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How sports teams managed social media during the pandemic

The offseason has always been an inevitable part of the year for sports teams and fans alike. But the sudden halt of sporting activities across the globe caused by the pandemic took everyone by surprise and made social media teams throw their elaborate content plans into the trash.

While fans were somewhat baffled about how to pass the time when their favorite teams were taken out of their daily rituals, the marketing and social media teams of clubs, leagues, and federations were forced to think of new creative ways to engage with their followers.

Adapting to the new normal wasn't something that only sport fanatics had to do – eventually it became something that united the whole world. So it comes as no big surprise social media teams of the largest sports clubs adjusted their content calendars just like everyone else around the globe, by including thoughtful calls to safety and lighthearted humor designed to make the weeks and months in lockdown fly by faster.

But their challenge was especially difficult as usually the content published on social media relied heavily on in-person activities like games or practices. So what did they do when those were cancelled?

Interactions drop for all sports pages worldwide

According to Socialbakers data (now Emplifi), worldwide sports-related Facebook and Instagram pages saw a noticeable decrease in relative post interactions in April as nearly every sport was on hold. At the end of April 2020, Instagram’s relative interactions hit their lowest point in the last 21 months, while Facebook’s relative interactions were at their lowest since March 2019.

As teams and leagues tried to figure out what kind of content to share in lieu of regular games, online workout videos became a hit as people encouraged each other to stay fit. Liverpool Football Club took it a step further and gave their supporters the unique experience to virtually join the team's virtual yoga session. This way fans could learn a thing or two about yoga, enjoy unscripted interactions between their favorite players and take a sneak peak into their homes.

In late July and August of 2020 all eyes were on soccer as top teams took the field and fought for titles in La Liga, British Premier League and UEFA Champions and Europa Leagues. In the US, there was also the return of the NBA, WNBA, MLB, NHL, MLS, and the NFL preparing for its season, hence the increase in interactions across the board.

In August 2020, the Lyon women's football team were crowned European Champions for the 7th time. The finals weekend brought the team's Instagram account 11,000 new followers and half a million interactions.

WNBA teams regrouped fast and jumped on the trends to spread their brand image beyond social media. The Washington Mystics allowed fans to get branded merchandise on Animal Crossing: New Horizons, while the Connecticut Sun made branded Zoom backgrounds available for free download.

US teams took an active stance in the Black Lives Matter protests in early June and that gave the interactions on social media a huge boost. As a part of their #NBATogether initiative, the basketball league continuously used Instagram to host multiple live panel discussions and post powerful quotes from stars of the sport to share their view and experience of the issue.

That timing also coincided with Pride Month, as many WNBA teams like the Phoenix Mercury were active and published resources to learn more about and support LBGTQ+ movement.

One possibly surprising takeaway – the hype and excitement about teams returning to practices and restarting their seasons was not long lasting on social media. With many teams quickly out of the playoffs, the attention was focused on a smaller number of accounts, with their performance both on and off court improving match after match.

Sports teams in Northern America post more often than European ones

Logically, with less action happening, the number of posts declined for sports pages across the globe.

For European pages the median weekly posts stayed at about 10 from March to July. However, in Northern America the social media teams bounced back after the initial shock in March and tried to produce more content to keep their fans' attention.

And even though interactions were peaking in June for the American sports teams, the number of posts decreased noticeably as people across the country paid respects to #BlackoutTuesday and the ongoing protests.

If we look at the posts on Instagram by the NHL, the hockey league posted more than twice as much in August, when the league came back to action with playoffs, than they did in July, and 4x as much as it did in June. 

Without surprise, the playoff schedule was among the top performing posts during the break.

However, the situation on the social side was more difficult for national teams. Summer historically has been the time of various international competitions where athletes have the chance to represent their countries. Most notably, that was supposed to include the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, but many European athletes, especially those playing for clubs overseas, couldn't even travel to their home countries.

That meant social media managers had to be very creative in keeping the conversation going online and managing various opportunities for fans to catch a glimpse of national heroes. 

Social media teams experiment with content

When it comes to content social media teams focused on, it's more than obvious strategies had to be adapted to the new normal. Both Facebook and Instagram videos started playing a much more important role in the daily social media communication trying to make the lack of live broadcasts less overwhelming for fans.

The NFL struck an engagement goldmine by streaming a 5-hour Draft-A-Thon live on Facebook. With 4.4 million views it became one of their best performing posts during the pandemic, and the charity live stream also helped raise millions for groups like the American Red Cross and Feeding America.

Overall, sports teams relied heavily on historic footage, publishing compilations of best moments and video greetings from top athletes who shared their tips and tricks on how to stay sane and active during the unprecedented times. That was one solution that worked well for the National Lacrosse League, which its VP of Marketing Katie Lavin discussed in a Socialbakers webinar that also included panelists from MLS and Complex Sports.

Even short videos that might seem like obvious Stories material made a bang on the Instagram feed. This short clip of Artemi Panarin saluting fans racked up 43,000 interactions – double the average of what the New York Rangers saw on their analytics dashboard during the pandemic lockdown.

The NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers started a theme on their social media channels – portraying the best moments from their series against other NBA teams. This video featuring Kobe Bryant and his fighter's spirit racked up more than 130,000 interactions and became the team's best performing post on Facebook during the lockdown.

The legacy of Kobe Bryant and his unfortunate passing in the beginning of 2020 has been a huge topic on social media as well. NBA teams and beyond paid tribute to the basketball legend and his daughter Gianna in multiple waves – after the tragic incident, on his daughter Gianna's birthday May 1, and Mamba Day – August 24. Nike’s somber Instagram post shortly after the helicopter crash on Jan. 26 got the second highest interactions worldwide in Q1 2020.

Even with playoff action taking the news headlines throughout August, two of the top three performing posts on the NBA's Instagram account were pictures paying tribute to Bryant on what would've been his 42th birthday.

Offline activities stirred the conversation on social media

Even though leagues set a date for teams to return to court, early on it was clear that spectators wouldn't be allowed to enter the arenas due to safety measures. But leagues explored alternatives.

The NBA introduced Ultra Courtside Seats, allowing fans to appear real-time on the LED screens inside the arenas. It became a huge hit as fans loved the opportunity and shared their big-screen appearances on social media.

In late March, Major League Baseball had to miss the festivities of Opening Day and instead of cancelling all action completely the league gave a wonderful opportunity for fans to be featured in their season's promo under the motto “Even though we’re apart, we can come together.” MLB also provided 30 classic matches for streaming for free at #OpeningDayAtHome.

When the action returned, the league opted for cardboard cut-outs, allowing fans to submit their own photos to be in the crowd. And since taking home a foul ball is a fun part of attending a baseball game, several teams decided to send those balls to the fans whose cut-outs were seated closest to wherever the ball landed.

The takeaway

It’s been a very difficult year for everyone, including the sports industry. Many events were cancelled, the Olympics were postponed, many individual athletes weren’t able to compete for months, and several seasons ended without crowning champions.

Even in late 2020 it’s difficult to make long-term plans, and most predictions suggest leagues will not return to packed stadiums anytime soon. 

The “new normal” for sports on social media will continue to be a lot of experiments with formats and bringing creative ideas to the table. As fans will not be able to build bonds with their favorite teams and athletes by cheering for them in real life, social media teams have a great opportunity to win extra engagement as chants and applause can turn into likes and comments.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on socialbakers.com. Any statistics or statements included in this article were current at the time of original publication.

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