SBJ/July 16-22, 2012/In Depth

Teams, leagues take fresh look at photo sharing

The hottest realm of social media in sports right now arguably is not video or Chinese networks, but photo sharing, a far older and more primitive activity.

But thanks to rapidly advancing phone and tablet technology, and the advent of newer photo sharing destinations and tools such as Pinterest and Instagram, photo sharing volume on social networks is exploding, and sports properties are actively looking to exploit that interest.

The NBA this year announced formal alignments with Pinterest, based around the concept of digital “pinboards” and particularly popular with female audiences, and Tumblr, a more established platform based around microblogging and photo sharing. Each of the other major U.S. sports leagues also have their own official Pinterest locations, as do several dozen individual teams.

The NBA thinks sites such as Pinterest can make deeper connections with fans.
Similarly, nearly every major league website in recent months has bulked up its photo sharing and photo embedding capabilities to make it easier for fans to share online content with friends. In many instances now, sharing a photo from a mobile device to a social network is literally a one-click process.

And beyond merely sports, photo sharing volume is mushrooming far past even the most aggressive of industry projections. Facebook, for example, disclosed this year in U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission documents that it saw more than 250 million photos uploaded per day to its social network during the fourth quarter of 2011. The figure breaks down to nearly 3,000 uploaded photos per second, and Facebook still has nothing anywhere close to a stranglehold on the photo space.

Because of statistics such as that, Facebook in April bought Instagram, another photo sharing network, for $1 billion to expand its capabilities in this area.

“We have great content, and what’s been interesting is that our photos can fit in a wide variety of platforms. There’s a huge amount of versatility with photos than perhaps some other types of material,” said Melissa Rosenthal Brenner, NBA vice president of marketing. “People are so used to seeing our game on video, which is great and is no less a priority. But photography provides a very meaningful opportunity to really dimensionalize our overall story.”

Photo sharing provides several key business opportunities for sports properties beyond social media’s established strengths in viral and affinity marketing. For many leagues, a new e-commerce opportunity is established. The NBA, for example, is linking to its online store from both Pinterest and Tumblr and liberally featuring items for sale using photos.

Borrowing in part from media outlets such as The New York Times and Sports Illustrated that aggressively have celebrated their histories through vault photography, sports properties are now also using their own archives to celebrate past eras and events.

Those past moments often do not have much of a place in the news-driven, in-the-moment philosophy nearly every official league site displays. As a result, younger fans in particular now have greater exposure to celebrated moments from the past because of the photo platforms.

But perhaps most critically, photo sharing platforms also have strong reach among audiences far different than males age 18-49 that are the core of most leagues’ TV and online audiences.

Tumblr’s core demographic, for example, is women in their teens and early 20s. But their audience is broadening, as are those for many other photo sharing networks. That’s in part because a symbiotic relationship has emerged in which sports leagues and photo networks are using each other to mine new audiences.

“Sports properties have a lot of unique content you can’t get anywhere else, and there’s no question this segment is becoming more of a focus for us,” said Mark Coatney, Tumblr media outreach director. The company also has worked with several sports media entities, including SI, SB Nation and Bleacher Report. “We’re shifting into a more proactive stance in this area and we definitely see this as a growing segment.”

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