While pro sports properties have long embraced social media as a fan engagement platform, a growing number of rightsholders are adding a new component to their digital initiatives: on-site social media centers.

Following the lead of the NHL New Jersey Devils and the team’s Mission Control digital command center, properties ranging from the USTA US Open to the NHL Tampa Bay Lightning and MLB San Francisco Giants have rolled out on-site video screens that aggregate chatter across Twitter, Facebook and other digital channels.

And more pro sports teams and events—as well as other types of properties—are expected to launch similar programs in the near future.

“It’s a brilliant idea. Social media is not going away,” said Cullen Maxey, executive vice president of business operations with the MLB Arizona Diamondbacks. The team is exploring the idea of a converting an area of Chase Field into a social media café, he said.

The primary benefit of social media centers: enhancing the fan experience.by aggregating relevant content in a centralized location. 

“Teams have so many social media platforms across text, video and photos. This is a way to curate that content and house it under one roof,” said Steve Cobb, founding partner of Active8Social, a social media agency that specializes in fan engagement and activation platforms for sports brands.

Properties also can use social media centers to bring Instagram photos to life from their point of origin. For example, AT&T Park in 2012 was the fifth most popular place in the world for taking an Instagram photo.

“Social media is very visual, and Instagram and other photo-based platforms lend themselves to a bigger screen,” said Cobb.

Opening The Door To New Inventory
Social media centers provide another valuable benefit: new sponsorship inventory.  

That inventory ranges from naming rights to branded content distributed through Twitter, Instagram and other social media channels.

For example, the USTA has secured Esurance, Inc. as one of three sponsors of a 50-foot-wide by eight-foot-high social media wall that will make its debut at next month’s US Open.

The rights fee for the wall is above and beyond the company’s recent contract extension, said Nicole Jeter West, the USTA’s director of digital strategy and partnerships.

Each sponsor will receive a three minute rotation on the social media wall. Each rotation will feature social media content (Instagram, Facebook and Twitter) for two minutes and 30 seconds followed by a 30-second “takeover” that each company can use to promote branded content. 

“The idea for the wall is to enhance the fan experience. In the same vein, it is an opportunity to bring something new to our partners to activate against,” said Jeter West, who is negotiating deals with two other existing US Open partners.

The USTA will replicate the social media wall on USOpen.org “so fans at home can participate in the social media conversation,” she added.

Below, IEG SR highlights two other properties that have recently rolled out social media centers.

Tampa Bay Lightning/Bolts Social Central. The NHL team in February rolled out Bolts Social Central as part of Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s transformation of the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

That effort resulted in four concourse-level quadrants, one of which serves as the home of Bolts Social Central.

“Our sponsorship team sold sponsorship to three of the four quads, and about a year ago they came to us and said ‘we don’t have a sponsor for the fourth quad. What can we do?’ We came back and said let’s make this a social media lounge,” said James Royer, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s director of digital media.

Fans that visit the social media center can read comments on Twitter, check out Instagram photos and monitor other content.  

“Some of the most photographed places shared on Instagram are sports venues. We wanted to capture that content and display that fan passion,” said Royer.

The Lightning also uses Bolts Social Central to encourage check-ins on Facebook, Foursquare and other platforms in the Tampa Bay Times Forum. The team in February hosted a launch party at the quad, around which it distributed cupcakes to attendees that checked in at the venue.

“We didn’t know what to expect, but we got a lot of social chatter and people were lining up to get a cupcake,” said Royer.  

The team also uses Bolts Social Center as an activation platform. Amalie Oil Co. earlier this year activated its sponsorship of an AFL Tampa Bay Storm game with a promotion in Bolts Social Central that offered consumers the chance to have a photo posted on their Facebook page holding a live alligator.

The team has seen success on several fronts as a result of the program:

  • A 30 percent increase in the Lightning’s timeline delivery reach and a 65 percent increase beyond the standard reach of #TBLightning
  • A 44.9 percent increase in Facebook check-ins at the Tampa Bay Times Forum
  • A 55 percent increase in Instagram followers

San Francisco Giants/@Cafe. The MLB team last month launched @Cafe, a social media café in AT&T Park. The café is located behind the venue’s centerfield bleachers in a location that previously housed a Build-a-Bear workshop.

“This year we wanted to change direction. Some teams are doing social media walls, but we wanted to create space for a social media café,” said Jason Pearl, the San Francisco Giants’ managing vice president of sponsorship and new business development.

The café features a 12-foot by four-foot video wall that displays Giants social chatter across Twitter, Google Plus, Facebook and other channels. Adobe Systems, Inc. helped develop the back-end technology for the installation

“Adobe is a partner with the Giants as well as Major League Baseball, so it was easy to work with them,” said Pearl.

The Giants plan to monetize the café by selling “powered by” or presenting sponsorship to the venue, he said. “We want to partner with a company that is active in social media and wants to associate their brand with a hip new space.”

The team also plans to secure three or four smaller-level sponsors that will align with Twitter feeds, photo of the day programs and other inventory, he added.

The team has already secured one sponsor: Peet’s Coffee and Tea. The company receives sales rights in the social media café.

College Athletic Departments Follow Suit  
A growing number of college athletic departments are following the lead of pro sports teams in launching on-site social media centers.

Coastal Carolina Chanticleers this month rolled out the Chants365 social hub, while the University of Oregon and University of California, Irvine have launched on-site social media centers over the past year.

And just like pro sports teams, the schools are integrating sponsors into the social media programs, albeit at a slightly slower pace.

For example, UC-Irvine Athletics leverages its Zot Com social media center by aligning sponsors with team-themed content. That includes a partnership with ESPN Zone, which sponsors the team’s Anteater of the Week program.

The school focuses on platforms that add value to the fan experience, said Robby Ray, UC-Irvine’s assistant athletic director of marketing and corporate relations.

“We have a fear of losing followers to spam. Our content needs to be genuine and add to the fan experience, otherwise we’ll lose that fan engagement.”

ESPN Zone is an existing UC-I sponsor, he added.

Zot Com is located in UC-I’s Mesa Office Building and is staffed by five to seven undergraduate students who work in coordination with the school’s marketing and media relations departments, said Ray. 

Like UC-I, the University of Oregon also has taken a cautious approach with the Quack Cave social media center.

“The moment we start to have too many sponsors is the moment when we start losing our authenticity. If it doesn’t provide value, we’re not interested,” said Craig Pintins, the University of Oregon’s senior associate athletic director for marketing and public relations.

IMG College—the University of Oregon’s multimedia rights holder—is selling the Quack Cave. The agency also is selling the Duck Insider—a radio show broadcast from the Quack Cave—as well as other related assets.

The University of Oregon, which launched the Quack Cave in August 2012, next month will move the center from Autzen Stadium to the school’s Casanova Center.