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The National Football League was founded on August 20, 1920 — 91 years ago to the day. But the sport has undergone its most radical transformation at the hands of social media in the past two years.
“Now social media is front and center for all 32 teams, and the league,” Joel Price says. “Every single team thinks it’s important.”
Price, manager of Internet services for the San Diego Chargers, wakes up to his iPad each morning and fervently scours Twitter to take the pulse of every fan, player and journalist contributing to the sometimes-cacophonous, never-ceasing chatter of the realtime web.
He’s not alone. Across the country from dawn till dusk, team social media managers, players, coaches, NFL staffers, analyst and sports journalists keep an ever-present eye and finger on Twitter, Facebook and other social channels.
Twitter Me This
What happens on Twitter in relation to the NFL becomes the subject matter on ESPN shows such as Pardon the Interruption, Around the Horn, NFL Live, Sports Center and others.
Even the “No Fun League” has changed its ways from a league in fear of social media to one that now seeks to use it and understand it — and help teams do so too. Case in point: We hear the NFL recently signed an agreement with brand marketing and management company Buddy Media to give all 32 teams access to better tools for making their Facebook campaigns more successful.
“The NFL is an old-school industry,” former defensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals and Tennessee TitansJohn Thornton says. “Twitter has changed everything.”
Thornton, who retired in 2008 and joined Twitter himself in March of the same year, recalls that NFL players first caught the Twitter wave in early 2009, just as Shaquille O’Neal was becoming the archetype of a Twittering athlete, Ashton Kutcher was racing for 1 million followers and the microblogging phenomenon was becoming more mainstream.
This season, says Thornton, a majority of players will have Twitter accounts, partly for personal branding, but also because teams have changed their policies. Instead of discouraging players from using Twitter, teams now tell their payers to just avoid sharing confidential information, Thornton says. “Coaches have accounts, usually under aliases,” he says,” and teams are following players to keep an eye out on what they’re tweeting.”
And if a team-related story pops on Twitter, the organization feels compelled to address it within five to ten minutes, simply because of how fast information travels, he says.
An All-Access Pass
“I’ve been working with the Chargers for 10 seasons. I’ve never seen fans more excited than they are this year,” Price says.
Price speaks of fan engagement with the team — especially via Facebook and Twitter, but also offline as well — as at an all-time high. This year, he says, fans attending the Chargers preseason practices were checking in on Facebook in droves, without being prompted to do so.
Social media, he says, gives fans unprecedented access to players, teams and members of the media.
Thornton concurs. “Social media has taken the place of autographs,” he says. “Before, you wanted players’ autographs, now you want players to say something back to you on Twitter.”
Players too can benefit from this all-access relationship; they now have the opportunity to tell their own stories. “Twitter accounts allow players to have their own personal voices,” sports media consultant Erit Yellensays.
Yellen, who previously advised the likes Shawn Merriman, Ricky Williams and Donté Stallworth, believes that social media has settled into its role. “It’s about the exchange of information,” she says. “