Who Will Harness the Collective Power of Social Athletes?

When the Miami Heat beat the Seattle Supersonics in the NBA Finals (call me old fashioned), LeBron James ended his playoff-driven Twitter hiatus with this message:

That message was retweeted more than 45,000 times within the hour – with that kind of circulation, James better hope the big guy upstairs doesn’t know what the F in his acronym stands for.

Blasphemous Twitter use aside, James’ long awaited hoist of the NBA Championship trophy was the culmination of a drama that social media helped cultivate. LeBron has over 5mm Twitter followers, and another 11mm Facebook Fans. Dwyane Wade (yes that’s how he spells his name), Kevin Durant and several other NBA superstars aren’t far behind. Jeremy Lin had about 20,000 followers in early February, when most people were wondering how he got courtside tickets to every game; today he has close to 800,000. Those people are both a players most loyal fans and malicious critics, and for James they enhanced a pressure to win which grew as each ringless year passed (not 5, not 6, not 7, but 8 ringless years). Regardless of any given follower intent – praise or demonization – they were highly engaged. One might argue that those who hate LeBron pay more attention to him than those who love him. After all, you have to be pretty locked-in to think of all those clever nicknames: LeBum, LeBrick, JeBron Lames…

So why hasn’t anyone harnessed the power of that engagement? If one superstar athlete has the ability to reach millions of people with the touch if his cell phone, then all of them together have the potential to start a movement at the drop of a hat. What if the NBA (or any other sports league) took some control over their athletes’ social media use? I’m not suggesting they destroy the genuine relationship social has created between players and fans; I’m suggesting they leverage their athletes’ influence for the collective good. Think about it – when a player is signed to an NBA team, he agrees to on-demand half time and post game interviews to enhance the viewing experience and raise ratings, a curfew before games to ensure his body is ready to perform and he stays out of trouble, and a dress code for entering the stadium (not exactly sure why, but the players sure do dress spiffy). That player is given the freedom to act genuinely within those confines, as Russell Westbrook so flagrantly points out with his post-game attire, but he’s still behaving in line with the leagues objectives, and in return for his cooperation, he’s a filthy rich global celebrity.

What if the NBA required players to advocate on behalf of their charitable agendas or community outreach programs through social? They could tweet or post whatever they like, so long as the language is appropriate. What if they league took it a step further and asked that all players use social to alert their audience of upcoming games? Again they could use their own language, maybe tagging teammates and opponents in their messaging to convey a communal sense to the audience. Imagine the increase in awareness and viewership. The NBA negotiates commercial airtime in their contracts with broadcasters to make people aware of marquee matchups, so why not leverage a community that’s just as big and even more engaged? Keep in mind that these league-enforced posts would only be a small percentage of athletes’ social activity; the vast majority of the conversation going on would be unaffected, especially since that sincere engagement between player and fan (or hater) is a big interest driver for the game.

I realize this is a slippery slope. What starts as a loosely stated initiative to get players on the same page as the league could quickly become a disingenuous advertising play that paints athletes as snake oil salesman… But I do believe it can be done right, and if it were, hundreds of powerful voices would come together to form a social media army, powerful enough to reach primetime broadcast size audiences at any moment, free of cost.

Mike Krzyzewski has popularly analogized a basketball team with a fist, stating that 5 players operating independently are like five fingers on a hand, and the worst those fingers can do is slap someone. But when those five play together, they form a fist, which can do a lot more damage. I believe that holds true for communications as well. One voice can only be so loud, and a thousand voices speaking independently can’t be heard with clarity. If sports leagues can find a way to combine their individual athletes’ influence into one voice, one fist, without breaking too many fingers, they could pack one hell of a punch.

To hear me say much less thought out, much less intelligent things, follow me @mikemikho

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  2. 06/26 2012

    I agree with your article. The power that athletes hold on people through social media is remarkable. They could trully start a movement if they wanted to. Shaq, Lebron, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, D Wade, Tony Hawk, Reggie Bush, Dwight Howard, Chad Ochocinco, and Sachin Tendulkar all have millions of people following them and it would be interesting if their respective sport encouraged them to use social media to reach the fans to help generate more revenue.

  3. Mike Mikho
    06/28 2012

    Agreed. I think there’s so much potential there. I’m envisioning Reggie Bush and Dwyane Wade cross promoting their leagues through social. That could especially help the MLS or extreme sports, which don’t get as much press

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