Just a few years ago, the debate on how this "new and social media" platform could either help or hurt the coverage of sports was all the rage. Leagues and colleges had no idea as to how to effectively use or monitor or even credential bloggers, effectively monitor and maximize social media, or even figure out if it is useful or effective. Make money with all this stuff? Not a shot.
However as with any new medium -- radio, television, the internet -- water will seek its own level, and those who have a chance to study effective use of ways to engage fans and brands will find and set the best practices. Bloggers become credible new sources and good writers, social media becomes the voice of the fan, athletes and coaches and teams even find a way to engage and give simple access like never before. Brands can monetize and grow their effectiveness and partnerships develop in fan engagement. It's ever evolving but evolving nonetheless. Hiccups along the way? Many. Ways to make money? Some but not many just yet.
One of the early positive adaptations for this social media use was witnessed firsthand at a Mixed Martial Arts fight in New Jersey in 2007. The International Fight League was one of the first sports brands to fully embrace bloggers, and let the bloggers post live during the event. While looking at the posts as they flowed in real time we noticed that one blogger, Sam Caplan, noticed that a fighter's information was posted incorrectly several times on the video board. The officials were able to take the information and instantly adjust the board to the correct information, thus alleviating an embarrassing situation. Other bloggers seated in places in the building commented on the volume of music, the lights that were missing in some areas, reactions of fans, and all helped the organization adjust the presentation in real time throughout the night. It was an interesting and very positive first test, one that would seem primitive now but at the time was pretty eye-opening, and led to other examples in other sports of ways to engage through social media. Last year St. John 's took another step forward by having the enterprising Peter Robert Casey tweet at all their games, a practice which was unheard of at the time but which is also now regularly done at every level by both journalists and fans alike. Another big step forward.
So into this mix of access comes the New Jersey Devils, who launched "Mission Control" on the third floor of the Prudential Center in Newark. The Devils, once at the bottom of professional sports in the fan engagement category, have become one of the leaders in a league (the NHL) which probably does the digital space better than any other sports property.
The goal is to have a central location where fan leaders, part of their "Army" can monitor, engage and join in the real time conversation on any social platform possible. Thoughts from fans can be pushed out instantaneously, problems in the arena can be fixed right away, promotions can be created and activated with sponsors at a moment's notice, media can chime in with what is going on, information on injuries and other topics can be relayed very quickly to all those in the space who are engaged, all from one central hub. It is a bold and costly step for a team which has a string online following but still limits the access to players and coaches during the season, a long-held stance that the team continues to stick to. Still, this type of broad-based and centralized engagement can lead to maybe bringing injured or inactive players or team officials into the conversation during games as well.
Between period interviews and analysis can be uploaded via Skype or stored in podcasts, and broadcasters and bloggers can also chime in with their perspective with additional shared content.
It was the latest step in digital fan engagement for the team, who earlier in the year started renting iPads during the games to fans to provided an added experience on top of what was being done on video boards and with traditional in arena contests. The launch also comes at a good time for the team on a few levels. Under Jacques Lemaire the team has turned around their fortunes on the ice and are trying to go from the worst record in the league in December to the playoffs, creating excitement at a time when there was little for fans to look forward to this spring. It also helps show that the team is committed to finding ways to engage their fans and stay involved despite all the talk about the franchise being for sale, at least by part of their ownership group. In many ways the launch of "Mission Control" becomes an even bigger enhancement for owner Jeff Vanderbeek should he need to go find new partners in the ownership group.
Even more importantly the launch of the center will serve as a litmus test to see if such a social media hub can translate to other events in the building such as concerts, college basketball or other shows. Music and entertainment have as strong, if not stronger, social engagement abilities with fans than sports do, and taking this kind of test to engage people around other events will be a very interesting test. Also of note will be the ability for the other new arenas in the area -- the Barclay's Center, the renovated Madison Square Garden, the new Meadowlands Stadium and Red Bull Arena, to also create similar centers of monitoring, promotion and engagement.
It is interesting to see a space once seen as a curiosity and a scourge to now be all the buzz, led by a franchise that once was well behind others in engagement. Both the involvement of social media, and the fact that the Devils are leading the way, shows how far things have come in the space. It also opens even more doors for the future, both for engagement and for brand activation, which will turn the curiosity into a potential profit center not just for New Jersey, but for any entity who can find a way to engage smartly, efficiently and show how all leads to a smart return for both fans and partners.
As for the Devils, the mission is still to make the playoffs, and hopefully engaging their fans in additional ways will be another positive push in that direction.