For years, fans could only view their NBA heroes through the lenses of the media and a PR-savvy league.
Players were towering, athletic fish in a fish bowl, only to be gawked at on the court before leaving the confines of the arena to lead their own private, mysterious lives.
Fast forward to this offseason, and anybody with an Internet connection knows who Jared Dudley worked out with this summer, what disguise Steve Nash wore when playing pickup ball in China and even that Amare Stoudemire was going in for more eye surgery in July – before the team made an official announcement or a beat reporter broke the news.
A league that made its name through stars like Michael Jordan becoming larger than life figures is seeing all those walls torn down with fans and NBA players alike now sharing the same social media sandbox.
“It’s almost like taking a peek behind the curtain and seeing The Wizard of Oz,” said D Vasquez, better known on Twitter as @knot2serious. “Seeing the human side is always interesting.”
Changing the way fans and players interact
The explosion of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and even Ustream has given athletes an opportunity to show themselves as real human beings.
That means there will be moments in which Stephon Marbury eats Vaseline and Brandon Jennings makes a career’s worth of boneheaded comments in one small clip, but there will also be humanizing interactions between fans and players in which they seem to be living in the same world, such as when Dudley recently asked fans to guess the high score in a Suns bowling match and J-Rich wrote about attending a 10-year high school reunion.
“I’ve come to fully realize that ALL NBA players are just as human as the rest of us,” said life-long Suns fan Lori Ann Superfan (@LoriAnnSUPERFAN), an avid tweeter.
Added Suns fan tweeter Paige Dell’Armi (@paigeiam): “There is just something about getting a text message update from @the_real_nash and @matrix31 on what they are doing right that second. It’s like they are your real friends. When @the_real_shaq @ed me back on a comment, I knew my life was complete. ”
In the past, players would leave for the summer and you wouldn’t hear from them for months unless they were negotiating a new contract through the media. It would be as if they were hibernating during the summer, waiting for training camp and another season to begin anew.
Now, if you’re on Twitter, it’s impossible NOT to know what’s going on with your favorite NBA players.
Building an online community
The Suns were one of the first professional sports organizations to embrace social media.
It all started back in the winter of 2007, according to Suns VP of digital operations Jeramie McPeek (@SunsWebmaster), during a time in which the organization’s whole online strategy revolved around driving traffic to Suns.com.
That mind-set started to change after McPeek attended the NBA’s annual marketing meeting at which an NBA official spoke of the value of MySpace and YouTube, citing research that said many NBA fans will never venture to a team site but do spend time on those social mediums.
McPeek then thought, “Well, maybe we can put stuff on those sites and draw people back to Suns.com.”
This social strategy led to the Suns’ October 2007 launch of PlanetOrange.net, the team’s official social network, to provide a controlled environment in which fans can talk about the Suns. From there the organization branded a Facebook page with 50,000-plus fans and a Twitter handle with almost 17,000 followers, ranking it No. 22 among NBA-related Twitter entities, according to WeFollow.com.
Now, Suns fans practically can’t go anywhere on the Web without running into some Suns-related content, particularly on Twitter.
Not only do Amare, Nash, Dudley, Jason Richardson, Robin Lopez and head coach Alvin Gentry tweet, but so do 15-20 Suns employees, further giving fans an inside look at the team.
“It’s a great way to find new fans, to make new fans, to grow casual fans and really get them to connect with your team and feel like they’re sort of hearing what’s going on behind the scenes,” McPeek said. “Before they really didn’t have a way to directly communicate with the organization on a regular basis. We’re able to reach out and connect with them in that way as well.”
To Suns season ticket holder Josh Miller, known by the Twitter handle @AZJoshM, the best part about this microblogging service has to do with the unfiltered access fans get to players and team personnel that you don’t receive on a medium such as Suns.com
At the same time, this access is a two-way street. Now the Suns can see exactly what their fans are thinking 140 characters at a time.
“Team officials previously had to listen to talk radio, read message boards, etc. to get a true pulse of what the fans are thinking,” said Miller, who’s not afraid to bash the organization he’s loved all his life. “I think with Twitter, it gives the team a better comprehensive picture of how the fan base feels about the team.
“When running any business, especially a sports franchise, the voice of the customer (fan) is extremely important, and this gives the fans an outlet to express those feelings.”
The future of social media in the NBA
A year ago at this time, half the NBA couldn’t spell Twitter. Now we’re getting to the point where it’s odd if an NBA player does NOT use the microblogging service.
It’s the same story at the team level. Less than three years ago, a team as forward thinking as the Suns was afraid to delve into social media of any kind for fear it would take away from their featured online offering, Suns.com.
“I’ve been with the Suns 17 years, and when I started with the Suns we didn’t even have a Web site, so it’s amazing how fast things change in such a short amount of time,” McPeek said. “I think social media is just going to continue to grow. It’s going to slowly just evolve into becoming the media. It’s not going to be social media, it’s just going to be the media.
“That’s the way organizations and teams are going to communicate with fans and break news through social media, and I think there’s going to be a lot more interaction with the games themselves. “
In that vein the Suns plan to stream live tweets a couple times each game at the bottom of the TV screen and on the big screen and 360-degree LED rings at US Airways Center, McPeek said. This further encourages interactivity by allowing fans to tweet about the game from their couch or seat and immediately see these tweets pop up for all of Planet Orange to see.
Plus, this way everyone will know if @Amareisreal starts tweeting during a timeout.
“It would be really cool if we can have fans at home tweeting about the game and fans in the building itself tweeting about the game, and those tweets kind of merging together to be on display,” McPeek said.
As for the players, Peter Robert Casey said he would be surprised to learn that any NBA player is not engaging fans through social media in some fashion, be it Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. And he would know, because Casey has built a top-10 Twitter following (@Peter_R_Casey) in terms of NBA-related personalities with over 50,000 followers as a blogger, putting him ahead of luminaries such as Amare, J-Rich and Kevin Garnett.
“If Twitter is still a viable entity in a few years, the vast majority of the League will be tweeting away. Guaranteed,” Casey said. “I would expect to see a huge increase in player participation. And I don’t see it stopping at participation. NBA players are a creative bunch, and I think they’re capable of teaching the veterans a thing or two about engaging their fans.”
Due to the explosion of social media in the NBA world this offseason, David Stern is sure to put some rules in place, much like the NFL did by restricting social media usage from 90 minutes before kickoff until the end of postgame media sessions.
Yahoo! Sports reported that the NBA will unveil a similar policy that Stern described as “nothing too serious.” McPeek said the Suns are not working on a specific team policy aside from the league policy that the NBA has yet to finalize.
“Obviously, there is a happy medium between tweeting before the game and tweeting from our bench during the game,” Stern told Yahoo! Sports. “You want to make sure that pop culture doesn’t intrude on what brought us here, which is the game, and that we show the right respect for the game.”
But all that really means is that we will have to wait until the players get home before we hear about their postgame meal and what movie they’re watching to wind down from the game.
Social media is here and here to stay, and the players who embrace it will be the ones whose Q ratings will continue to soar.
“The future is now,” said Suns fan tweeter Julia Mak (@MissJulze). “All these tools, platforms and social media in general encourage real time communication and interaction between people. The media landscape is changing drastically and will continue to find ways to eliminate barriers in connecting people.
“People calling Twitter a fad are the ones that don’t actually use Twitter. Even if there is no Twitter, there will be similar technologies developed to enable communities of people to connect and communicate in real time.”
Back in the days when MJ ruled the Earth, he was the rock star and we could only get close to him by buying his cologne to smell like him.
Today, we have stars like Amare Stoudemire and Dwight Howard reaching out to us. They want us to follow them and fan them, and once in a while they will even reply back to us just so we know they’re there.
We now know how Jared Dudley spends his free time, and we can observe players conversing with each through social media as if we were a fly on the wall of a closed locker room.
Welcome to the NBA in 2009: Where interactivity happens.