This is the first of four stories on Major League Baseball and social media. Full disclosure: Major League Baseball Advanced Media employs FanGraphs contributor Paul Swydan, who wrote this series.
The evening of Nov. 11, 2010, turned into a pretty frustrating one for Kyle Scott. On that night, Scott, who runs the popular Philadelphia sports blog Crossing Broad, got an email from YouTube telling him that several baseball videos he’d posted were being removed from the site. While the videos were short — none exceeded 30 seconds — and contained scant game footage, they’d apparently gotten the attention of Major League Baseball Advanced Media. It wasn’t the first time that Scott had run afoul of MLBAM, but he was frustrated enough by the situation to write about it the next day. “They were short clips that we used for a quick laugh,” Scott says now. The Internet site The Big Lead picked up Scott’s story, and Scott says most readers “sympathized with our frustrations.” That MLBAM put the kabosh on Scott’s videos seems counterintuitive for a sport that’s constantly trying to expand its brand — and 15 months after getting the YouTube email, Crossing Broad averages nearly 1 million page views a month.
So is MLB a big-league bully — or is it simply protecting itself? And how does the league stack up against its peers on the American sports landscape? To figure that out, you first have to take a look at Scott’s case — or more specifically, to YouTube, where the league’s social-media firestorm began. Not only did MLB not post their own videos on YouTube, they actively sought to remove videos that fans had posted — a decision that ran counter to other sports leagues, which never took such heavy handed measures. Sometimes, as in Scott’s case, the deletions left a very public trail — and that critical fallout can have a lasting effect. But while MLBAM could have been more diplomatic about its position, the league’s online media arm had a practical business reason for taking such a hard line: the moneymaker called MLB.tv.
One of the most profitable products ever released on the internet, MLB.tv may have its share of problems, but it has been well worth the money of its tens of thousands of subscribers. The fact that MLBAM quickly figured out a strategy for monetizing Internet content pushed the league to the digital forefront. But socially, the league has hardly been a leader. Initially, leagues like the NBA gave its fans the power to go viral by pouring videos onto its YouTube channel. Baseball didn’t, and it missed an early opportunity. “Sharing content and allowing it to go viral is a critical component of success in the social media sphere,” says espnW contributor and self-proclaimed social media junkie Amanda Rykoff. “It’s not a coincidence that the NBA dominates the four U.S.-based sports leagues in the social media arena.”
YouTube aside, the league initially made an effort to get out in front of social media, creating league and team pages for all 30 franchises on both Facebook and on Twitter. While that was a good start, MLBAM employees controlled most or all of the information for those feeds. That meant that the content often lacked the teams’ individual personalities — if the content had any personality at all. The lack of personality on Twitter became a very real issue two years ago, when news leaked in April 2010 that MLBAM had enacted a restrictive social media policy that made its employees eliminate all personal tweets and stick only to baseball. While the story may have been overblown, the damage had been done in the court of public opinion. Perhaps as a result of such public hiccups, @MLB still trails @nfl and @NBA on Twitter.
* As of Mar. 4, 2012
As you can see, @NBA is crushing its competition. The league has more followers than @MLB and @NHL, combined. Major League Baseball isn’t faring any better on Facebook, either:
* As of Mar. 4, 2012
Here, MLB trails all three leagues — including the NHL, which has worked hard to create an active social media base. In 2009, the NHL organized official fan ‘tweet-ups’ during the Stanley Cup playoffs as one of its first major forays in the social-media age. “Though the NHL is regarded as the least popular of the four major leagues in the U.S., it has over twice as many Facebook fans as MLB due in large part to its early adoption of social media to connect with fans,” Rykoff says.
MLBAM officials say they’re not focused on the numbers. Instead its dedicated to “offer[ing] the best experience to baseball fans,” says Andrew Patterson, MLBAM’s director of new media. And the league seems to be heading in the right direction. MLB and NHL are the first two leagues to incorporate new Facebook timelines. MLB has added more historic moments to its timeline than the NHL, be they groundbreaking — such as Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947 — or record-breaking — like Rickey Henderson becoming MLB’s stolen base king in 1991.
Moving from counting stats — like the number of followers — to publicly available rate stats compiled by Twitalyzer, Klout and Peer Index, you begin to get a better look at how MLB is doing:
* All data as of Mar. 4, 2012
** Scores are percentiles
The scores across the four leagues remarkably similar, though that comes with the caveat that the validity of objective social media metrics — even according to those who create them — aren’t totally clear.
While publicly available metrics might not do a great job of measuring influence, one thing is certain: social media is very important. According to a recent survey, 81% of people prefer to get their sports news on the internet. Twitter and Facebook (41%) narrowly edged national news websites (40%) as the go-to source for sports news — another indication of the importance that leagues must put on social media.
Facebook and Twitter, in particular, are now hotbeds of opportunity when people are watching television. Anecdotally, that’s even more so during live events. While it’s tough to tie TV ratings to Twitter activity, there’s probably a connection. Last summer, a TV Guide study reported that 50% of Twitter users talked about the show they were currently watching; 35% of Facebook users did the same. The NFL capitalized on this last month when they let players tweet from the sidelines during the Pro Bowl. The decision earned instant buzz and plaudits.
That’s not to say that everything that integrates social media and television is a great idea. During its recent All-Star Saturday night, the NBA altered its popular Slam Dunk contest format: voting was only done by fans who either texted or tweeted. While the league received a reported 3 million votes, both the contest and the format were widely panned. In an ESPN SportsNation poll a day after the event, voters were asked to give the contest a letter grade. Of the 229,622 who voted, only three percent gave it an A; 34% rated it an F — the letter grade that won out. On top of that, the format — which cut into the arena’s excitement because of the dunk-text/tweet delay — was mocked on Twitter, with people writing in votes like Roy Halladay, South Park’s Randy Marsh and LeBron James’ leather sleeves.
All-Star night ended in frustration for many basketball fans — the same frustration that Scott, the Crossing Broad blogger, felt when his videos were taken down. But unlike the fans who immediately took to Twitter to mock the dunk format, Scott didn’t feel like he had a recourse. In fact, he was so bemused that he never bothered to get an answer from YouTube or from Major League Baseball. “It didn’t seem worth the effort,” he says now.
Baseball still hasn’t bent on its opposition to fan-uploaded videos, though the league has made its videos easier to share — a change that we’ll discuss tomorrow. And while the NBA’s attempt to marry social media and live television didn’t go over so well, it opened the door for other events. And professional baseball is best-positioned to get it right: No other league puts on more live events each year. Thanks to some social media successes in 2011, the league has a great deal of momentum that they’ll look to build on this year. Not only did Game 162 of the regular season and Game Six of the World Series create a buzz for baseball, but MLB also successfully experimented with some live-event Twitter integration of their own. We’ll take a look at last season’s successes, and MLB’s other prominent social media efforts, tomorrow.