Social Sports: the ball is in your court

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Sport is big business. The competition on the field is nothing compared to the competition off it for fandom, viewership and in this economic climate, the fan’s dollar / pound. Recognising its potential, Sports businesses are looking to social media to help them reinforce and develop their relationships with fans – and of course to broadcast their product in as many different channels as possible.

Global brands such as New Jersey Nets, Manchester City (image above) and multi-billion dollar entities such as the NFL (3.1 million Facebook fans and counting) are already forging ahead with engagement via social media, including foursquare check-in competitions, Commissioner Q & As and team and player fan pages.

Whilst the Big Boys of sport are already finding success, would this work for other, smaller sports? What would this approach bring to leagues and clubs that are fighting to raise awareness and put bums on seats?

In his blog post ‘How football clubs can use mobile and social media to their advantage’, Felix Wetzel suggests “Opening up these channels would give live events a completely new dimension. It would bring even more energy and most importantly whet the appetite of all the people that are not in the stadium and consequently drive attendance for live matches in general”.

If this is indeed correct, are smaller leagues and clubs taking notice?

To put this to the test, I took a look at a minority sport here in the UK – Basketball – and looked to see how the top flight, the British Basketball League (BBL) utilise social media. I have a very limited familiarity with British Basketball having only seen a few games back in the ‘90s when there was a team nearby. So I was viewing this with fresh eyes.

There are two parts to my review – how the League uses social media on an ongoing basis and how it’s used for an event – in the latter’s case – the 2011 Playoffs Final in Birmingham, the showcase event of the season.

The Social Day-to-Day

Facebook Updates from the League

The BBL is clearly aware of the importance of having a social media presence. They have both a Facebook and Twitter account, and actively promote them in a prominent position on their website. They actually have both a Facebook Group (929 fans) and a newer Fan Page (611 fans), which is a little confusing , plus 633 followers on Twitter. I was a little surprised the Facebook figure was not higher given the 12 teams of the BBL have a combined 6,300 facebook fans.

Both channels are used to broadcast news stories from the league (all links point back into the article on the league website) and score updates during and after games. To a much lighter degree, Facebook has some conversational status updates (i.e. “Who do you think will win between X and Y tonight?”), whilst there are number of retweets of BBL Club accounts’ tweets on Twitter.

As such the league do a very good job of keeping fans up to date with news and events via two of the most popular social networks. Rather than rely on fans visiting the league website, they take the news to the places where their fans are hanging out. This is a good starting point.

Where they don’t do so well, is engagement. Their approach is broadcast, not conversation. I suspect a fair amount of automation in their social activity – likely due to resource, like many organisations. It looks like they use the RSS feed of articles posted on the league website to distribute to the social hubs (using Twitterfeed).

Whilst there is nothing wrong with streamlining activity to make it more efficient, the downside of this approach is that you can be unaware of what is happening in your online community if you’re not present. So you see a lot of news articles, some fan comments and questions, but no response from the league. Ignoring your fans is not a great way of developing a loyal customer base.

As an example, as a paying attendee to the Finals, I enquired via Facebook as to the schedule of events on the day. Attending with a small child, this information was important to me and not available on their website. Sadly the question went unanswered, probably due to an unmanned account.

The Finals Day

Let me just say the BBL Playoff Finals were one of the best, value for money sporting events I have attended. For £21 per ticket, you could see the Final, the All-Star game, a Schools Final, a French acrobatic Basketball Display Team and several other events. The day was very well organised and a great showcase for the BBL.

In terms of social media activity on the day, I had low expectations – and that is not anything to do with the BBL per se. Social media use as an event enhancement is still in its infancy. The NBA and Premier League examples mentioned above are more the exception than the rule, and I wouldn’t expect anything significant in a smaller league, particularly as geo-location adoption is still in an early (but rapid) growth phrase.

Fan Photo Tagging CompetitionWhat I was pleasantly surprised to see leading up to the day was a fan photo tagging competition on Facebook, with a prize of tickets to the Final. It was encouraging to see them experimenting with this approach. Hopefully it proved successful, enabling more innovation in the future.

Upon arrival at the venue – the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham – I checked in on Foursquare. I was the only one, but it was early. Perhaps that would change nearer tip-off… It did, but sadly it peaked at 4 people. My chance at the ‘Swarm’ badge will have to wait a little longer. Maybe next year. It would be unfair to put this on the BBL. It’s a reflection of geo-location uptake generally.

A scan of Twitter around related terms revealed very little in the way of conversation from fans during and after the game, the majority being score and news article updates from the League or clubs.


The great thing about all the new social platforms, apps and technology is that there is so much to play with. It’s a great opportunity for an organisation to experiment and strengthen its customers’ loyalty towards it product or service. With the BBL, for starters, I would suggest:

  • Monitor and participate in the conversion around the BBL brand (Radian6 is great for this). At very least, respond to direct questions via Twitter and Facebook. Preferably, start and encourage conversation.
  • Merge the two Facebook accounts. You’re doubling your efforts and reducing your impact. Go with the newer Fan page (has benefit on being able to message all your fans) and don’t forget to switch the link on your website homepage

The NBA on Youtube

  • Consider other social networks. A Youtube channel would be a great way to share what is a very exciting and visual sport. Check the NBA page on Youtube as an example. Put game footage up there. Let fans add their own videos. Perhaps run a fan video competition. The same approach could be taken with a Flickr photo account. In both instances, let the fans add content – make it theirs, not a corporate place – and you’ll strengthen their interest and connection
  • Make it easy to share the website articles by adding social share buttons. Given the popularity of their networks, I’d certainly recommend a Twitter Tweet button (from either Twitter itself or Tweetmeme) and a selection of the Facebook suite of buttons (Like, Share, Send, etc.). This gives fans an avenue to share content of interest with their friends, removing the reliance on the league to be the only source of distribution.
  • On game day during the season and at events, encourage the use of a hashtag, such as #bbluk or #bbl2011, so fans on Twitter can follow and join in the conversation (just don’t use #bbl as it means “Be back later” in Twitter parlance).
  • Make use of geo-location technology by running a game day check-in competition. Using Facebook Places or Foursquare (or both), any fan who checks into the venue will be eligible for the competition – be it to win merchandise or perhaps a prize draw for entry into a half-time free throw competition.

Overall, I think the BBL are taking very positive steps into the social arena and it could pay dividends. Their approach going forward will be crucial. Social media use is growing at an astronomical rate and other sports are already staking their claim to space within it. If basketball in the UK is to thrive, the League should embrace social with a passion and view it as a central pillar of their acquisition and retention strategy.

How else could the BBL use social media to engage with its fans? What have you seen from other sports or clubs that has worked successfully? I love to hear your thoughts so please fill free to chip in via the comment section below.

If you liked this article, please stroke my fragile ego by clicking the ‘Like’  and/or Tweet button. It makes me smile.

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Gary Robinson is a UK digital marketer, who fell into this tech world by accident and decided to stay and play. That was 1999. He's still here. His current loves are conversion optimisation, mobile and tinkering with new technology. He also has a fondness for coffee.

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Posted in Business Performance, Social Media
  • Really interesting post Gary and some great recommendations that can be taken wider that sport. This has given me some food for thought related to some Business Travel industry events I am helping shape this year. I especially like your thoughts around evolving from broadcasting to conversation. A nice easy way of framing the natural next step from first phase of adoption of these new channels. I will keep you posted on how i get on with this! I guess the question might be whether organisations who implement the engagement of new communication channels, in doing so plan phased evolution or do they get stuck where they start? Does the NBA offer up examples of how they have taken the next step?

    • Thanks for your comments, Jason, it’s much appreciated.

      You’re right in saying that this goes wider than sports, the principles discussed are applicable to any organisation getting involved in social media – whether its an ongoing communications channels or event organisation.

      It’s social – it’s a conversation, so it has to be two way. And it has to be with the audience in mind. You need to provide some value to them. Talking about yourself – as with any social situation – is boring and they’ll switch off. The ultimate goal is to get them talking positively about your brand unprompted – and the only way they’re going to do that is if they feel part of the brand, an ‘owner’ of the brand.

      Regarding the broadcast vs conversation challenge, I think its a common pitfall for organisations. There is often an urgency to ‘do’ social media ( aka…”we need a Facebook page!”) and a misconception that social is ‘free’. Most of it is, but your time is not and that unfortunately is where the one-way broadcast tendancies creep in.

      My advice to anyone looking to get their brand involved in social media is to pick just 1 or 2 things and focus on doing them really well. Grow your efforts with your resource. Having 10 different channels (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Foursquare, a blog, Quora, etc.) is great if that’s where you audience is, but they’ll be shortlived if the quality is lacking.

      So as you say, adopt a phased evolution approach and you’ll more likely to be successful and stick at it. No point jumping in the ring on your first day at the gym, eh? 🙂

      Good luck with the Business Travel events this year – be good to hear if and how social media plays a part. A foursquare check-in competition for half time free throws, would be a cracking idea 😉

      • Jasongeall

        Yes agreed! One step at a time. As long is there a planned second step. A thought that sticks with me that should stick with anybody trying to engage a group of people is this. An audience is only an audience if the audience is listening.

        This all links back to this thought for me, so you need to converse right to engage to get them listening. I will Definately be pushing your good thoughts forward here.


        •  “An audience is only an audience if the audience is listening” – that sums it up very nicely. They certainly won’t be listening for long, if your social activity is all one way broadcast.

          Look forward to hear what you implement Jason. You’re welcome to share some successes and experiences here as a guest post.


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