Looking into the Crystal Ball: MLB’s Social Media Future

This is the last of four stories on Major League Baseball and social media. You can read the first three parts here, here and here. Full disclosure: Major League Baseball Advanced Media employs FanGraphs contributor Paul Swydan, who wrote this series.

Major League Baseball and its Internet arm — Major League Baseball Advanced Media — started slowly in social media, but the pair has made incremental progress. Technologically, things are running smoothly, and last season the league had lots of success with its Fan Cave, among other initiatives. But what’s in the league’s future?

Certainly the best way for MLB to push the online envelope is to offer good content. But as we’ve seen with countless reality TV shows, what seems fun and exciting one year can soon becomes stale. MLB understands this. “We want the Fan Cave to continue to evolve, so that it’s fresh and unique,” MLB spokesperson Matthew Bourne says. This season, instead of MLB picking Cave finalists on its own, the league is giving fans their say. The league recently concluded a voting period that saw the initial 50 finalists culled down to 30. So far, the results have been promising: MLB’s public relations team said they received more than 1.2 million votes in roughly one month.

All 30 finalists headed down to Spring Training in Arizona this past week, and the league now is deliberating on who will make the final cut heading into the regular season. Once the group — which MLB has promised will include at least one woman — is chosen, fans will once again have the chance to vote off contestants until only two remain in October. “This is an engagement with our fans through social media, and what they say is very important,” Bourne says.

But the league isn’t resting on its laurels when it comes to the other online areas. Last season, much of baseball’s focus was tied up in Facebook and Twitter, but MLBAM has also begun tackling other social-media venues. Baseball has been quick to climb aboard Google+, and it’s currently outshining the other American sports leagues:

League G+ “+1’d or added to circles” *
MLB 313,059
NBA 228,835
NFL No page exists
NHL No page exists

* As of March 7, 2012

Baseball has more than 33% more people in its circles than does the NBA; and the NHL and NFL don’t have official Google+ pages (though there are pages for NFL Network, NFL Films and several NHL teams). Since Google+ is still in its infancy, these numbers can fluctuate rapidly: In the past few weeks, both MLB and the NBA have added roughly 100,000 users. And while Google+ may not be trafficked as frequently as Facebook or Twitter, that doesn’t mean leagues should be ignoring it — especially when you consider how popular Google products generally become.

In addition to its Google+ outreach, MLBAM was the first league to register a Pinterest page. There are several teams in other leagues with pages — such as the Milwaukee Bucks, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Redskins — but there aren’t other official pages for any other league. Andrew Patterson, MLBAM’s director of new media, likes the way Pinterest is set up, because it allows users to customize their experience visually with its different boards. “If someone wants to see stadium photos, or if someone wants to see food at the stadium, or if someone wants to see the greatest mustaches ever, those are all different ways for people to follow the sport,” he says. And while MLB’s modest follow count places it outside of any top 10 most-followed list, it’s encouraging that MLB was the first league to have a presence on what’s now the second-fastest-growing website of all time.

MLBAM also added a Tumblr page this year, making MLB and the NHL the only two leagues on the popular microblogging site. The Tumblr page, which features cartoons that the MLBAM social media staff creates, is particularly eye-catching. The page might eventually also feature fan-created artwork. “I think the more that we can involve fans, the better experience we have for everybody,” Patterson says.

Of course, while goodwill can be built up quickly, it can vanish even faster. Looming as the next elephant in the room is the social media policy that was agreed to in the latest round of collective bargaining between the league and the Major League Baseball Players Association. While Bourne, the MLB spokesperson, couldn’t address the policy specifically because it’s still being written, he characterized the desire to include such a clause in the new agreement more as a “policy matter” — rather than the league being on the prowl for those who offend baseball’s integrity. “We felt like we had it covered pretty well with our existing rules regarding the ability to use electronic devices in and around the clubhouse,” Bourne says. “But we felt that it was a subject that deserved maybe a little bit more scrutiny and a little bit closer look for giving guidance to the players.”

Jamie Duklas, director of social media at Booyah! Online Advertising, says that the policy really isn’t noteworthy. “It is common for entertainment companies to have contract clauses or social media policies that its ‘talent’ must adhere to,” he says. Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Vinnie Pestano isn’t sweating, either. To him, no matter what the policy says, it’s a matter of common sense. “When you say something [on Twitter], it can immediately hit so many people — just from retweets — and stuff can grow into something awfully quick on there if you’re not smart,” he says

Still, the announcement that a new policy would be forthcoming seemed ominous, and not in a positive way. “I don’t know how it will play out, but this seems to indicate that MLB doesn’t trust its players to be ambassadors for its brand,” espnW contributor and self-proclaimed social media junkie Amanda Rykoff says. As our own Wendy Thurm noted in November, the policy has a chance to be a refreshing and helpful guide for players. Whether or not it turns out that way — or something far more restrictive — will help determine how much progress the league has made.

MLB has made strides in providing quality content for its fans, and it has tried to put its content in as many places as possible. Combine that with the embedded player for MLB.com video, and it’s easier than ever to share content. As long as MLBAM continues to scrub YouTube of fan videos, they will draw ire — but they’re at least attempting to give fans with a viable alternative to user-uploaded videos.

As for what comes next, baseball seems ready for the challenge. The league office, MLBAM and many of its teams pledge that they’re either cooking up surprises for the 2012 season, or they’re actively devising fresh ideas. “The fact that we’re constantly thinking about it, I’m optimistic that we will come up with a new wrinkle that’s fun and unique,” Bourne says. The league still has work to do, particularly when it comes to responding to fans — but social media constantly offers new opportunities. If baseball continues to make concessions to its fans — including reaching an acceptable compromise on user-uploaded video — they could soon be batting 1.000. “Baseball seemed a bit slow to fully embrace [social media],” Maury Brown, president of the Business of Sports Network, says. “But with so many games played, baseball has the capacity to overtake the other leagues soon.”

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

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Now they need to drop the stupid blackouts for mlb.tv

Stephen App

That’s not happening anytime soon. I’m curious to see what MLB comes up with moving forward. I don’t pay a lot of attention to the MLB Fan Cave, but I plan on monitoring it this year to see how MLB engages with their fans.