Social media in the NFL

Social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook clearly have had a strong effect on the National Football League (NFL), and this effect seems to be constantly increasing. Almost all players and teams have accounts that they update regularly. The teams all spend lots of time and hundreds of thousands of dollars each year trying to get their fans to come to their games, interact with the team, and ultimately, make themselves a profit. Marketing is a big reason why the teams have social media accounts because more exposure will lead to these profits. They want to establish a relationship with their fans and get them to associate with their teams so they will consume their products. And the players all have access to social media as well, making even more opportunities for the fans to connect with the team. The teams are using social media to make more money, the players are using it to better voice their opinions and connect with the fans, and the fans are using it to better connect with the teams and their favorite players. This seamless three-way connection between the team, the players, and the fans make an interesting dynamic in the social media world, and it has changed the way the game of football is consumed in a positive way.

According to the Social Media Bible, social media is defined as “activities, practices, and behaviors among communities of people who gather online to share information, knowledge, and opinions using conversational media” (Hull). In this essay, the main outlets of social media discussed will be Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and personal blogs. Most people who watch football regularly have an account on at least one of those social media platforms, and some have accounts on all of them. Since players and teams also have these accounts, there is a constant interconnection that allows everyone to stay involved 24/7. While teams initially did not take advantages of these never-ending opportunities to market their products, they are beginning to do so as the technology becomes more widespread. According to a group of sports marketers, “New media have begun to compensate for live word-of-mouth and fans now have unprecedented opportunities to communicate with the sport and each other technologically” (Oates). A famous blogger for the Dallas Cowboys noted that, “Until recently, the NFL’s social media strategy was a purely traffic driven approach. More recently, the focus has shifted towards engagement, acquisition and community via an increased focus on social media platforms” (One.Cool.Customer). So, while teams were originally just looking for page views on their official websites, they are now looking towards more interaction on their social media accounts. They also argue that it “deepens the relationship between the sport and the fan,” further establishing the link between the three groups (One.Cool.Customer).

In 2010, the boom of social media was starting to affect the NFL. Teams were even wondering if they should allow their players to tweet (D’Costa). This thinking may have been due to possible distractions that players could cause such as negative publicity and lack of focus on football. But now, the only main restriction on the players is that they cannot post on social media from ninety minutes till game time and on, as well as until all broadcasted interviews are over (Kishner and Crescenti). Other restrictions prevent play-by-play descriptions on social media or on a website to protect the networks’ copyrighted broadcasts. Some teams also have their own stricter policies, such as the Miami Dolphins, which prohibit anyone from tweeting, blogging, or even texting from training camp. Other teams that have their own revised rules are the New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints, and Detroit Lions (Hull). Teams can make whatever rules they want as long as they are not less strict than the league rules. The league also puts restrictions on the fans. Play-by-play live tweeting or real-time posting of exact plays is discouraged, and in some cases deemed illegal, but only if it can be considered a legitimate substitute for the broadcasted game. This is very hard to prove, and it highlights the lack of practical forcibility of the league to shut down sites that provide play-by-play accounts of games. These examples show that there are multiple levels of restrictions in the triangular connection between the teams, players, and fans.

All thirty-two NFL teams have official Facebook and Twitter accounts, and about 1,200 players have a Twitter, so there are clearly opportunities for the teams and players to positively connect with the fans (Pasquarelli). According to Hambrick and his co-authors, “Athletes can use Twitter to connect directly with fans instead of having their message filtered through the public relations departments of sports organizations and mainstream-media outlets” (Hambrick et al). Millions of fans also have Twitter accounts, and millions of them follow either their favorite team’s page or NFL’s page. In a world where real-time updates are given all the time, fans are at the point where they are relying on these accounts to get information about their teams. And this has been proven to help the teams increase profits: “such behaviors include greater frequency of game attendance, more time and money invested in the team, and greater intentions to purchase a team sponsor’s products” (Hambrick et al). The more that a team can get their fans connected through this information, the more money they will make.

There is actually a huge range in Facebook likes and Twitter followers between the teams with good social media interaction and the ones with less interaction. The average amount of Facebook likes for an NFL team is about 1.62 million and the average amount of Twitter followers for an NFL team is about 270,000, so any team above either or both of these totals would be considered a team with good social media presence. According to One.Cool.Customer, the Cowboys have over 5.38 million Facebook likes and over 560,000 Twitter followers, both of which are more than any other team. But the Jacksonville Jaguars have only 307,000 Facebook likes and 82,000 Twitter followers, 32nd and 31st in the league respectively. What makes the Cowboys so much more popular on social media than the Jaguars? The Jaguars might be the worst team in the NFL this year, but the Cowboys have compiled that large of a fan following despite only having one playoff win since the creation of Facebook. One major reason is the size of the market and fan base. The Cowboys have been a team for much longer than the Jaguars, so they have had time to accumulate a larger fan base. Plus, the market for football is much stronger in Texas than it is in Jacksonville. While both teams are in big states, Texas is considered one of the biggest football states in the country and the Cowboys are considered the most valuable franchise in the NFL (“Overall State…”). So even if the Cowboys have an off year, the large fan base for “America’s Team” will still be there and will continue to grow. And with social media prevalence always growing, these numbers are guaranteed to increase for both teams as long as they both remain in the NFL (One.Cool.Customer).

But surprisingly, some players have more followers on Twitter than the team for which they play. For example, Reggie Bush has over 2.8 million followers, but the Detroit Lions, his team, only has 221,000. Tim Tebow, who is not even on an NFL roster at the moment, has more than three times the Twitter followers of any team in the NFL (One.Cool.Customer). But as mentioned beforehand, these numbers are always going to increase. There are also people called NFL Insiders whose sole job is to report on news about teams and players to the public through TV shows, radio, and social media. Adam Schefter, an NFL Insider for ESPN, has over 2.2 million followers on Twitter, and he often acts as this sort of middle man in providing news to the fans. In 2011, the NFL teams combined for 27.2 million fans on Facebook and Twitter, but that has more than doubled to 60.5 million in two years. And with Twitter going public this past November and announcing a new deal in which they are teaming with the NFL to provide small highlight updates throughout the Thursday and Sunday games, these numbers should see a big jump (Van Grove).

Coaches and people within management sometimes need to step in to control their players though; player involvement in social media is not always a good thing. The Philadelphia Eagles review the social media accounts of all of their possible draft picks before the NFL Draft in order to determine any character or attitude problems. The Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager, Kevin Colbert, discourages his players from using Twitter, but still allows it under careful watch (Robinson). Most of these incidents occur when a player says something controversial, something that anyone has the right to do under the first amendment (Pasquarelli). But speaking one’s mind can often lead to controversy. Roddy White and Victor Cruz, both top wide receivers in the league, tweeted very harsh and negative responses to the infamous George Zimmerman trial; but after receiving a lot of criticism, they took the tweets down to prevent further injury to their team (Pasquarelli). In 2009, former New York Jets receiver David Clowney complained about his lack of playing time on Twitter and was benched for the next game. Former San Diego Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie was fined $2,500 by the team for complaining about the food in training camp on Twitter (Kishner and Crescenti). While the cases of fines due to Twitter messages in the NFL are few and far between, this has happened multiple times in the NHL and NBA, suggesting that maybe the NFL will adopt a stricter policy soon. But regardless of the teams’ control, the players are still likely to continue to challenge the authority on this issue.

Another effect of social media on the NFL is the ability of players to more easily react to fans’ comments. Twenty years ago, it was basically impossible to directly interact with NFL players, but Twitter and Facebook have made that possible. In 2013, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick responded to fan criticism on Twitter by favoriting negative tweets and then sending an overall response to critics on Instagram (D’Costa). Some long-time veterans of the league have never used social media before, but players like Kaepernick, who is only twenty-six, is much more familiar with it, and is now more susceptible to widespread criticism. Some fans are also venting their frustrations with Fantasy Football to the players they have if they do not perform well. New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs received a death threat from a fan on Twitter in which the fan threatened to kill him and his family if he did not perform to a certain degree (Dorset). While this action is completely unacceptable, it shows how much easier the connection with players can be. Kyle Williams, a former 49ers wide receiver, received multiple death threats on Twitter after fumbling twice that led to a playoff loss for his team (Padilla). These harsh instances provide a sobering reminder of how easy social media has made it to interact with players and teams, but these instances are infrequent enough to detract from the positive sides of it.

It is much more likely that a player-to-fan interaction is a positive one. According to D’Costa, “Use of social media reduces the distance between the athlete as performer and the athlete as a representative. It brings fans closer to the construction of the team and folds the organization more closely into the supporting community.” Pittsburgh Steelers’ center Maurkice Pouncey tweets many times a day and is known within his fan base for interacting directly with his followers by responding to their questions and comments. Steelers’ cornerback Ike Taylor draws in followers by tweeting out inspirational messages every day to make his followers feel happier, and it works based on the fans’ positive responses (Robinson). These examples of positive interactions are much more common than the negative ones and show the true advantage of having social media interaction in the NFL.

But with all of this reach and power, why are the players not using it more to their team’s advantage in terms of marketing? One reason is that they are their own social media accounts, so it would be unfair or even impossible for the teams to make them use these accounts to sell their team’s products unless they get some sort of financial compensation in return. According to a study done in 2010 by faculty at University of Louisville in which they analyzed athletes’ tweets to categorize them to determine how they are using the website, 34% of the tweets were in the interactivity category. They define interactivity in terms of the experiment as “conversations athletes have with other Twitter users via direct messages or responses to posted tweets” (Hambrick et al). And another 28% of the tweets were in the diversion category, which they characterized as “non-sport related communication” (Hambrick et al). Only 5% of the tweets were in the promotional category, meaning athletes are much less likely to use their own accounts to promote their team. And while this study was done a few years ago, the same trend seems to be true; teams are not forcing players to use their accounts to sell their team’s products, but instead are using the team’s official accounts for promotion.

Sports marketing and social media go hand in hand due to the large recent increase in fan use, which explains why teams are jumping on this as a way to increase profits (Kishner and Crescenti). Taking away the sports aspect, social media in general has allowed for a spike in integrated marketing communications (IMC), which are defined as “attempts to coordinate and control the various elements of the promotional mix…to produce a unified customer-focused message and therefore, achieve various organizational objectives” (Mangold and Faulds). While many managers and executives in high-profile corporations may dislike or fail to correctly utilize social media for promotional reasons, “internet-based messages…have become a major factor in influencing various aspects of consumer behavior, including awareness, information, acquisition, opinions, attitudes, purchase behavior, and post-purchase communication and evaluation” (Mangold and Faulds). If consumer behavior is being affected this much due to social media, it only makes sense for teams to take advantage of it. Now adding the sports aspect back in, these tactics can be applied the same way in order to make more money. “Social media give teams the opportunity to directly interact with fans, potential fans, and even those who may never have sought out the team in the first place” (Kishner and Crescenti). The possibilities are endless, and it will become more and more obvious that NFL teams are applying marketing strategies in social media platforms.

But from the fan perspective, the more social media use these teams have, the more a part of the team they feel. Fans use “we” and “my team” all the time now to describe their relationship with their favorite teams because of how close they feel. According to a study done by KT Tape, “more than 80% of sports fans monitor social media sites while watching games on TV, and more than 60% do so while watching live events” (Laird). These are extremely high numbers, and if social media is impacting more than half of the fan base, it only makes sense for teams to continue their use of it to attract more attention. When former Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow threw a game-winning touchdown in the playoffs in 2011, more than 9,000 people per second tweeted about him. When former Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson posted insulting tweets about his coach following a game in 2009, 32,000 fans came together to petition for his release from the team, and it was eventually granted (Laird). The power that fans have on social media is so important for teams to understand that using it to bring them closer to the game only makes sense.

And these are just small accounts of the fans’ impact on the league through social media; there are many large-scaled problems in which they use platforms like Facebook and Twitter to voice their opinions. In 2012 when the NFL was using replacement referees due to their inability to come to new contract terms with the original referees, fans all across the world complained. When the infamous “Fail Mary” play occurred that the referees botched, giving the Seattle Seahawks a win over the Green Bay Packers in the final seconds, Twitter exploded. Right after the game, over a million tweets were said to be related to the blown call, and a Facebook page was even created with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s work phone number on it for fans to call in to complain (Carter). The criticism was so large that the NFL soon gave in and made a deal with the original referees.

Another issue is with the Washington Redskins’ name. Many fans are disgusted with the “racist” and “indecent” reference of the name “Redskins” to the Native Americans that they started a campaign on Twitter to get the name changed (Gianatasio). Highly respected sources such as USA Today and Sports Illustrated already refuse to use the name in their writing. But Redskins owner Dan Synder is unlikely to give in considering the fact that the team is valued third-highest in the league, and partly due to his stubbornness. His response was “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps” (Gianatasio). Ironically, the Twitter campaign may have shifted after the creation of the hashtag “#NEVERINALLCAPS,” but those who feel strongly enough about the topic have continued to voice their opinions on social media. As Kishner and Crescenti pointed out, “Now, with Twitter and Facebook, one critical statement can be broadcast globally,” and this gives ordinary people a large power in vouching for their issues.

The league itself is also aggressively getting the fans involved in social media. NFL’s Twitter account often makes up hashtags for the fans that are watching to use as a better way to communicate with other people who are also watching the game. They know that fans are already going to be using Twitter on a regular basis, so creating a hashtag for a game or other important events related to a team gives the fans an incentive to stay more connected with what is happening. The individual teams have followed suit and done the same thing, and sometimes even more. A small social networking company called Wayin has teamed up with the Broncos to help Twitter generate more revenue by displaying fans’ tweets next to advertisements on the big screens above the Broncos’ stadium (Banda). According to economics, consumers respond to incentives; the incentive to tweet when going to Broncos games has now greatly increased, making both the Broncos and Twitter better off financially. According to the head of sports at Twitter Geoff Reiss, “It’s no secret that Twitter has become the roar of the crowd during televised games, but we’re also seeing teams embrace Twitter for the in-stadium experience” (Banda). While many teams are still working on getting their players to use their own social media to help the teams to generate more revenue, the teams are now going straight to the fans. And while Wayin has not spread their services to other teams yet, it would not be surprising to see other teams using this sort of technology in the near future.

Through this research, the obvious indicator is that NFL teams are using social media for increased profits, players are using it to voice their opinions and connect with the fans, and the fans are using it to connect with their favorite teams and players. This creates the three-way connection that runs the social media world on the sports level, allowing opinions to be created and voices to be heard all around the world. All three aspects of this interconnected circle are what keeps the social network of the NFL going, and eliminating any part of it would cause it to fail. This connection has completely and positively changed the way that American football is consumed, and it will continue to change it for the better as long as more people become involved in social media platforms.

Works Cited

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Dorset, Ken. “Crazy Fantasy Owner Sends Twitter Death Threats to Giants RB Brandon Jacobs.” Bleacher Report. Turner Broadcasting System, 22 Oct. 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2013.

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One.Cool.Customer. “NFL Teams and Social Media: Who’s Hot, Who’s Not.” Blogging The Boys. Vox Media, Inc., 19 May 2013. Web. 09 Oct. 2013.

“Overall State Football rankings.” ESPN, 27 Dec. 2006. Web. 04 Dec. 2013.

Padilla, Doug. “Kyle Williams Threatened After game.” ESPN. ESPN Internet Ventures, 23 Jan. 2012. Web. 30 Nov. 2013.

Pasquarelli, Len. “Penalty or Free Speech? NFL, Teams Struggle to Police Players on Twitter.” Al Jazeera America, LLC., 23 Sept. 2013. Web. 07 Oct. 2013.

Robinson, Alan. “NFL Players Learning Pitfalls of Using Social Media.” Trib Total Media, Inc., 10 Aug. 2013. Web. 07 Oct. 2013.

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