DSports Recap: Using Social Networks To Build the Brand

Carolyn Braff
Sports is unquestionably a community enterprise.
Die-hard fans follow their teams from anywhere around the world and are constantly
looking for ways to connect with other die-hards before, during, and after the
game. Sports has embraced social networking in new and creative ways, and
during SVG’s DSports Conference this week in New York, executives from a range
of sports properties shared their thoughts on the growing social applications bringing
fans together in communities across the sporting world.
“We’ve really put community everywhere,” explained
Patrick Herde, VP of product management and marketing for CBSSports.com. “It
doesn’t really matter what type of programming we’ve got. There’s going to be
community to it.”
ESPN’s strategy is to make community equally ever
present but in a variety of flavors. Erik Barmack, senior director of business
development for ESPN, explained that, because of the range of sports properties
ESPN networks cover, the company’s community strategy remains a work in
“We have different community elements that are
integrated in different ways, depending on the type of content you are viewing,”
Barmack said. “The point of emphasis changes depending on where you are on
ESPN, and we have conversations every day about where these connecting points
cross over.”
For the top-down news approach tied to programs
like SportsCenter and Pardon the Interruption, ESPN uses
community to better connect the experts with their audience through elements
like anchor blogs. For the next level down, properties like Ohio State
University fan site BuckNuts.com, ESPN grapples with adding in its own branding
while maintaining the site’s gritty integrity. For younger properties like the
high school-sports site ESPN RISE, the community goal is to get as many
participants as possible to join in the discourse.
But no matter the sport, league, team, or player
around which a community is built, ESPN believes that community must extend
beyond a single platform.
“We think pushing people back and forth across
platforms is very important,” Barmack said. “We expanded our fantasy coverage
on TV because of the fact that we were seeing such demand for it on dotcom. We
haven’t positioned that community as independent of the other things that we
are trying to sell.”
Taking on
With a growing number of social-networking sites
competing for sports fans’ online attention, networks must differentiate their
offerings from those of Facebook or MySpace, but Herde said a natural
distinction already exists between them two.
“What we’re doing with the sports community is a
little different flavor than a social utility,” Herde explained. “This is
interactivity around teams and events.”
In fact, rather than go head to head with Facebook,
for last year’s March Madness tournament, CBS built a bracket application on
Facebook. The platform enabled CBS to reach out to user groups that were not
regular visitors to CBSSports.com.
“We drove a significant number of those Facebook
users to NCAA March Madness on Demand, and then we’re able to motivate them to
visit one of our properties,” Herde said. “Using those distributed platforms,
we achieved our goal.”
“We have to figure out ways to get outside of our
little box,” added Marc Lowitz, president of the Arena Football League.
“CBSSports.com has a lot more traffic than we do, but they saw the advantage of
doing that app through Facebook.”
Your Battles
Rather than attempting to force fans to adapt to a
new community platform, building off existing networks can attract new fans
without the legwork that building out a social networking infrastructure
“I want to encourage user-generated content in a
form that’s natural for people to do it, like Facebook,” said Tom Buffolano,
former VP/GM, digital programming and subscription, for CBS College Sports
Network. “Create assignments for people. Tell them here’s the type of thing
we’re looking for and create a contest around it. You can create an unofficial
stringer network that way, as long as you assign somebody that you trust as the
head of the group.”
Tom Linkous, EVP of Sportsware, a network of online
college sports communities, explained, “We have highly active moderators. In a
lot of sites that you go to, the moderator sits behind this curtain of Oz. We
make sure that we bring them out and they become part of the community.”
Community creation is also a clear path to revenue
generation, if done correctly.
“If you create a clean, safe place for discourse to
occur,” Herde said, “then you’re also creating a safe place for advertisers.”
Members of a community are also more likely to
include information about themselves in profiles and questionnaires that content
providers can use to customize advertising to those users, a boon for any sales
“If you’re doing your community stuff right, you
have more information about your users,” Barmack said. “Community people put
more information in their profiles so we can put out advertising and promotions
that are more contextually relevant.”

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