#sportsbiz must pivot before it hits a social media wall

In October 2017, the Omidyar Group (founded by Pierre Omidyar of eBay fame) published a report entitled “Is Social Media a Threat to Democracy?”

The report asserts that,

“It is becoming increasingly apparent that fundamental principles underlying democracy – trust, informed dialogue, a shared sense of reality, mutual consent, and participation – are being put to the test by certain features and attributes of social media.”

Many of the top political and legal institutions in the US and Europe agree and have the major social media platforms in their sights. The ever-expanding list includes the US Congress, the European Union and the German government.

The influence Facebook (and those leveraging the platform to further their own agendas) is believed to have wielded on the US presidential election is concerning for many (ironically, it has also highlighted the incredible value advertisers can get on the platform).

The German governments decision to hold social media platforms to account for offensive content has set a significant precedent. Social media platforms face increasing regulation and the business of sport must adapt to this new reality.

Trust is the new social currency

Ever since the YouTube brand safety “scandal” broke in early 2017 (which saw around 250 brands pull their spend from the platform), Google has been trying to win back trust with various investments and policy-led changes.


social media trianglegoogle

As more institutions challenge the ability of social media platforms to self-regulate and question their trustworthiness, it has never been more important for sports properties to build trust in their own brands. This means getting it right on social.

It may not be so long until ratings are exchanged on social media (think of an Airbnb, eBay or Uber style rating of both “publisher” and “consumer”). How would your fans rate your social media performance today? Are you listening? Are you responsive? Are you reliable?

In the so-called “sharing economy”, where Airbnb, HomeAway, Uber, Lyft, Freelancer, etc facilitate the sharing of assets, trust is king. To quote a 2015 PwC report on the subject, “…what ultimately keeps this economy spinning – and growing – is trust.”

As this economy grows to become more influential, and at the risk of stating the obvious, sports properties without a trusted brand will struggle to secure marketing investments from this sector.

The opportunity for sports properties on social is to set a clear brand promise and regularly over-deliver.

Social is becoming antisocial

You don’t have to look far for evidence that social media is not a welcoming place for everybody. This presents an opportunity for sports properties.

It’s common for social media teams within sports properties to boil with frustration at the restrictions that are placed upon them as the “official” voice (e.g. hamstrung by tradition, limited by strict brand guidelines, obliged to exercise caution when reporting on poor team performances, etc). However, as we move towards a more regulated social media environment, sports properties are ideally placed to leverage their “officialness”.

Through the adoption of a zero tolerance approach to any kind of inflammatory or abusive behaviour, sports properties have the opportunity to provide a safe platform for fans to connect. This will demand a greater focus on and investment in moderation but is no different in principle to what responsible sports properties are doing within the stadium environment.

Social is for the underdog

It would be fair to say that both Trump and Brexit started out as underdogs. A lot has been written about the influence social media had on both of these results. It has been the slingshot that has increasingly enabled underdogs to bring down bigger opponents.

Sport is littered with examples…

givemesport created an unrivalled Facebook following on the back of which they have challenged established players to create a successful sports media business (they have over 25 million followers on Facebook versus 13 million for BBC Sport)…

Hashtag United created a sizeable following on You Tube and have built a brand that challenges top football clubs in England for attention (with 300,000+ You Tube subscribers they comfortably out perform most English Premier League teams on the platform)…


Southampton FC, through clever use of social media, have continually punched above their weight despite the clubs lack of trophy success. They were recently ranked by Campaign / SocialBakers as the premier league club with the 5th most engaged Facebook audience and they were the first EPL club to launch on Snapchat…

top gaming / esports “influencers”* are outperforming top sports properties on key social media platforms. According to Forbes the top ten gaming influencers have a collective reach of 152 million You Tube subscribers (by comparison, Manchester City FC recently became the first English Premier League club to hit 1 million subscribers). They have captured the attention and gained the trust of generation z whose attention all sports properties should be fighting for…

To cut above the rest on social, sports properties, whether challengers or leaders, will increasingly need to develop (or more likely acquire) the entrepreneurial spirit that all of these organisations and individuals have consistently demonstrated.

Cutting through the clutter on social and digital platforms is generally becoming more difficult. SocialFlow found evidence of a 52% decline in organic reach following a recent study of the Facebook activity of 300 media companies. A recent analysis by Beckon of branded content posted by leading brands found that “just 5% of that branded content garners 90% of total consumer engagements.”

For sports properties, this means that investments in valuable “hero” content hosted on owned channels are likely to become even more important in the future (i.e. quality over quantity).

social media triangle2From match day event to every day brand?

Perhaps the biggest impact social media has had and will have in the future is in driving the transition of sports properties from leagues, teams or athletes competing on a match day to brands living every day.

A quote from Phil Carling (Octagon’s Head of Football) in a recent edition of Sportcal’s Insight magazine, captures nicely the implications of the social revolution on the business of sport,

“most football clubs and rights-owners within the football space are brands, but they’re brands almost in spite of themselves. They’ve become brands without any conscious knowledge or effort to identify, propagate and develop what the brand actually is.”

As digital offerings consume our world and become increasingly important to sports properties, we should pay attention to the wise words of Jim Griffith, Dean of eBay Education (quoted in PwC’s Sharing Economy report),

“digital assets inherently feel less like a possession than physical ones. As a result, companies need to figure out how to shift from offering an item to offering a relationship…”

Amaras Law is playing out today in social media – we appear to have overestimated its effect in its formative years (the early 2000’s) and underestimated its effect in the mid to long-term.

Are you about to hit a social media wall?


(Note: *Forbes will publish its first list of top sports influencers in December 2017)

About the author of this post:

David is a Chartered Marketer with more than 15 years’ experience in international sports marketing roles. You can follow David on twitter (@davidgfowler) or connect on LinkedIn (linkedin.com/in/davidgfowler).


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