By Eric Fischer
In the past decade, the explosion of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have advanced the field of sports media and promotion like nothing else has.
After speaking to several different professionals in different media (radio, journalism, television, blogging, and a student getting into the field), there are some common themes and hypotheses about where sports media will go next.
Starting with the radio perspective, I talked to two professionals working in the field: Chris Mehring, the official radio announcer for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers baseball team on 1280 WNAM AM, and Paul VanWagoner, the Operations Manager of WKEX ESPN Blacksburg on 94.1 FM 1430 AM, and referring to my own personal experience in the field as well. Chris has been in the field since 1987, Paul since 1999, and myself since 2015. With both of my professional sources working in the field long before social media became an integral part of sports journalism, this new perspective was eye-opening.
Both professionals use it in a different way to some extent with the same goal. As an official employee of the Timber Rattlers team, Chris’ job is more beat reporter promoting his specific team. Chris notes that since the team added Facebook and Twitter in 2008 and 2009, respectively, they now have the upper hand in promoting their own content. Before those media, the team was fairly limited in its promotion, and had to rely on traditional media – newspapers and radio talk shows, among others – to send out stories. Now that traditional media can amplify their messages, but the content is in the team’s hands.
Paul and ESPN Blacksburg’s social media, on the other hand, reports and engages listeners. They started with Facebook and MySpace to directly engage their listeners while also giving them content. Paul and ESPN Blacksburg would later drop MySpace and add Twitter. Speaking from personal experience, Twitter is a blessing to the field because it allows direct interaction in larger quantities. At my internship with 107.5/1400 The Fan (WDUZ), the station encourages listeners to interact with comments after interviews or calls, as well as a daily Twitter question to gauge reader opinions on everything from best baseball team logos to debates about who the Packers should take in the NFL draft.
Next, sports journalism itself has changed with the advent of social media. I talked to Scott Venci, a journalist with the USA Today Network, covering the Green Bay Phoenix and other local sports for the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Scott primarily uses Twitter to promote his stories. Unlike other professionals I interviewed, Scott was hesitant to use social media for work. “I’d say it was 2009. That’s when the Press-Gazette told me to make a Twitter account. I actually didn’t want anything to do with it at first,” he says. From there, his Twitter use evolved from live tweeting scores of sports games to engaging with readers and create a bond. It also allows him to be more active in his job. He has the opportunity to get breaking news to the public immediately instead of having to wait for the paper the next day.
This immediacy comes with risk, however: “You really have to be careful. People in all different industries have lost jobs because of things they have tweeted. Heck, kids have lost scholarships because of it. Also, it’s important to make sure you still have confirmed news before you tweet it. It doesn’t matter if you’re first if you’re also wrong.”
Turning to the world of television, I interviewed Matt Hietpas, the Sports Producer at WBAY, Green Bay’s ABC affiliate. As a producer, Matt mostly uses his personal Twitter account for his own interests and live-tweeting sports games. He does, however, use his work and personal Twitter accounts to report game scores in real-time, instead of viewers waiting for the coach to call them in. Hietpas and WBAY also encourage interaction among fans on Twitter. Hietpas is interested how the local television stations will react to sports clips on social media: “With the ongoing use of sports highlights being posted to social media well before our newscasts air, it will be interesting what local newscasts do in the future. As you watch national channels start to move to talking heads and reaction-based shows rather than sports highlight programs, it will be interesting to see what the future holds.”
Next, I interviewed Zach Chafron, the CEO of Cleveland Sports Talk (CST), a brand built on the back of social media. Zach built his organization in 2011 after being teased by friends for his love (at the time) of the futile efforts of Cleveland sports teams. Chafron first started a blog as a joke to continue his fandom, and soon it grew like wildfire. Zach credits his success to the recent success of the Indians and Cavaliers, as well as renowned writers wanting to volunteer their skills to the site.
Of all my sources, CST might be the most active on social media, promoting every story on their social media accounts and blasting constant updates of Cleveland sporting events. Zach went as far to say that without social media, CST would have never gotten off the ground. Much like Hietpas from WBAY, Zach believes Twitter has the potential to pass shows like SportsCenter on immediacy of content; it allows viewers to find their niche teams and quick highlights, instead of sitting through an hour-long television or radio program.
Lastly is a student in the same shoes as someone like me, IUPUI Communication student Payton Grant. Like myself, Payton is attempting to create a unique opinion-based sports brand and gain a following. She says there is a real struggle in balancing the college student who loves her teams and a journalism professional’s lack of bias. Her passion for sports never fades; dreams of covering athletes accomplishing seemingly impossible feats, night-in and night-out, drives her career ambition.
As for myself, growing up in the generation of instant sports media and building my own brand, social media offers a distinct advantage. When working in the field, going to games, or just producing the radio show for the station I work for, having material I can put my name on and attach my name to is a huge advantage. Being able to interact with the fans is a crazy new experience. Twitter just might be the future of sports journalism. Connecting with your audiences and getting instantaneous reactions and updates has changed the game.
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