Hard Knocks A Sign Of the Growing Impact of Social Media on Sports

Hard Knocks A Sign Of the Growing Impact of Social Media on Sports

(editors note: I’m re-posting from my personal Posterous blog. Originally published August 16, 2010 here)

For football fans, the annual HBO training camp documentary “Hard Knocks” is must-see TV. Each year, the show chronicle’s the training camp experience of one NFL team in real time. It’s part fantastically edited documentary and part reality TV (thank you, HBO). For as deeply engaged as the average NFL fan is with NFL football, the promise of a finely produced documentary allowing us a peak behind the curtain proves mesmerizing. Hard Knocks is football porn for football junkies.

Accordingly, the show is generating huge buzz. It works because sports fans thirst for a deeper connection between themselves and the players and teams to which they are emotionally attached. As a general theme, that fits nicely with the basic tenets of social media and how it’s impacting sports.

But what struck me as significant was a scene that depicted a coaches meeting. In that scene, the coaches were seen laughing at the reader comments on the ESPN Jets training camp article.

While this seems mostly innocuous and good fodder for a funny scene, there is something more significant here. Football coaches, never to be confused with early adopters, wanted to see what the fans had to say about them. And this is huge revelation for sports fans.

I’ve been a member of various football online communities, whether related to my NFL team (Redskins), my college team (Tulane) or for fantasy football purposes, for over a decade now. The smartest, most passionate fans have been part of these online communities talking football 24/7/365.

There’s always been a pervasive sense of inferiority amongst those otherwise robust communities. These communities have long contained really smart, thorough, knowledgeable sports discourse but with a consistent underlying, almost-insecure sense of “we’re just the amateurs and the professionals will never come across our meaningless back-and-forth”. That’s been the case since long before “social media” became a part of our lexicon.

But seeing the Jets coaches reading the comments lends the potential for credibility to fan communities everywhere. It’s a whole new perspective for fans if they think that through their participation, their comments and feedback might be received on the other end.

It’s still early in the adoption cycle for football coaches, but that 360-degree visibility is just starting take hold in players who come from the digital native generation. Beyond Bengals WR Chad Ochocinco’s own iPad app, there’s Titans RB Chris Johnson thanking Ustream and Twitter in his ESPY’s award speech and Broncos WR Eddie Royal challenging his Facebook followers to beat him at fantasy football.

In some sense, football fans have been shouting at athletes for decades. Now they are starting to talk back.

Unlike business, politics, news or any other vertical, sports holds a different place in our collective conscious. People may admire CEOs and politicians or be curious about celebrities but there is a much more powerful and existing emotional bond between a fan and his teams and players. As social media matures and the barriers between fans and their teams continues to fall away, the impact will be more significant than what we’ve seen in other verticals farther along the adoption curve. While there are plenty of technology and business case studies about high-impact social media-related campaigns, we haven’t seen anything in sports that scratches the surface of what’s likely to come.