The National Football League was founded on August 20, 1920 — 91 years ago to the day. But the sport has undergone its most radical transformation at the hands of social media in the past two years.
“Now social media is front and center for all 32 teams, and the league,” Joel Price says. “Every single team thinks it’s important.”
Price, manager of Internet services for the San Diego Chargers, wakes up to his iPad each morning and fervently scours Twitter to take the pulse of every fan, player and journalist contributing to the sometimes-cacophonous, never-ceasing chatter of the realtime web.
He’s not alone. Across the country from dawn till dusk, team social media managers, players, coaches, NFL staffers, analyst and sports journalists keep an ever-present eye and finger on Twitter, Facebook and other social channels.
Twitter Me This
What happens on Twitter in relation to the NFL becomes the subject matter on ESPN shows such as Pardon the Interruption, Around the Horn, NFL Live,Sports Center and others.
Even the “No Fun League” has changed its ways from a league in fear of social media to one that now seeks to use it and understand it — and help teams do so too. Case in point: We hear the NFL recently signed an agreement with brand marketing and management company Buddy Media to give all 32 teams access to better tools for making their Facebook campaigns more successful.
“The NFL is an old-school industry,” former defensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals and Tennessee Titans John Thornton says. “Twitter has changed everything.”
Thornton, who retired in 2008 and joined Twitter himself in March of the same year, recalls that NFL players first caught the Twitter wave in early 2009, just as Shaquille O’Neal was becoming the archetype of a Twittering athlete, Ashton Kutcher was racing for 1 million followers and the microblogging phenomenon was becoming more mainstream.
This season, says Thornton, a majority of players will have Twitter accounts, partly for personal branding, but also because teams have changed their policies. Instead of discouraging players from using Twitter, teams now tell their payers to just avoid sharing confidential information, Thornton says. “Coaches have accounts, usually under aliases,” he says,” and teams are following players to keep an eye out on what they’re tweeting.”
And if a team-related story pops on Twitter, the organization feels compelled to address it within five to ten minutes, simply because of how fast information travels, he says.
An All-Access Pass
“I’ve been working with the Chargers for 10 seasons. I’ve never seen fans more excited than they are this year,” Price says.
Price speaks of fan engagement with the team — especially via Facebook and Twitter, but also offline as well — as at an all-time high. This year, he says, fans attending the Chargers preseason practices were checking in on Facebook in droves, without being prompted to do so.
Social media, he says, gives fans unprecedented access to players, teams and members of the media.
Thornton concurs. “Social media has taken the place of autographs,” he says. “Before, you wanted players’ autographs, now you want players to say something back to you on Twitter.”
Players too can benefit from this all-access relationship; they now have the opportunity to tell their own stories. “Twitter accounts allow players to have their own personal voices,” sports media consultant Erit Yellen says.
Yellen, who previously advised the likes Shawn Merriman, Ricky Williams and Donté Stallworth, believes that social media has settled into its role. “It’s about the exchange of information,” she says. “[Social media] gives players a chance to communicate with other players in the league who they might not otherwise have had the opportunity to talk to.”
Sports media journalists too, she says, are communicating back-and-forth by way of Twitter from press box to press box, giving fans and players access to their game-day commentary and exchanges.
“More and more rookies are coming in to the NFL with a social presence,” Price adds. “They’re utilizing it to explain what it’s like to be a rookie trying to make a team.”
These first-person narratives provide followers with a different perspective of the NFL — the story of the game, as told by a doe-eyed youngster, minus the panache of an Ochocinco.
Expect even more of it in the years ahead, Price says.
Price, Thornton and Yellen all agree that social media usage in the NFL will only increase with time, and there seems to be a consensus that players are slowly but surely wising up to the implications of their public tweeting. “Players understand that if they put something on Twitter that they could potentially be reported on,” Yellen says. “Mistweets,” she adds, “have gone way down.”
Price predicts even more fan engagement with teams in the year ahead. The Chargers will be pumping up the volume on their already high-volume social media activities. “Our main goal is to do more on game days,” he says.
Price is excited about the potential of Twitter’s photo-sharing and uploading tools. He believes fans are more likely to engage with a photo shared on Twitter if it’s hosted on Twitter and not on some lesser-known third-party site that they have to click to visit.
Price also talks about location-based services as the next social opportunity for teams and the league. He thinks Foursquare’s just-introduced event checkinsare great for the game, but would like to see the NFL use its comprehensive knowledge on venues to better explore the intersection of location, stadiums, games and social media.