SBJ/20081117/SBJ In-Depth

Social perspective

Rafe Anderson, a former business development executive with Fenway Sports Group and the Boston Red Sox, said leaving his self-described dream job working for his favorite team after six years was extremely difficult.

“Probably the hardest decision I’ve had to make, and something I really agonized over because that organization is so great and a place where I learned so much,” Anderson said.

But the power of social media was simply too great for Anderson to ignore.

Three months ago Anderson became president and chief executive of TruMedia Networks, a Massachusetts-based startup that has built social-networking communities around the four major Boston sports teams and plans to take the model to other major U.S. cities. But he freely admits that he, like most executives, does not have the emerging medium close to solved.

“We’re honestly trying to figure it out ourselves, but it’s clear there is so much upside in this space,” Anderson said. “There’s obviously a lot happening within digital media at large, and that’s where my passion lies. But the national level news and information is a very crowded space and the content is quickly becoming a commodity. Social media, particularly areas that are about local fandom and local content, have such a high degree of engagement.”

Raw numbers alone speak to the scale and force of social networking: Facebook has more than 120 million users worldwide, MySpace has 110 million, Friendster has more than 85 million, and Bebo has more than 40 million — with thousands of smaller, independent sites such as those created by TruMedia devoted to specific teams, players, sports, causes or events.

Turnkey Sports Poll
The following are results of the Turnkey Sports Poll taken in October. The survey covered more than 1,100 senior-level sports industry executives spanning professional and college sports.
What is the biggest benefit to teams that have social-networking sites online?
Build stronger connections with existing fans 54.15%
Attract younger fans 35.12%
Develop new revenue streams 4.39%
Other 2.44%
No response/Not sure 3.90%
Source: Turnkey Sports & Entertainment in conjunction with SportsBusiness Journal. Turnkey Intelligence specializes in research, measurement and lead generation for brands and properties. Visit www.turnkeyse.com.

Those numbers, of course, still pale compared to the reach of television. But social media, which began to gain significant traction less than five years ago, contains nearly every attribute coveted most by marketers and brands: audiences that trend younger than the population at large, with usage concentrated strongly within the 12- to 34-year-old age group; groups that are deeply engaged around specific teams and leagues; and an open-source environment in which third parties are not closed off, but encouraged to help build up the network.

“Sports obviously incites a lot of passion, which makes it a particularly good fit for Facebook and the communications layer we’ve enabled,” said Josh Elman, Facebook platform program manager. “Rivalries, for example, that are inherent to sports seem to really bring out that excitement and passion within our communities.”

The economic models existing around social media are far from fleshed out, with the majority of entries into the space losing money and many simply existing to help promote a brand or direct users to another more established site.

But any worthy content distribution or marketing strategy these days includes some meaningful social-networking component, and sports exist smack in the middle of that. Tribal and intense by definition, sports perhaps lends itself to social media better than any other genre.

Like any developing industry, though, there also have been and will be bumps along the way. Privacy and decency concerns for college athletes and the formation of activist groups devoted to protesting corporate brands and initiatives, are among the prevailing issues.

“The scalability of what’s happening on Facebook is limitless,” said Jeff Price, president of SI Digital. The company has made several investments in social media, including a fantasy games alignment with Citizen Sports Network (see story) that is deployed on Facebook, and a 2007 equity investment in Fan Nation. “And it really isn’t just about Facebook. It’s about open [source] social in general. It’s really thinking about everything you can do in an unbundled experience and taking that on.”

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