From Sideline to Byline: Unleashing Social Media on the Sports World

Matt Wurst is Manager of Digital Communities at 360i. You can follow him on Twitter @mwurst.

The sports world has always been defined by lines.

Some lines are visible for all to see. Games are played within the lines. Scoring in football or soccer means getting the ball across the goal line. Basketball shooters are rewarded with more points for hitting a shot from behind a three-point line. In tennis, the line is in. In volleyball, the line is out. Lines keep runners in their lanes. Batting orders are written on a lineup card.

Then there are the lines that exist outside the field of play. The rules of the game are defined by lines in a rule book. Even off-the-field/court conduct is restricted by rules to prevent athletes from going “over the line.” Bettors make wagers based on lines. Athletes even feed lines to the media that later show up as quotes in lines of print articles. Fans and media watch the games from the sidelines.

Unleashing Social Media on the Sports World, today’s panel discussion hosted by the New York Times, featured the perspectives of league official, blogger, beat writer and fan to discuss how the non-linear rise of social media is blurring some lines while hardening others.

In the hour-long Q&A session, die-hard New York Jets fan and “wine guy” Gary Vaynerchuk (@garyvee) and the panelists shared examples of how social media has blurred the line between spectator sports and participation sports yet strengthened the lines of communication from athlete to fan.

Michael DiLorenzo (@NHLdilo), the Director of Social Media and Business Communications for the National Hockey League, discussed how the league and teams use Twitter to “satisfy the emotional craving fans have to be directly connected” to their favorite teams.”

“Social media is the sunshine and water that helps grow the passion of fans,” DiLorenzo said. “It also provides the shortest distance between, in our case, league and fans.”

Michael DiLorenzo starts the conversation early via Twitter.
Michael DiLorenzo starts the pre-event conversation via Twitter.

Of course, whereas sports used to be a world where athletes played and fans watched, the access that some athletes grant has its pros and cons. If done right, the benefits far outweigh the risks. However to do it right, athletes need to really invest in it and be authentic.

“If they aren’t authentic, this new era of transparency will run right over you,” said Jim Bankoff (@bankoff), the Chairman and CEO of SB Nation, a sports fan blog network.

With so many parties – the athletes, teams, leagues, agents and representatives – all having a vested interest in the message, the issue of control remains. But it is an issue that is being worked out across different sports and with varying degrees of success. Remember, access to athletes has been carefully managed for decades. There are pre-determined times before and after games when athletes can and cannot talk to the media. The NBA has implemented a similar rule about tweeting before and after games.

For Matthew Cerrone (@matthewcerrone), the founder of metsblog.com, social media has blurred the line between journalist and fan. The site started in 2003 as a hobby, but he now covers the team on a daily basis and serves as a conduit between players and Mets fans.

Sports journalism is changing as reporters adopt a more digital mindset. Writers and broadcasters are breaking news on Twitter. Game recaps are secondary projects after in-game live blogging or tweeting wraps up. But where is the line between journalist and fan now that anyone with an opinion and enough money to pay web hosting fees can become a blogger.

According to the Focus “State of the Blogosphere 2009,” 41% of bloggers describe their style as ”journalistic.“ But do they conduct interviews, research a topic or fact-check like journalists of yesteryear?

Vaynerchuk believes that the best, no matter the medium they use, will stand out for being capable storytellers. For New York Times baseball writer Tyler Kepner (@tylerkepner), journalists present multiple angles and perspectives, painting a fuller picture of how and why.

“As a journalist, you have to stand behind what you write or say,“ Kepner said. “When breaking news, you can tweet it out first, then get to work on the rest of the article or blog.”

But perhaps the greatest impact that social media has had in sports is how it strengthens the lines of communication between fans.

The immediacy of information is staggering and the volume of conversation is overwhelming. Social tools make it easier to connect fans of the same team and find communities to join. And we’ve really just scratched the surface, too. Geo-targeting will facilitate fan connections between friends and strangers on living room couches and inside stadiums. Enhanced filters will reduce the clutter and noise of extraneous conversations and better mobile devices will guarantee that we can always have a voice.

Except for the bicyclist sitting directly in front of me, there were no athletes to speak of in the room. NBA and MLB league execs? Sure. More sports bloggers than I could read in a lifetime? You bet. But despite what our business cards said, we were just a small community of sports and social media fans tweeting to each other from across the room, re-tweeting handles, sharing quotes and direct messaging.

And I know I’m not the only one who took part in today’s dialogue that is looking forward to the NFL’s own foray into social… the first ever official Super Bowl hashtag on Twitter, #SB44, kicking off this weekend!

“Sports exists for conversation,” Bankoff said. “And there has never been a better time to be a sports fan than right now.”