SBJ/March 3-9, 2014/In Depth

Bay area teams lead the way in social push

The San Francisco Giants have the third-largest total social media following in baseball, trailing only the twin economic titans of the league, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. A fan can follow the Giants via active feeds on Instagram, Tumblr, Google+ and Pinterest, and the club last year opened within AT&T Park the @Cafe, a first-of-its-kind, award-winning space that blends coffeehouse with social media nerve center.

By the club’s own admission, none of that happened by accident. Enjoying a crucial home-field advantage operating in the global technology nerve center of Silicon Valley, the Giants have fed directly off their proximity to Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and the other major tech leaders.

“We’re very lucky to be a sports team in the Bay Area,” said Bryan Srabian, Giants director of social media. “To have access to Twitter literally within walking distance, that’s absolutely great. And I remember having coffee at Instagram when they were still literally four people just down the street from us.”

The San Francisco Giants opened the @Cafe that blends the coffeehouse concept with social media.
Photo by: San Francisco Giants
The Giants, of course, aren’t alone, and each of their local counterparts also has earned wide notice as a thought leader in sports social media. The San Francisco 49ers last summer gained nationwide buzz with a dual takeover of their Twitter feed during a preseason game by supermodel Marisa Miller and Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala, and then successfully collaborated with the Giants last fall to help say goodbye to Candlestick Park via Twitter.

Two Oakland A’s relievers, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook, last year became the first MLB players to get their hands on the new Internet-connected Google Glass devices. The Warriors the last two seasons have held social media nights featuring players wearing warmups adorned with their Twitter handles, and recently installed an Instagram Wall at Oracle Center featuring a real-time digital display of photos from the club’s official destination on the popular photo-sharing site.

The list goes on and on with a powerful, recurring theme: When it comes to developing new ways to connect with fans through social media, the Bay Area has become an important crucible.

“There are definitely other big tech hotbeds — New York, Boston, Austin — and they’re great, and there are lots of teams that do really well in social media. But this business still comes down to connections,” said Scott Kegley, 49ers senior manager of digital and social media. “It’s still about face-to-face communication, and being able to meet with these companies in person makes a big difference.”

The nature of the Bay Area is a major driver in the social media innovation of the local teams. Similarly feeding off the major local economy, Bay Area residents regularly overindex in their use of technology. And the local teams universally say it’s that hyperconnected fan base that drives them to keep pushing the envelope on social media.

“The fans here are incredibly engaged. That’s really what’s most helpful to us,” said Amy MacEwen, Oakland A’s marketing and advertising manager. “Whether it’s things like mobile check-ins, use of Vine, what have you, our fans are unquestionably early adopters, and among the leaders in all of baseball. It all starts with that.”

Executives at Twitter, Facebook and other platforms agree, even as they are by definition neutral and work with any team that wants their help activating a social media campaign.

“The Bay Area teams in particular tend to embrace technology quickly and to innovate with what’s possible,” said Nick Grudin, Facebook director of partnerships.

The rewards from all the social media activity arrive in a variety of forms. There is, of course, improved fan affinity and ticket sales. The Giants, Warriors and San Jose Sharks rank among the attendance leaders in their respective leagues and boast lengthy home sellout streaks that team executives in part credit to fandom cultivated through social media.

New sponsorship inventory also is created, with key examples including Jive Software Inc. buying in last year as a presenting sponsor of the Giants’ @Cafe and Esurance purchasing a similar sponsorship for the Warriors’ social media night each of the past two seasons.

Labor also plays a sizable role in the social media trailblazing of the Bay Area teams. With Silicon Valley nearby, employees tend to move back and forth between teams and social media platforms. The 49ers, for example, have several staffers reporting to Kegley who have worked at Facebook.

“We’re not necessarily the first in line for every new thing places like Facebook are doing. It’s more of a case-by-case basis. But having people on staff with an innate understanding of the platforms is huge,” Kegley said.

What also helps set the Bay Area apart in social media circles is an uncommon spirit of collaboration among the local teams. In many other markets, teams compete fiercely for fan mindshare and revenue, viewing their areas as a zero-sum game. But in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, the vibe is different.

In executive circles, the A’s and Giants are locked in a years-long cold war over territorial rights to the San Jose market where the A’s would like to move and build a new ballpark. But on Twitter, MacEwen and Srabian are often jabbing at each other in good nature, all for the benefit of the fans. It is also common to see one team congratulating another when a local team or player wins a championship or major individual award.

“It’s really thinking like a fan and what they want to see,” Kegley said. “That’s really how I start a lot of this, by sort of taking the team hat off and literally asking myself, ‘What would I as a fan want?’”

Beyond the jocular barbs, the teams frequently join forces on social media projects. Recent examples include the Giants and 49ers rallying last fall behind a #SFUnite hashtag, Warriors guard Stephen Curry taking over the A’s Twitter feed and taking a turn in their broadcast booth, and the Warriors similarly inviting players from every other local team to take a turn running their Twitter account during the 2013-14 season. The most recent example of that involved Oakland Raiders players Rod Streater and Marquette King running the Warriors’ account during a late February game against Brooklyn.

Twitter data suggests such efforts resonate with fans. The Miller-Iguodala effort with the 49ers, for example, generated a follower addition for the football team twice its daily average during August as well as a spike in mentions for Miller and Iguodala themselves.

“While on some level we are competitors in this market, those of us on the digital side definitely see ourselves as collaborators in the social space and push each other to do more and do better,” said Doug Bentz, San Jose Sharks director of marketing and digital media. “There is a real generosity around here in terms of best practices.”


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