Sports Marketing and Social Media

Much like the postal system a few centuries ago, social media changed the way people communicate in the 21st century.  Approximately 800 years ago, the Mongols created the first real postal service; in fact, it was the example the Pony Express followed when it first bridged the hundreds of miles that separated the Eastern United States from the frontier.  Now, early in the 21st century, those exhausting trips from one outpost to another have been replaced by cellular phones and the internet. Information is transmitted in an instant and no longer depends on traditional mass media like newspapers to reach large audiences.  This is the age of social media.

Sports leagues (in this particular example, the NHL) are exploring the potential benefits of using social media in their marketing efforts.  Steve Raquel, president of Illinois Online Ventures, LLC, spoke of the impact social media has made on the sports industry and how it is only just the beginning.  He was last week’s guest speaker at Dan Migala’s “Non-Traditional Revenue Generators” course at Northwestern University’s Sports Administration program.  Mr. Raquel affirms that social media offers the highest degree of engagement over traditional marketing media (e-mail, banners, etc.).  Social media like Facebook and Twitter offer an instant bilateral exchange of information between the league/team and fan.  Furthermore, as Professor Migala mentioned in class two weeks ago, information certainly leads to revenue.  So, social media is a new revenue stream for sports organizations who wisely utilize it to maintain a relationship with their fans, acquire vital marketing data, and enhance the fan experience.  The Philadelphia Flyers’ website ( is a prime example of how an NHL team is using social media to improve their product and bring their fans closer to the ice.  In fact, social media could help teams keep their fans engaged during the off-season.

Sports teams and leagues, however, are not the only sports entities using social media to develop their brand.  While several athletes around the NFL connect with their fans through popular social media (Nick Barnett of the Green Bay Packers, Larry Johnson of the Kansas City Chiefs, for example), no athlete in either the NFL, NHL, MLB, NBA, etc. is using social media like Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson aka. Chad Ocho Cinco.  His home page ( has links to his Twitter feed, his own Chad Johnson fan shop, and an “app” you can purchase for the iPhone that would enable you to view “exclusive behind-the-scenes” content of the loquacious football player’s daily life.  Teams and leagues are using links to social media and exclusive content (primarily on Facebook and Twitter) to increase the value of their web sites (raising their CPMs) to advertisers and enhance their brand.  When an athlete like Chad Johnson uses social media to connect with a large, loyal following of fans and enhances his own brand, it may represent higher offers from the Bengals and other teams when his current contract expires; after all, Chad johnson fans will follow him from one team to another.  If he goes, a proportion of his fans would go with him.  Lastly, his Ocho Cinco News Network aims to connect directly with the fans and provide them with instant access to players and news from around the league.  Social media is no longer just a way to post silly pictures of your friends; rather, it is both a new tool in brand development and a new revenue stream.

This is not to say that there is no conceivable downside to using social media to enhance your brand.  Mr. Raquel mentioned that some of the upsides of social media are that it enables consumers and brands to engage quicker, it humanizes a brand, it is viral (information could spread at an almost exponential rate), and feedback on an experience is instant.  He also emphasized that while social media is a great marketing tool, it requires commitment and consistency on the part of the user.  To engage your audience then suddenly leave them in a sort of electronic silence could hurt the brand and make its presentation appear unprofessional and sloppy.  Also, the audience’s response could be either positive or negative, and if the latter is the case, then that negative view of your product could spread exponentially as well.  Lastly, because of this last point, the brand gives up certain control.  Essentially, popular opinion rather than a marketing department’s attempts to present a product in a certain way could significantly contribute to the public’s perception of the product itself.  Organizations in the sports industry must proceed with caution and careful attention to detail in order to avoid inconsistency or negative feedback that could damage its reputation.  Since social media requires such careful attention and constant vigilance, sports organizations would be wise to either hire dedicated staff to maintain and execute their social media initiatives or hire an agency that specializes in social media to manage their content.  An example of how unwise use of social media can hurt a brand is the latest news from the Larry Johnson camp (see ESPN’s commentary on regarding his outburst and how it has hurt the Chiefs’ brand and most of all, his own).

All in all, social media is a new creative tool that marketing departments across the sports industry could use to connect with their fans.  As Mr. Raquel mentioned in his lecture, “the fan is the sport’s lifeblood.”  Because of its popularity, social media is instrumental to fan development.  While there are certain caveats that go along with a marketing initiative fueled by social media, a front office staffed with conscientious and knowledgeable individuals headed by an effective leader or a firm that specializes in the execution of such initiatives can safely implement such plans with confidence.  We are seeing it already in the NHL and even players themselves are developing their own brand through social media.  By the time Joe Namath lead the New York Jets to victory in Super Bowl III in 1968, his charming personality and showmanship brought the NFL to “prime time” and indirectly helped Rune Arledge succeed with his new, weekly sports spectacle, Monday Night Football.  At about this time, football became America’s first sport.  Social media in the hands of social and charismatic athletes and the efforts of foreward-thinking teams/leagues will take sports beyond prime time and closer to fans’ daily lives.  In an era of declining ticket sales, social media could be the new frontier.



Cam Suarez-Bitar.



I would like to thank Professor Dan Migala for his keen insights and thorough lectures on non-traditional revenue generation.  Congratulations are also in order, for he was just named Vice President of Partnership Solutions for the San Diego Padres.  Also, Mr. Steve Raquel’s presentation titled “Social Media in Sports” provided inspiration to create this blog and a deeper understanding of social media and its potential.  Both Professor Migala and Mr. Raquel inspired me to write my own blog and think about issues in sports and put my conclusions in writing.  Lastly, I would like to thank you for reading and participating in this ongoing discussion on sports business.

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