Social media and the business of sports

Sports are inherently social.

We watch games with friends at the arena or in the bar, we debate the virtues of the best players and our favorite teams become a part of who we are.

TrueHoop at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

This is why Facebook is now an essential part of being a sports fan, as Nick Grudin explained in his presentation at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference entitled “Social Sports: Facebook and the Fan-Centric Experience.”

Facebook has exploded as one of the biggest innovations of the new millennium based on the simple premise that people are social beings who want to share their experiences with friends.

“You’re just never a fan alone,” said Grudin, who works for Facebook.

This extends to the sporting world as users check into stadiums (only airports get more check-ins in the United States) and proudly display their fanhood by becoming a fan of their favorite players and teams on Facebook.

According to Grudin, NBA fans are most active on Facebook, and it’s not close, as 7.6 million fans “like” the NBA, compared to just 2.6 million for the NFL and less than a million for MLB. Facebook is the NBA’s No. 2 referral source for traffic, seeing nine times as much traffic as it did a year ago. The NBA embraced Facebook before the other leagues, and the league is reaping the benefits in traffic.

Team-wise it’s about what one would expect with the Lakers (6.2 million), Celtics (3.4), Heat (2.6) and Bulls (1.4) ahead of the pack.

Nobody should be surprised that Kobe (6.8) and LeBron (5.2) lead the way as far as player fan pages go, but Grudin was intrigued by Rajon Rondo ranking third with 2.0 million fans.

Rondo is an All-Star, sure, but he’s not an all-world megastar on the level of Kobe and LeBron, so Grudin figures his extreme popularity stems largely from his personalized communication with fans. Rondo received about 12,000 likes and 3,500 comments on a simple status message after Boston’s recent trade saying, “Sad to see Perk and Nate go. I wish them nothing but the best.”

Steve Nash, who also breaks the one-million fan mark, does this as well with fun interactions such as his recent video showing Channing Frye playing Scrabble on his iPad on the team bus after hitting a game-winner. Pulling back the curtains for behind-the-scenes moments like these endear players to fans and enhance their personal brand.

Grudin said that Facebook feels the next major revolution in sports will involve the topic of fan interaction with mediums like Facebook allowing us to connect in “fundamentally new ways.”

We can now buy a ticket and immediately tell our friends about it, we can discuss the team to beat in the East on our Facebook walls rather than by the wall of a bar and we can connect with fans all over the globe whose only similarity is that we are both NBA fans.

Yet as Grudin said, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Facebook has revolutionized how people around the globe communicate with over 500 million monthly users, and that makes it a major player in the future of fan interaction.