Pat Coyle on Social Networking – Sports Business Journal

April 20, 2009

Social Networking Can Hellp Teams Find Way to Fans’ Hearts

Facebook, a social utility that connects people, is now the third largest Web site in the U.S. Only Google and Yahoo! are bigger. In fact, seven of the top 10 largest Web sites rely on user-generated content or offer social-networking features, according to the Web information company, Alexa. These social sites are making money and building gigantic market caps along the way, clearly demonstrating that there can be good business in user-generated content and online community.

The thought of a pro sports team operating its own social network for its fans seemed ludicrous just a couple of years ago, but lately there has been an upsurge in activity on the sports and social media front. Much of this activity has been fueled by software companies. These technology-focused firms sense an opportunity to sell their wares, and are scrambling to equip both team and league Web sites with Web 2.0 features. Many of these companies and the features they offer are quite good, but few seem to offer the strategic insights necessary for teams to leverage technology to build profitable digital businesses over the long term.

From a business perspective, the first goal of a team social network should be to help fans connect with each other. Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff stress this point in their recently published book, “Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies.” These Forrester Research veterans stress that the most successful Web applications today are designed to connect people to people, rather than to push information. In fact, they stress that social media isn’t about technology at all. It’s about connecting people.
With this in mind, a good strategy for teams might be to focus on building fan community, rather than worrying about having the latest techno bells and whistles. Bottom line, when fans are connected to each other, they are more strongly connected to the team, and they are less likely to defect, which ultimately means greater lifetime value for the team.

But managing fan discussions and online communities can move teams and leagues into new and unfamiliar territory. Teams are accustomed to dealing only with local fans based on their home television markets. But the Web has revealed that most team fans don’t live in the cities where their favorite teams play. Pick any team in any major U.S. sport, and you’re likely to find a majority of fans living outside the home market, and even outside the home state. Ironically, it is television that has helped to increase the number of team fans outside local markets.

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Pat Coyle is founder of Sports Marketing 2.0 (, and can be reached at