how sponsors, leagues, teams, reporters and athletes can properly leverage social media to achieve a wide range of communications objectives, and prepare for the inevitable pitfalls.

Here are a few key takeaways:

  • Integrate sponsor-related content that resonates. Sports fans follow and engage with teams and leagues in particular because they want insider access, insights and news. For Major League Soccer, that means working with sponsors to ensure that content they are pushing out to their followers is authentic, relevant and will resonate with their audience. Dan Courtemanche, EVP of Communications for MLS, noted a recent and successful example by league sponsor Chipotle. This year, as part of the Chipotle Homegrown game during MLS All-Star Weekend, fans had to register for tickets on social media. And fans responded positively to the concept, flocking to social channels, in turn selling more than 20,000 tickets.
  • On social, we’re all brands and you need to protect your most valuable asset … you. On the heels of the President of the PGA of America losing his job following an inappropriate tweet toward golfer Ian Poulter, the conversation shifted to the responsibilities that everyone has when using social media and the potential pitfalls. “We’re all functioning as brands now, and it’s a good reminder when people make mistakes how fragile your brand can be,” said Matt Ginella, “Morning Drive” co-host on the Golf Channel. Adding “some of the best tweets are the ones you don’t send out.”
  • Leveraging social and real-time competition to help drive ratings. For the Golf Channel, promoting events and match-ups on social is important, as much as listening to what fans are talking about in real time and then responding to that feedback by replaying video that generates conversation. The PGA TOUR is also experimenting with ways to use social media to push TV ratings. This year, the PGA TOUR worked with Twitter to do some targeted posts during tournaments. If there was a hot matchup between well-known players on Sunday afternoon, they’d activate a war room team to buy certain targeted sets to find people who might have been bored watching an NFL game. “I just want a 10th of a point” noted Ken Lovell, SVP of Media Development for the PGA TOUR. The Twitter partnership is the latest example of how the PGA TOUR is trying to take advantage of the way the competition unfolds in real time.
  • Social is changing the way we disseminate news and respond to criticism. In September, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Major League Soccer, the league developed an entirely new brand identity, including a new logo. For the unveiling, social media played an integral role in the rollout. First, MLS provided the new logo to EA SPORTS (a FleishmanHillard client) to ensure it would appear in the new version of FIFA 15, which was also launching that day. They then gave exclusives to Mashable and Sports Illustrated. MLS was able to monitor social media in the early hours of the unveiling to see how fans were responding, and it wasn’t necessarily positive. However, based on the real-time feedback, they were able to develop responses in advance of their press release and press conference later in the day that spoke directly to the criticisms. “Within 24 hours, we went from 20% to 6% negativity and we considered that a win,” said Courtemanche.
  • Maximize social media training. Both MLS and the PGA TOUR noted the emphasis they put on social media training is equal to the traditional media training they provide players. For the PGA TOUR, “much of what we do is encourage them to be social,” commented Lovell. First and foremost, the TOUR focuses on providing players with guardrails of what they should and shouldn’t do. Then, they work with agents to keep them involved and engaged. The TOUR also has staff on the road with players who sit down and offer real-time tips and advice to best leverage the platform. Finally, in the same way we foster relationships with media, bloggers and influencers, the PGA TOUR also has an open line of communication with Facebook and Twitter to be opportunistic, or to react if something negative or controversial is posted. Additionally, Germann noted that FleishmanHillard runs “Conversation Training Camp” for many clients to ensure they understand the new communications landscape and how to use social to amplify brand messages accurately and consistently without putting the brand (or the athlete) at risk.

Here’s the full panel discussion:

From left: FleishmanHillard's Mitch Germann, The Golf Channel's Matt Ginella, Major League Soccer's Dan Courtemanche and PGA Tour's Ken Lovell

From left: FleishmanHillard’s Mitch Germann, The Golf Channel’s Matt Ginella, Major League Soccer’s Dan Courtemanche and PGA Tour’s Ken Lovell