Social Media: The Game Changer in Sports

ImageCurrent estimates of the world’s population are in the neighborhood of just over 7 billion people.  With a number like that, anyone that continues to doubt the impact of social media in today’s world is in denial.  For perspective, Facebook announced in the first quarter of 2013 that they are at 1.11 billion users; that’s roughly 1 out of every 7 people throughout the world.  YouTube isn’t too far behind with 1 billion users, but each user apparently watches an average of 4 videos daily because they guesstimate 4 billion views per day.  What is a bit of a surprise is the distance created thereafter with Twitter falling in third at 500 million users and the 343 million users of Google+.

With the staggering numbers that it brings to the table, it’s been amazing to witness social media’s impact and effect on our world at a global scale.  More specifically though, think about the impact that social media has had on the world of sports.  The NCAA has had to modify policies in order to make room for social media.  For instance, the University of Southern California acknowledges that, “Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites have increased in popularity globally, and are used by the majority of student-athletes here at USC in one form or another.”  USC’s Social Media & Policy Guidelines for Student-Athletes also provides examples of why students should be cognizant of the information they share and explains what content is deemed to be inappropriate in accordance with university policies.  While many NCAA institutions have individuals within their athletic department to monitor compliance, Arkansas has become the 6th state to take a slightly different approach by becoming “the latest state to enact legislation that bans schools from deploying social media monitoring firms to track their students’ personal digital accounts.”  The ultimate purpose of these laws is to save collegiate institutions around the country hundreds of millions of dollars in insurance costs, legal fees, monitoring and compliance.

What is a bit surprising is the NCAA’s Social Media & Blogging Policy.  The NCAA states that, “A credentialed media member may blog or provide updates via social media during any NCAA championship event, provided that such posts do not produce in any form a “real-time” description of the event as determined by the NCAA in its sole discretion.  If the NCAA deems that the credentialed media member is producing real-time description of the contest, the NCAA reserves all actions against the credentialed media member, including but not limited to the revocation of the credential.”  The NCAA’s leniency is significant because it is nothing more than a slap on the wrist, and almost unheard of, when compared to professional sports.  The NBA, for instance, states that, “The Holder agrees not to transmit, distribute, or sell (or aid in transmitting, distributing, or selling), in any media now or hereafter existing, any description, account, picture, video, audio or other form of reproduction of the event or any surround activities (in whole or in part) for which this ticket is issued (the “Event”).”  Surprisingly, many fans probably don’t realize that these terms and conditions are made very clear on the back of their ticket as they sit in the crowd uploading photos, video, and updates to their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts; among others.  While he wouldn’t say it, we also know Mike D’Antoni wasn’t thrilled with Kobe tweeting from his couch.  That said, it could actually be good for professional sports to embrace the actions of guys like Kobe Bryant tweeting in-game tips and suggestions.  The NBA has to remember that this was a good thing, because it engaged even more fans while providing them unique access to a world they wouldn’t normally get a glimpse of.  Plus, it’s not as though this is a real distraction for the players in the middle of the game while they’re following the game; not checking their Twitter accounts – hopefully.  Even Major League Baseball recognized the power of social media during the 2011 MLB Home Run Derby – and that league is about as old-school as you’re going to get in American professional sports.

Fortunately, the likelihood of our professional leagues cracking down on fans for sharing this information in the social space is unlikely because it’s actually a good marketing tool for the league; nor is it hurting the league from a profit standpoint.  Not to mention reality has shown us finding a wireless or WiFi signal when surrounded by thousands of fans trying to do the same thing is challenging in and of itself.  Fans uploading real-time information to the social media space really should be the least of league concerns at a sporting event.  However, that priority may change once stadiums and arenas have really perfected WiFi access for all in attendance.  Until then, it makes more sense for sports to wait till they get to that bridge before deciding whether or not to cross it.  Regardless of what the future holds though, you’re naïve if you don’t think social media is the way of the future for public relations in the sports realm.

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Can you stream me now?

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Major League Baseball Advanced Media is second to none when it comes to innovation and setting trends not only within the sports realm, but also digital media advancement as a whole.  In 2000, all 30 Major League Baseball clubs unanimously voted to create a separate entity that would house all digital media services for the entire league and MLBAM was born.  Being home to MLB technology, digital information, and online ticketing services, MLBAM has been able to create MLB.tv, web streaming services and a variety of mobile applications for smart phone and tablet devices.  All of which can be used by fans to get up to the minute scores, highlights and a variety of audio and video coverage of MLB games.

The next venture for MLBAM is now the recent partnership with Qualcomm, a leader in next-generation wireless technologies, to improve mobile access and performance at MLB Ballparks.  The idea is that ballparks will now extend the limits of digital expectations and the ability to maintain a mobile infrastructure that will meet fan expectations during their ballpark experience.  A major part of this agreement is the engineering team representing this partnership will assess and plan for increased access at select ballparks over the next two years.

Now for the spoiler alert – while increasing data demand by an impressive 1000x, MLBAM’s partnership with Qualcomm is already behind the times.  This feat has not only been undertaken by Santa Clara Stadium, but is already in the process of being implemented for the 49ers opening season in their new facility.  Not only will Santa Clara Stadium have a capacity of 68,500, but it will also provide simultaneous wireless connectivity to every single one of those individuals; without any limits on downloads or uploads.

This was primarily possible as a result of the efforts of Santa Clara Stadium’s CTO Kunal Malik and Senior IT Director Dan Williams; neither of whom have conventional sports technology backgrounds.  Instead, they spent five years at Facebook building what is currently one of the largest and most efficient website networks in the world.  The idea behind their undertaking is that Santa Clara Stadium will provide around a terabit of capacity while providing the experiences that users would more commonly receive with long-term evolution (LTE) services.  The issue with most stadium designs today is what Dan Williams calls sub-optimal locations for wireless access points and the addition of more of these access points doesn’t necessarily generate more signal strength.  In a manner to overcome the obstacles that traditionally hinder Wi-Fi access in stadiums and arenas, Santa Clara Stadium will evenly distribute these points around the stadium in a format that will efficiently provide the same wireless signal to all stadium guests.  While specific information as to how this network will be established is proprietary, it seems fair to say that Major League Baseball Advanced Media has some catching up to do.