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Volume 20 No. 41

In Depth

Chicago Cubs executives have made no secret of their desire to control their local TV rights when their current deal with NBC Sports Chicago ends in 2020.

It’s still three seasons away, but the Cubs have been testing different platforms to come up with the best way to exploit their rights, and that means wading into the social media landscape.

Social Life

Teams harness power of social media to sell tickets, stream live games and inject personality into fans’ news feeds.

Oregon's Project Elevate
Michigan crashes Crisler
Bucks see ticket sales
 Kings keep it light
 Q&A with Facebook's Dan Reed
 Social engagements for U.S. college, pro teams

This season, the Cubs simulcast four regular-season games on Facebook and came away impressed with the results. Eventually, the team hopes to cut similar deals with other digital media companies.

“These are conversations we’re having today; that’s the next phase of the test,” said Crane Kenney, the club’s president of business operations. “One of the questions we’ve been asking is, What if you sold OTT rights separate from your linear package?”

The Cubs’ experience shows how social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter are using sports to grow their business.

“The opportunity for Facebook is to help broadcasters and rights holders reinvent live sports distribution, production and viewing experiences as they transition toward a digital, mobile and social-centric world,” said Dan Reed, Facebook’s head of global sports partnerships. 

The Cubs own 20 percent of NBC Sports Chicago, sharing an ownership stake with crosstown rival the White Sox, the NBA’s Bulls and NHL’s Blackhawks. During the season, Cubs games get spread around four channels: ABC 7 (WLS-TV), WGN, NBC Sports Chicago and an NBC Sports Chicago overflow channel.

Sensing the growth of digital media companies, Cubs executives have been exploring the value of over-the-top and nonlinear distribution. That led Kenney to gauge Facebook’s interest in carrying some games as a test. Facebook had been meeting with broadcasters and rights holders about carrying more live events and launched an area called Watch, where it has longer-form videos.

The Cubs' Sept. 14 game against the Mets was one of four games streamed live on Facebook.
Photo by: Enter Name Here
“There’s a strategy where widely distributed over-the-air television broadcasters can reach an incremental audience by distributing on a platform like Facebook,” Reed said. “Facebook reaches a different audience. It’s an audience that’s on the go and accustomed to spending more time on their phones.”

The key for Kenney and the Cubs was to make sure that the social media company’s stream would conform to MLB rules. That meant that Facebook would have to use what it calls “geotargeting” to ensure that only the people in the Cubs’ designated Chicago market could see the games.

Facebook worked it out. The Cubs got MLB approval to have Facebook stream the games. MLB has its own deal to have Facebook stream 20 games nationally that would be simulcast with RSNs, MLB.TV and

The Cubs found another willing partner in ABC, which allowed the team to take four of its games to stream via Facebook: two with the White Sox, one with the Mets and one with the Cardinals. The Cubs selected two midweek day games and two weeknight games — a mix that team executives thought would show whether streams were more popular during workdays or at night.

Kenney says he was blown away by the results. The games averaged 222,000 unique viewers for the four games, based on a metric of people watching at least three seconds (see chart).

The club promoted the first three games to Facebook users. It did not promote the fourth one, which saw its number of unique viewers drop significantly, but the people who found the game stayed longer. The average watch time for the nonpromoted game was 5 minutes, 13 seconds. Most surprisingly, Kenney said that ABC’s ratings also showed an increase for those four games.

Kenney, who has been with the team since 1997, has seen the Cubs media rights move through the rise of cable television. He believes the media business is going through another cycle of disruption.

“We’re at one of those inflection points,” he said, pointing to the popularity of social media and digital media companies. “There is enormous value right now for nonlinear distribution of media.”

The following are results of the Turnkey Sports Poll taken in September. The survey covered more than 2,000 senior-level sports industry executives spanning professional and college sports.

PhotoS by: GETTY IMAGES (2)
Since launching its Watch platform in August, Facebook has become more aggressive in the sports market, and its executives have been touting its business strength to TV networks and rights holders alike.

One of Facebook’s success stories is MLB, where it streamed 20 regular-season games this season. The streams allowed MLB to target the Facebook users who watched those games with ads in their news feed. The ads also went to people who like MLB team pages.

The result: In the three weeks from Aug. 30 to Sept. 20, those ads led to “hundreds of additional MLB.TV subscriptions sold,” Facebook executives said.

Facebook has a similar story to tell with its “Ball in the Family” reality series about LaVar Ball’s family. The series debuted on Facebook Watch last month, giving Ball’s Big Baller Brand a list of viewers where it could send targeted Facebook ads.

Facebook credited those ads for a 10 percent lift in Big Baller Brand merchandise sales.

“We provide the global reach and the ability to generate new fans and create fans for life, like traditional free-to-air models,” said Dan Reed, Facebook’s head of global sports partnerships. “But we also provide deep and valuable audience insights and data. It’s a versatile model.”

SportsBusiness Journal media writer John Ourand spoke with Reed about his company’s strategy with sports.

Should TV networks view you as a competitor or a partner?

 REED: We look to collaborate with both broadcasters and rights holders wherever possible. You’ve seen that in our partnerships with Fox Sports and Univision. You’ll continue to see that. You’ll also see situations where we’re partnering directly with a league or rights holder, like with MLB or the World Surf League.

Why should a TV network do a deal with you?

 REED: The opportunity is to use Facebook as complementary distribution for games where it doesn’t really have room on your pay-TV channels. Look at the partnership we have with Fox around the Champions League. We are distributing, via Fox’s page on Facebook, the third-pick Champions League match. The first pick is on FS1, the second pick is on FS2, the third pick is distributed via Fox on Facebook. The value here is that you’re reaching more people than you would have otherwise. This is complementary distribution, and you’re able to grow your audience and leverage all those tools.

Which league is using Facebook well?

REED: One example to highlight here is CrossFit, which for years has learned how to distribute content on Facebook really well. They’ve been aggressive in distributing video. They’ve built a passionate community of CrossFitters. We signed a partnership to start broadcasting CrossFit events. Because CrossFit has built up its community on our platform, the results have been fantastic. When we hosted the CrossFit Games over four days in August, more than 10.8 million people watched over a four-day span.

What is your pitch to these leagues?

REED: Some properties view us as primary distribution to maximize their global reach in a digital world. Around 8 million people have watched the World Surf League on Facebook since July. We had FC Barcelona broadcast their legends match — retired players — versus Real Madrid. We have over 5 million people watching that match on Facebook globally. We’ve seen snooker, netball, Indian women’s soccer and everything in between leverage this platform to maximize their reach and drive more global distribution as part of their business model.

How do they make money?

REED: In certain cases, we have a paid partnership with broadcasters or rights holders. In other cases, partners use other ways to monetize. That can be with branded content where they incorporate a sponsor into the broadcast and keep 100 percent of the revenue. Or they can convert viewers of the broadcast into another revenue stream for them. If you build an audience of viewers who watched the broadcast, you can remarket to them on Facebook to sell anything you want: tickets, merchandise or tune-in.

Why is Facebook interested in sports?

 REED: Sports is content that brings people together. It’s inherently tribal. That’s good for Facebook. The goal with Watch is to create a new type of viewing experience on Facebook. We think sports is a great fit for that platform, as well. Think about types of content that are longer form and episodic, that combine engaging video with engaging community and also drives large and passionate audiences. Sports rises near the top of any list.

For more than a decade, Nike has teamed up with pediatric cancer patients from Portland’s Doernbecher Children’s Hospital to create unique shoe and apparel designs. Revenue from the sales have raised more than $17 million for the hospital.

The University of Oregon, meanwhile, has developed its football brand around innovative uniform design. What if those groups came together, the school wondered aloud, by giving the pediatric cancer patients the opportunity to design the Ducks’ uniforms for one game this season?

The result was the #StompOutCancer game on Sept. 9. Three teenage patients were selected to do the design and the school marketed the event — dubbed Project Elevate — through its growing social media channels.

In the weeks leading up to the game, Oregon measured the impact of its social media

promotion with the hashtag #StompOutCancer through its @GoDucks channel. The results: 13.6 million impressions on Facebook; 5.6 million impressions on Twitter; 2.2 million impressions and 416,000 video views on Instagram; and 12,000 story views on Snapchat.

“In the past, we had done the pink helmets, but we were looking for something that would be more local,” said Craig Pintens, Oregon’s senior associate athletic director for marketing and public relations. “Letting the kids do the design was just what we were looking for.”

By spreading the word through social media, Oregon was able to sell specially designed merchandise made specifically for that game, with all proceeds going to the hospital.

The Ducks already have sold more than $1 million of the gear, all of which goes to the children’s hospital to fight pediatric cancer.

The #StompOutCancer game provided an illustration of how Oregon’s growing social media efforts have elevated the Ducks’ brand. Their Twitter followers have jumped from 113,000 to more than 509,000 in the last two years.

The University of Tennessee site that tracks a school’s Twitter audience ranks Oregon’s @GoDucks channel as the second-busiest in the country. Its growth over the last 30 days surpassed 7 percent, compared to 1 percent or 2 percent for the others in the top 20.

Oregon, like many schools, is heavily video-focused, even on Twitter where there’s not a lot of text on the @GoDucks channel. The athletic department also has enlisted the help of local graphic artist and huge Ducks fan Dan Boyer, whose animated images and stories have turned into a weekly series on @GoDucks.

It’s all intended to have “mass appeal, especially for the recruits,” Pintens said.

When the University of Michigan women’s basketball team cracked the top 25 last season, it was a momentous occasion. The Wolverines had not been ranked in four years.

To build on the momentum of Michigan’s season, the social media team and ticketing office joined forces to sell out a women’s game at Crisler Center for the first time in school history. They called it #CrashCrisler — graphic designs and messaging that highlighted the team began flying across the Wolverines’ social media channels with links to the athletic department website or the ticket-buying page.

Michigan’s women, even with the roll they were on, drew between 2,000 and 3,000 fans for home games, so the idea of selling 12,000-plus tickets was daunting. The ticket office created special discounts for university employees to spur sales.

Keith Bretzius, Michigan’s digital director, and Brian Wagner, who oversees social, created a schedule of promotions on Michigan’s social media channels to rivet interest for the game against rival Michigan State. They needed plenty of lead time to spread the word about #CrashCrisler, but the danger in that was if the team went on an unexpected losing streak.

To broaden the audience, Michigan’s football and men’s basketball Twitter accounts retweeted all of the #CrashCrisler messaging.

“We really wanted to blow out this event,” Bretzius said.

By tipoff, every seat was spoken for and a sellout crowd of 12,707 was announced. A time lapse of people filling the arena ran on social media and after the game Michigan ran recorded videos of the players thanking the fans.

The Wolverines were so encouraged that they turned to their channels on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram this fall to promote sellouts of men’s and women’s soccer matches as well as an attempt to set an attendance record for a volleyball match.

“It’s a great way to galvanize the community of fans,” Wagner said.

A few years ago, the Milwaukee Bucks put some of their game highlights on Facebook and were blown away at the popularity of the platform.

“Our viewer engagement rates just spiked,” said Mike Grahl, the team’s chief digital officer.

When Grahl saw that Facebook was offering an opportunity to use the social media platform to help sell season tickets, he jumped at the chance. If Facebook was able to increase engagement with content, it should also be able to increase engagement in the ticket sales process.

“Season-ticket sales is a big area — it’s a primary revenue stream for us,” he said. “But selling season tickets online is not an easy process.”

The Bucks’ Facebook partnership has become about more than simply increasing ticket sales. Grahl said it also is about engaging with the team’s fans in as close to real time as possible.

The campaign created custom ads based on more than if a Facebook user happened to like

a Milwaukee Bucks page. It took into account whether someone had bought tickets in the past, how old they were, and where they lived. An ad for season tickets would be placed into the news feeds of the people who were most likely to buy them.

“We want to connect as quick as possible with anyone who shows an interest in Bucks season tickets,” Grahl said. “This enabled sales in as close to real time as possible.”

Last season, the Bucks used information gleaned from Facebook to identify sales leads. The result was much more targeted marketing that delivered results, Grahl said.“It had a significant impact for us,” he said.

The team reported a 36 times return on ad spend, with 33 percent of the leads buying the advertised product and 20 percent buying upgraded ticket products. The Bucks said they experienced a 40 percent higher close rate compared with other online-based leads.

Results so far this season are tracking even better, Grahl said.

When the Los Angeles Kings launched their marketing campaign “We Are All Kings” in 2013, efforts ranged from a video series where players were paired with notable fans like Colin Hanks and Jerry Bruckheimer, to billboards across the 10 counties that make up the region.

While that campaign, which aimed to celebrate the diversity of Kings fans across Southern California, has continued, one place you won’t find much #WeAreAllKings branded content or a hashtag is on the team’s Twitter account.

In fact, you won’t find any broader social media campaigns anchored by a hashtag on its account at all, and that’s by design.

“I think sometimes as a brand, some of that marketing can come across as too produced and not authentic. People know when they’re being sold something through marketing lingo,” said Pat Donahue, the Kings’ senior director of marketing and digital media. “For us, social is just so much more about the tone and personality.”

That’s not to say the Kings don’t use their feed to promote tickets for an upcoming game, the work of their foundation, a Papa John’s win-based offer or the latest video for its behind-the-scenes series titled “Black & White.”

However, Donahue and his team focus on keeping that same tone in all of their tweets, whether they’re sharing one of those bits of information or providing a gentle ribbing to another team.

“We approach each of those things in a certain way — how we share the work that our foundation does has a certain look and tone, while ticket sales has its own thing too — but overall, social campaigns are not something that we think is worth our time,” he said. “We prefer the subtlety. … We have our underlying base of our approach to Twitter, and we try to fill in the content on top of that.”

That personality often manifests itself in memes tailored around Kings players or the mascot, Bailey, or videos that Donahue’s team creates, such as one that highlighted the best dances of a fan who is often featured on the Staples Center scoreboard during songs. The team account is also not shy to share some friendly banter with other sports teams, even outside of the NHL.

Donahue said the more free-spirited approach has led to a few tweets that he thinks were a bit over the top, but nothing that was purposely hurtful. He also noted that the league and his superiors at the Kings — President Luc Robitaille and COO Kelly Cheeseman — support and encourage this unique voice.

“Everything on social is so quick moving and gets old so fast,” he said. “Sometimes our best stuff on Twitter is in response to someone else’s response; it’s not something you can plan for, so you just have to embrace it.”


Ohio State is No. 1 — at least when its athletic department’s social media presence is compared to the rest of its collegiate brethren, according to MVPindex, a firm that measures social media impact and return on investment.

The MVPindex score is a proprietary algorithm that factors in audience reach, engagement, conversation, sentiment and impact/value. Taking into account all of those metrics, the data shows that Facebook is by far the dominant and highest-performing channel for colleges and universities.



 SportsBusiness Journal and Hookit teamed up again to see which teams have the most socially engaged fan bases. For this study, Hookit analyzed all Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts made by all MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL, MLS, NASCAR and WNBA teams from Oct. 1, 2016, to Sept. 30, 2017. Overall, nearly 1.5 million posts and 3.53 billion interactions were captured from that period. A composite score was established by Hookit that took into account factors such as number of followers per social media channel, how often fans viewed the posts, how often they shared them, the average number of likes, new followers added and many more.