The Growing Power of Twitter in Sports


Nothing gets our tweets flying quite like the world of sports.

As Nielsen's latest Year in Sports Media Report explains, sporting events made up just 1% of all TV programming last year, but accounted for almost half of users' TV-related tweets. People love to brag, whine, analyze, and talk smack about their favorite athletes. And when it comes to Twitter , sports are even more popular than a TV series, which are 25 times more likely to be on the air.

Clearly, when we tweet, we like to tweet about sports. But why?

The theory
Every sport has enthusiasts. Whether it's a Manchester United fanatic or an Oakland Raiders diehard, many live and breathe with their team.

A 2011 report from explored this phenomenon and found that, according to Sandra Bond Chapman of the University of Texas, "A sporting event offers an opportunity to experience a compelling mix of chemical responses." She adds, "dopamine cells respond to a reward primarily when it occurs unpredictably, which is typical [in sports].... Our brains want to repeat feelings of pleasure and euphoria."

Unlike TV series, news, or movies, sports offer a level of addictive unpredictability that is simply unmatched. Have you ever seen anyone strip and paint themselves before watching an episode of Parks and Recreation or Mad Money?

Image via John Martinez Pavliga, Flickr.

Sure, some TV shows are addictive, but they usually don't produce the same level of fandom as sports, hence the reason we love to tweet about it. Twitter simply provides a sounding board to voice this fanaticism.

The business side of it all
So what does this mean for the networks that air sporting events? Nielsen estimates that 28% of all sports programming is positively affected by high Twitter activity. A "spike in tweets can increase tune-in," and vice versa, according to a company executive.

Major players like Disney's ESPN and CBS regularly display viewers' tweets on air, and topics with hashtags (or as ESPN SportsCenter host Neil Everett calls them, hashbrowns) are featured on nearly every network. The more involved fans are with a particular sporting event on social media, the more likely they are to watch. In turn, more money can be made from advertisers. On ESPN, for example, a 10% jump in viewership could boost ad revenue by as much as $300 million a year.

Super Bowl ad costs, which have risen 80% in the past decade and now sit at $4 million per 30-second spot, may also be tied to Twitter. Viewership records in four of the past five Super Bowls, and historic levels of tweeting activity, could be a reason for ad inflation, a positive for CBS, Fox , and the other networks that air the game.

Getting creative
But hashtagged topics and broadcasted tweets aren't the only ways companies are cashing in on passionate, tweeting fans. Promotional contests are also a popular way for many sports organizations to generate hype, from mud runs like Warrior Dash and Tough Mudder, to the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Quicken Loans' Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge, announced last month, is another good example. The entire purpose of the sweepstakes, which offers $1 billion to anyone with a perfect March Madness bracket, was to increase exposure. The hype boosted Quicken Loans's Twitter follower count by 5% in just two days, growth that typically takes a few months.

Since the average price of a Twitter follower is generally valued at about $2, a relatively inexpensive contest can generate thousands, and sometimes even millions of dollars in social media value.

The future
The future may be even brighter. Until this point, the Twitter sports craze hasn't been fully harnessed by the pro teams themselves. Wayin, whose software links ads with tweets, is seeking to change that. The social media start-up partnered with the Denver Broncos last year, and here's what I wrote about it a few weeks ago:

Through the arrangement, fans' in-game tweets are displayed on the stadium's scoreboard and TVs with ads, and in its first trial...over 87,000 tweets were submitted. These efforts can make teams thousands of dollars in ad revenue each home game...Depending on the value of each Twitter ad impression [most range between $0.75 and $2.50]...this strategy could make football teams over $1 million per season.

Wayin's technology is only in its infancy, but the company's clients include four NFL teams in addition to the Broncos: the St. Louis Rams, Atlanta Falcons, Buffalo Bills, and Philadelphia Eagles.

The Falcons and Wayin, for example, are currently experimenting with a "social media hub" that gathers and organizes tweets from fans, staff members, and players. It is sponsored by Microsoft's Surface, and although the value of the endorsement hasn't been made public, I'd estimate it's worth at least $500,000 a year, considering the Falcons have a little over 250,000 Twitter followers.

Wayin is also connected with the Dallas Mavericks of the NBA, and the San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators of the NHL.

Final thoughts
By partnering with companies like this, sports teams can capitalize on their fans' love of Twitter. The potential revenue isn't enormous, but at the very least, these strategies can boost fan retention. I'm more likely to follow my team during the offseason, and cheer for it during a down season, if it's involved in my social media world.

Many non-sports organizations, like Quicken Loans, are also using this phenomenon to create contests that boost their exposure, and it's something networks are fans of as well. The next time you see a #SCtop10 hashtag on ESPN's SportsCenter, remember the business implications behind it.

The more fans tweet about a sporting event, the more likely they are to watch it -- the dopamine response is too powerful to ignore.

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Jake Mann has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Twitter and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft and Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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