Sports entities chase social media cash

If 2010 has taught us anything about social media, it's that teams, leagues and athletes are no longer just spinning their wheels on Twitter, Facebook and the like -- they're driving toward that cold, hard cash.

Sure, at their most basic level, these platforms still allow each to personally and immediately engage with fans, but with such engagement comes the opportunity for marketing. And if those fans and followers -- which often total in the five, six or seven figures for the most popular teams, leagues and athletes -- are given incentive to rebroadcast a brand's content, it all trickles down into their following's following, too.

Call it a perfect game of telephone in which your messages -- which include ticket deals and promotions -- are being whispered in real time to the masses. The more monitors, smartphones and tablets a brand pops up on, the better for business. Fans, whether they realize it or not, have become digital marketing and advertising arms for the teams, leagues and athletes they follow on social media in 2010.

As Shawn Tilger, senior vice president of business operations for the Philadelphia Flyers, told me on the phone last week about the team's new Facebook initiative (details of which I'll get to in a minute): "This is just a natural transition for us to make our fans an extension of our marketing efforts."

Where 2009 saw sports properties racking up a critical mass of followers, 2010 saw them putting those followers to work.

So let us count some of the ways teams, leagues and athletes leveraged their online following for revenue this year:

We saw the emergence of ad.ly, which is just a little more than a year old. Ad.ly puts advertisements directly into the tweets and Facebook status updates of athletes. The wording of such ads closely mirrors the voice of the athlete, and the products are in step with their tastes and preferences.

But the fact remains: Athletes such as Nick Swisher (1.2 million Twitter followers) leveraged their huge following for a business endeavor. Some ad.ly endorsement campaigns were fetching celebrities six figures or more in 2010 -- certainly a number to be taken seriously.

FanWaves, a platform that monetizes outbound links in Twitter streams of athletes and teams, also launched in April.

And while the connection wasn't quite as direct, LeBron James joined Twitter during the most opportune time of his career, shortly before "The Decision," and quickly amassed a large following that continues to grow (1.15 million). James has tweeted about products he endorses since joining in July.

Even less direct, Tiger Woods joined Twitter last month as part of a calculated public relations plan to reconnect with fans after a sex scandal shattered the public's image of the golfer. The more Woods (364,000-plus followers) reaches out to fans -- a Q&A session he did on the platform on Nov. 30 was popular -- and endears himself to the masses, the more he may get back in the good graces with sponsors after being dropped by some in the aftermath of the scandal.

LeBron and Tiger, two of the biggest athletes going today, are their own businesses and brands. Their planned additions to Twitter, at a time in its life cycle in which someone of their stature could gain a massive following in an incredibly short amount of time, helped advance both in these realms.

Friends, followers and revenue

In 2010, it was no longer just enough to have a Facebook page. Teams and leagues supercharged their Facebook presence with money on their minds.

By utilizing FanAppz, another company in its infancy, sports properties such as the NBA and Miami Dolphins gave fans the opportunity to participate in polls, quizzes and top-five lists, thus engaging them at a deeper level than Facebook's native functionality would allow. These functions can all be shared along to friends on Facebook, thus exposing the team or league to a larger number of users.

FanAppz also allows for monetization in the form of promotions, coupons and sweepstakes. It's taking the engagement and exposure and turning it into revenue.

The recent partnership between Paciolan, a ticket company, and Buddy Media, whose Facebook management platform is already being used by top brands such as Samsung and Anheuser Busch, is offering similar engagement with fans of teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers and the Philadelphia Flyers -- both teams being early adopters of the partnered platform set to launch at the end of December.

Just like FanAppz, monetization lies behind the engagement and user-to-user marketing of this partnership. It provides an easy way to buy tickets and share available tickets sales along to friends on Facebook.

The New York Jets even stepped into social gaming on Facebook this year -- one of the hottest emerging markets on the platform because of its ability to generate revenue through virtual items. On Sept. 8, the team launched a social game entitled Ultimate Fan in conjunction with developer Arkadium. It was believed to be a first for an American professional sports team and was built in such a way for other NFL teams to have the opportunity to join in and get a piece of the pie.

The goal here again was the same: Engage fans, have them share it around to friends and generate revenue.

The much-buzzed-about concept of group buying, which rewards consumers with lower prices for joining together for purchases, found its way to sports and Facebook, as well.

Lineage Management/Interactive, in partnership with AtCost, tacked on a group-buying software platform to former Phoenix Suns and current New York Knicks player Amare Stoudemire's Facebook page, and Western Conference playoffs tickets were sold in conjunction with RazorGator Tickets.

The Cleveland Indians, who struggled with poor attendance in 2010, sold tickets on Groupon -- the most popular platform for group buying -- in an effort to increase sales.

This season the Indians also created the Tribe Social Deck, which invited social media users to their own press box of sorts in the outfield, allowing for influencers to get the team's brand name out more heavily into the social streams and perhaps get more fans through the turnstiles.

The Sacramento Kings, another team with struggling attendance so far in the 2010-11 season, experimented with a similar endeavor earlier this month.

Teams and leagues also tapped into check-ins, another hot topic and revenue generator in the 2010 social space. Check-ins allow a fan who's physically present in a sports venue to alert the social web he or she is in the building via geolocation.

At the start of the 2010-11 season, the NHL encouraged fans to check-in on Foursquare -- perhaps the most well-known service in this realm -- at arenas. By doing so, teams could more deeply engage fans by providing them with information about the team.

Teams such as the New York Islanders also encouraged fans to check-in at team shops, where they were able to unlock merchandise deals.

As teams and leagues continue to compete against a better home-viewing experience, thanks to HD and 3D broadcasts, offering such incentives to entice in-stadium fans to market to their online following is crucial to keeping the stadium experience -- which generates revenue via tickets, merchandise and concessions sales -- top of mind in the social space.

Going mobile

Mobile applications weren't as fresh a monetization concept in 2010, but we saw the maturation of this market in 2010.

MLB's At Bat application, which features live video broadcasts of games and allows for social functionality in-stadium, was big business for the league this year.

Earlier this month, Apple named MLB's iPhone and iPod touch app its highest grosser among all paid applications this year, while the iPad version was named the highest grosser in the sports category.

All aboard

Obviously, not every team, league and athlete has begun to take advantage of the above marketing strategies. And again, this is but some of the tactics that popped up this year. But as the clock ticks over into 2011 and social media continues to become more deeply entrenched in this digital age we're living in -- one that's changing some long-held fundamentals of marketing, advertising and business -- expect more to board the revenue train.

It's just starting to leave the station, and there's plenty of seats still available.

Ryan Corazza is a freelance writer and web designer based in Chicago who also contributes to ESPN Insider's NBA Rumor Central.