5:08am

Wed March 19, 2014
All Tech Considered

For Pro Sports, Public Relations Going High-Tech, Real Time

Originally published on Wed March 19, 2014 10:28 am

Gone are the days of waiting for angry letters.

Social media allows the NFL, NASCAR and other pro sports leagues to hear from fans in real time. And that feedback has become so important, leagues have built what are essentially social media command centers to monitor trends and engage directly with fans.

The centers have been popping up over the past five years or so. One of the newest is in Charlotte, N.C., at NASCAR's corporate building. Sean Doherty runs what's officially called the Fan and Media Engagement Center, featuring a video wall that he describes as "a matrix of 13 46-inch HD digital displays."

NASCAR's operation opened a year ago. Hewlett-Packard created a data analytics system that allows NASCAR to dissect what people are saying about the sport on social media.

Anna Richter, a NASCAR employee, watches for spikes on a chart measuring social media mentions.

"We can click in and see the chatter that's actually behind each spike," Richter says. "And we will label that later so we can just go back and look and say, OK, this was green flag, and so on and so forth."

The "green flag," which signals the start to a NASCAR race, is often one of the moments that generate an uptick in tweets.

Sitting next to Richter, Edwin Colmenares talks to fans using NASCAR's official Twitter account.

"Usually people retweet my response from the @NASCAR account," he says. "I think it's pretty cool because I made someone's day just by typing that out."

And that happy fan keeps the NASCAR conversation going — and glowing. Marketing consultant Peter Shankman calls that public relations at its finest.

"They're actually able to allow the customer to do their PR for them, and that's massive," Shankman says.

It's a big reason every major American professional sport is playing this high-tech game. The NBA has a command center in New Jersey. Major League Baseball has one in New York City, the NHL in Toronto and the NFL in London, New York and Los Angeles.

"We are 24/7/365 understanding what's being said about the NFL — its teams, its players, its coaches, and everything associated to the game of football," says Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesman.

Helping leagues shape their social media strategies has become a full-time business, too. Eric Fernandez is a consultant who's worked with Major League Soccer, minor league baseball and even the Australian professional cricket league.

"We started seeing the momentum on this business pick up probably about 18 months ago," Fernandez says.

To be sure, there are dangers involved in stepping up your social media game. A league risks putting its foot in its digital mouth, or overselling its sponsors in a way that could turn fans off.

But Fernandez says the benefits outweigh the costs. For example, leagues can take advantage of how their product often lends itself to brief, attention-grabbing highlights they can tweet.

The TV ratings company Nielsen has found that a critical mass of tweets can drive changes in live TV ratings. Melissa Rosenthal Brenner, who runs the NBA's command center, says that can attract new viewers.

"You're on Twitter and you see something interesting trending, and you're like, 'Wait, what is that?' " Brenner says. "And it might point you to watch a particular program. That's a general sense of where the world's going — that [social media] is the new TV Guide for choosing programming."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Technology has totally changed the world of sports. You can now watch games on mobile devices, even at work. Did I just say that? Some are worried NFL fans are so tethered to devices - checking fantasy stats - that they'll stop wanting to see games in person. NFL stadiums are making sure now to offer Wi-Fi. In a business sense, technology means opportunity for the NFL, NASCAR and other big-time sports. They're blending high-tech data analytics with some old-school public relations.

Michael Tomsic, from member station WFAE, got a taste of that in North Carolina.

MICHAEL TOMSIC, BYLINE: In the NASCAR corporate building in Charlotte, Sean Doherty runs what's officially called the Fan and Media Engagement Center. In short, it's the tech command center.

SEAN DOHERTY: The team here is looking at a video wall, essentially. It's a matrix of 13 46-inch HD digital displays.

TOMSIC: This operation opened a year ago. During a recent race, a team of three people manned the controls. And this is what it sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPING)

TOMSIC: OK, maybe it's more of a click center than a command center. But this is where Hewlett-Packard created a data analytics system that allows NASCAR to dissect what people are saying about the sport on social media.

Team member Anna Richter points to a screen with a chart.

ANNA RICHTER: And we can click in and see the chatter that's actually behind each spike, and we will label that later. So we can just go back and look and say, OK, this was green flag, and so on and so forth.

TOMSIC: The green flag to start the race is usually one of the highest peaks on the chart.

Sitting next to Richter, Edwin Colmenares is talking to fans using NASCAR's official Twitter account.

EDWIN COLMENARES: Usually people re-tweet my response from the @NASCAR account. I think it's pretty cool because I made someone's day just by typing that out.

TOMSIC: And that happy fan keeps the conversation going and glowing about NASCAR. Marketing consultant Peter Shankman calls that: Public relations at its finest.

PETER SHANKMAN: They're actually able to allow the customer to do their PR for them, and that's massive.

TOMSIC: And it's one reason every major American pro sport is playing this high-tech game. The NBA has a command center in New Jersey. The MLB has one in New York City, the NHL in Toronto and the NFL in London, New York and Los Angeles.

BRIAN MCCARTHY: We are 24/7/365 understanding what's being said about the NFL, its teams, its players, its coaches, and everything associated to the game of football.

TOMSIC: That's NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. Other leagues are also starting to focus more on their social media footprint. Helping them do that is now consultant Eric Fernandez's full-time job.

ERIC HERNANDEZ: We started seeing the momentum on this business pick up probably about 18 months ago.

TOMSIC: Fernandez's clients have included Major League Soccer, Minor League Baseball and even the Australian professional cricket league. To be sure, there are risks involved in stepping up your social media game. You can put your foot in your digital mouth, or oversell your sponsors in a way that's obvious and annoying.

But Fernandez says the benefits outweigh the costs, and here's another reason.: Leagues can take advantage of how their product often lends itself to brief, attention-grabbing highlights they can tweet.

MARV ALBERT: Oh, Durant. Serving up a facial.

TOMSIC: Like that clip of NBA announcer Marv Albert getting fired up over a Kevin Durant dunk. It just makes you want to watch basketball. And that's what the person in charge of the NBA's command center, Melissa Rosenthal Brenner, is counting on.

MELISSA ROSENTHAL: You're on Twitter and you see something interesting trending, and you're like wait: What is that? And it might point you to watch a particular program. That's a general sense of where the world is going, that it's the new TV Guide for choosing programming.

TOMSIC: The TV ratings company Nielson has found that the volume of tweets can cause statistically significant changes in live TV ratings. But the leagues are staying old school in some ways, too. The NFL still gets thousands of letters every year. And when Sean Doherty, with NASCAR, needs to tell other employees about a software problem, sometimes he'll just walk down the hall to give them a heads up.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Tomsic in Charlotte. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.