Sports and Social Media: How to Engage Fans Off the Field

The explosion of social media can be a boon to sports public relations.  After all, the role of a sports PR professional is to feed the public’s hunger for news and player information, and tools such as Twitter and Facebook allow us to do just that through quick, real-time updates. We also play an important role in generating public interest, increasing player or team visibility and filling the stands with fans.

Last year, Shaquille O’Neil and Lance Armstrong were among the first major athletes to join Twitter. Today, they each have about two million followers who they interact with on a daily basis, building their personal brands and driving support for their own causes and business ventures.  As a result, more athletes such as Hall of Fame tennis player Jim Courier are embracing the opportunity to connect with fans via social media.  In addition to Twitter and Facebook, athletes are using blogs, video and photo sharing to engage fans as well as hosting live Ustream Web broadcasts and dropping in on tweetups, or impromptu gatherings of people that use Twitter.

While most fans are excited about the acceptance of social media by many athletes and teams, organizations such as the NFL, U.S. Open and the Southeastern Conference (SEC) are starting to put the brakes on some efforts for fear of losing control of their own brands and messages.  They’re introducing policies that are significantly restricting what players, coaches, agents and media can post to social media sites. 

Despite the concerns, social media is here to stay, and it’s taking sports by storm.  That means it is more important than ever that sports PR professionals stay one step ahead and keep up with where athletes and fans are sharing information. 

To use social media to increase engagement with fans, enhance brand affinity or drive ticket sales, consider these tips.  

1.    Determine what you want to accomplish

Start with a clear understanding of your goals, then find the right mix of tools that can help you achieve those through consistent participation.  It’s crucial to know how you want to be viewed online, what you want to communicate and how much time and resources you have to devote to it. To generate buzz throughout the PGA Tour’s 2009 Quail Hollow Championship and drive ticket sales, our firm, Charlotte-based Luquire George Andrews, launched a social media campaign to complement our other marketing efforts.  In addition to regularly uploading videos and photos on Facebook and Twitter, LGA posted tournament news and hole-by-hole descriptions to keep members informed and engaged before, during and after the event, which led to a sold-out crowd and more than 1,000 fans and followers within the first three months.   

2.    Listen and engage

Being successful in the social media space isn’t only setting up Twitter and Facebook accounts.  You have to constantly engage fans in conversation.  A good way to start is by monitoring social media tools to see what fans are saying about your brand and respond to those conversations.  You also should regularly participate in targeted conversations by commenting on blogs, responding to Tweets and adding value to other social networks.  Also, don’t be afraid of negative comments because they’ll be shared with or without you.  Instead, listen to feedback and try to quickly and diplomatically address specific issues.

3.    Make it interactive

Providing regular updates to humanize your brand and publicize news is important, but offering promotions, giveaways and access to athletes is another way to interact and build relationships with fans, followers and the general public.  People like freebies.  Major brands like iPhone and Starbucks have been successful at contests via Twitter, but it works for unknown brands as well.  According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, “Contests and Giveaways Move to New, Fast Terrain of Twitter,” Moonfruit was an unfamiliar Web site-building company with 400 followers, and just a few days after launching a contest to win 10 Apple MacBook Pros, the company added 47,000 followers. The key is to keep the contest simple and give away prizes that resonate with your fans. 

4.    Provide social media training, too

More athletes are learning that their behavior online can cause more damage than good.  For example, San Diego Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie was fined $2,500 for tweeting that "nasty food" served at training camp has contributed to the Chargers failing to make it to the Super Bowl in recent years. Just as PR experts provide traditional media training to help athletes and executives maneuver their way through media interviews and press conferences, social networking etiquette needs to be incorporated into the education process as well.  Talk to athletes about what’s acceptable and what’s not when posting online, and even about their behavior in public, which easily can be caught on a cell phone and sent out virally to live forever online. 

Stacey McCray is a senior account supervisor / public relations with Charlotte-based advertising, marketing and public relations firm Luquire George Andrews and can be reached at  For more information on LGA, visit

  • David Lawyer

    Stacey – very organized list and well thought out. I especially agree with your highlighting the educational aspects of social media and the athletes, which I myself actively advocate and promote. Very good post. Short, easy-read and to the point.

  • Kelly Rossman-McKinn

    Great perspective – including the cautionary note. Social media is definitely here to stay – and an awesome communication tool that needs to be used as strategically as every other tool we have at our disposal!