Why Twitter dominates the social sports arena

It’s the big game. You’ve got your jersey on, HDTV tuned to the proper channel, and your smartphone in hand. It’s not quite like being in the bleachers at the stadium, but with surround-sound, snacks, and social media, it might be even better.

Sporting events and Twitter go together like beer and bratwurst. The edge-of-your-seat drama and the ridiculous commercials lend themselves to rapid-fire tweets—plus Twitter’s town-hall nature generates the kinds of conversations you might have with strangers at a game.

Other social networks have tried to recreate a Twitter-like experience for sports to capture the 33 percent of sports fans who use the microblogging service, but few—if any—have had even the tiniest measure of success. Instead of beating Twitter, many services have decided to join them, leveraging Twitter feeds within their own apps or finding some other way to let Twitter guide the second-screen experience for sports fans.

A case study

SportStream is not the first sports app to incorporate Twitter, but the company has pulled off something of a (dare I say it?) pivot. The platform launched last year with $3.5 million in funding from Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen as a curated social media stream for devoted sports fans.

The app’s algorithms find the best sports voices—about 25,000 of them, on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—and filter them based on the game you're watching or the teams you want to follow. But that assumes you don’t want to find and filter those voices on your own. Most people have their social media sources pretty well sorted out.

SportStream's SportsBase platform powers the Florida Gators' social stream.

“We [wanted to] go out there and tackle the world as an app provider,” said SportStream CEO Bob Morgan. “What we found is that a lot of the major sports media companies had similar aspirations. We still have apps and they do a great job showcasing the content, but now we’re partnering with a lot of folks—pro and collegiate teams—and our reach is achieved by working with major partners.”

That means SportStream the company is more focused now on its services for teams than on competing for sports fans in the social sphere. This summer, the company launched SportsBase, a social media platform that a team, athlete, or university can embed into its website. If you’re the University of Michigan and want to embed a curated Twitter stream, scoreboard, stats, and more for your school’s teams, SportsBase helps you accomplish just that.

Fans don't get to add content sources to the real-time SportsBase streams—those are handpicked by the teams/schools/athletes themselves. The Seattle Seahawks, Portland Trail Blazers, and point guard Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors are just a few of SportStream’s partners—Morgan expects handling the platform side will be the company’s focus going forward.

“My view on traditional game-day experiences is that they’re pretty fragmented—they send you one place for news, photos, another for stats, another for social media,” Morgan said. “We built this experience so it’s dynamic. It has up-to-date stats plus social media.”

Direct connect

SportStream realized that teams need help with social media, especially ones who don't have staff devoted to keeping up their social presences. Other sports organizations have the social media system down pat. A team-specific approach offers a much narrower view—but it’s essential to attract the diehard fans who want to interact directly with their favorite franchises.

One team in particular, the San Francisco Giants, is widely considered one of the best at using Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to communicate with fans, perhaps because of its Silicon Valley DNA. The team has amassed more than 520,000 Twitter followers, nearly 300,000 Instagram followers, and 1.7 million Facebook likes—not too shabby.

Bryan Srabian has been the voice of the Giants on Twitter for four seasons and knows what the people want: basics.

twitter.com/srabe
Bryan Srabian manages the San Francisco Giants' presence on social media.

“The starting lineup, any team information, keeping them up to date on player transactions, what’s happening in the game—that’s where a team can get creative and then customize [the tweets] to what their fan base wants,” Srabian said. “More so than any other sport, baseball has such a strong connection with fans.”

Twitter helps the Giants keep that connection strong, especially during the off-season. Srabian said it’s easy to keep the excitement flowing when the Giants are playing well—or they're in the World Series, like they were last year—but during the slow, baseball-less winter months, social media keeps fans’ spirit high.

There’s no real rulebook for sports teams on Twitter. Srabian said he learned by figuring out what fans responded to. Certain types of posts—opening lineups, contests, and promotions—are always popular. But figuring out what makes Giants fans tick is something no app can do—at least not yet.

“I’m in San Francisco, and there are a lot of startups around us and a lot of buzz around the Giants, [so] I do get to hear about apps and demo them,” Srabian said. “I do think that we’ve done a good job of connecting with our fans on existing networks. [That’s] not to say there won’t be something in the near future that could change that. A company comes to us, says, ‘Hey, we can curate all of your Twitter streams into one and you can really talk to your fans.’ [But] unless it’s completely better than what we have now…we’re always looking for ways to improve, but it really has to wow you and show that you can move the needle.”

The San Francisco Giants are well-known for being ahead of the Twitter curve compared to many teams in the league.

Generation Twitter

Many teams—not just baseball, but industry-wide—are relying on social media and second-screen content to boost their popularity with kids these days. Twitter is a key tool for connecting with teens, specifically. More than a quarter of teens with social media accounts were active on Twitter last year, a number which doubled in just a year. Twitter also provides an easy way to follow conversations with hashtags and trending topics. Facebook recently added both, but Twitter set the standard for trend-tracking on social media.

At this year’s U.S. Open, which wrapped up in early September with a big win for tennis star Rafael Nadal, the U.S. Tennis Association tasked IBM with tracking social sentiment around each match. A live board in the competition’s control room showed just how many times Andy Murray showed up in a tweet as he was playing, for example. IBM would use that information to allot more capacity to the US Open’s site during popular matches, but also to create more content around those topics. The tech company then turned to Instagram to offer behind-the-scenes looks at each match, like “datagrams” (think: infographics in the form of Instagram videos) predicting the winner of each match based on a number of outcomes.

For an organization like the USTA, which is responsible for promoting tennis in the U.S., monitoring social media is part of the job now. Sports is like any other industry, and businesses want to be part of the conversation and talk to younger sports fans—many of whom aren’t that into tennis (or the other “country club sports”) anymore. But those kids are on Twitter, and if the discussion around Nadal’s chances is exciting enough, and the second-screen bonus content compelling enough, maybe tennis can snag a new fan.

Those are the kinds of conversion rates that are impossible to find, but this we know for sure: Sports fans are using Twitter, and sports organizations are learning how to capture their attention.

If you’re a diehard sports fanatic, Twitter is the catch-all for your favorite teams, players, and experts. Fantasy sports, on the other hand…well, that may be the next untapped market for social apps.

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