Well score one for Twitter.
Starting in the upcoming 2014-2015 season, the @NBA twitter handle will be etched into the game ball. Might not be considered huge news compared to the hullabaloo around LeBron “coming home,” using #23 again, or Byron Scott finally becoming the Lakers coach (a position, I might add, he should have had 3 seasons ago *cough*). But this announcement does make the NBA the first professional sports league to literally embed social media into their game, their personnel, and brand.
Social media isn’t going anywhere. Twitter specifically has changed the way the game is broadcast and consumed. Its like a virtual sports bar where arguments are mulled over #hashtags and Bynum memes instead of whiskey (ok maybe there’s still whiskey). Or a digital town hall meeting where mutual team affiliates like #ClipperNation can speak and support each other during crackpot scandals involving Sterling. Regardless of the metaphor, twitter is a multiuse platform where everyone can extract from it what they need. And the NBA is proving to be a leader in using Twitter specifically to support it’s players, brand, and consumers.
Sports writer for Forbes Mark Burns called twitter a brand builder, news aggregator, and the sport industry’s “ideal real-time content provider. ” The recent belief is that Facebook feels more manufactured while Twitter is more authentic in terms of content. Certainly there are 140 character statements prepared by a manager or agency that pop up on Twitter every now and then. But when an athlete wants to air something out or speak honestly and directly to fans, they do so on Twitter, making it the go-to podium for a) expression and b) consumption. And speaking as a fan, Twitter for the most part… just feels…more real.
Branding in the sports industry today has to be inclusive to the narrative and digital trends within society. Sports fans are irrational by nature. I know. I am one. We can be sheep. Biased. Devoted to a fault. But in all of this, we want more and the ability to consume. We live and breathe our favorite leagues, teams, and players. And Twitter enables us to deepen our affiliation to it all by taking in their different stories at our leisure. In his recent article for Forbes, Burns mentioned how important it is for teams, brands, and leagues to use social media as a means to extend their “story” to a wider audience. And specifically for the NBA, the induction of their Twitter handle on the game ball shows that the league is using transmedia storytelling to acknowledge their modern, technically-inclined, digital audience.
Director of the Media Psychology Research Center, Dr. Pam Rutledge extensively studies the intersection between behavior and technology, a field very applicable to the sports industry given its recent embrace of social media. Rutledge describes transmedia storytelling as the individual strands of a story being weaved together into an interactive fabric for audiences to participate with. Simply put, Rutledge says “success in the digital world isn’t about the tools – it’s about engagement.” The NBA is leading in fan engagement. Coupled with the 10.8 million followers they have, the @NBA handle on an official game ball is an indication of that.
— NBA (@NBA) July 31, 2014
The NBA brand (like all professional leagues) is represented and extended by its players. Hell, some warm up jerseys now have personal handles on the back in replace of last names. What a player does off the field (or specifically on Twitter) is now directly associated with their team and the league’s image (just ask Ray Rice or Matt Barnes). But the space for charitable deeds and positive stories still exist in social media through acts of corporate social responsibility, charitable foundations, and direct engagement to fans. And essentially, all of these possibilities make the intersection between sports and social media a hotbed for communication studies (hence, my current life as a Media Psychology PhD student). 😬
Other leagues are certainly paying attention to this. Not only the field of social media, but also the @NBA handle on the game ball specifically. They’re foolish if they aren’t. After all – teams, athletic departments, and agencies alike are creating jobs for social media strategists and communication specialists. Success through consumer engagement is no longer a secret. Digital branding has a unique impact on the sports industry through its ability to formulate their image based on the direct feedback received through interaction. It’s public relations on steroids.
Will other leagues follow suit? NFL? NHL? MLB? If you don’t think your 140 characters are being heard, just try them. Anybody. The NBA is certainly listening. And if 2014 is any indication of trends, twitter will not be disappearing from sports anytime soon.
Tunisha is a Media Psychology PhD student and contributing writer at @Sports_RantsNBA. Follow her on Twitter @MsSingleton528.