Among the many reasons that last night's decisive Game 5 of the 2009 WNBA Finals was a momentous occasion for women’s basketball, perhaps the most intriguing is that #WNBA was a trending topic on Twitter in the hours following the game.
Not too long after the Phoenix Mercury closed out the Indiana Fever for their second title in three years with a 94-86 victory, the WNBA experienced a flash flood of attention on Twitter for about a two hour time span, creeping up to fifth on the trending topics list and surpassing the sports goliath New York Yankees in the process.
A sequence of tweets from Seattle Times reporter @JaydaEvans – mainstream media’s best social media participant in women’s basketball, according to Hoopfeed.com – summarizes the initial reaction to seeing #WNBA rise to trending topic status on Twitter.
@JaydaEvans I know! Goes along with increased TV ratings RT @Stareagle don't ever think I've seen the #WNBA as trending topic on Twitter before tonight.
@JaydaEvans Yep! Hope next yr Kerr & Gentry won't have tix to buy RT @NancyLieberman @JaydaEvans one heck of series, huh! this is huge for wnba's growth
So is this the kind of tipping point WNBA president Donna Orender was alluding to, where the WNBA is suddenly significant enough to become one of the hottest topics on the web?
History tells us that the success on the court will not necessarily predict future success for the league in terms of attendance or overall revenue, though intuitively the increased media attention and quality of play has to have some effect on creating and sustaining new fans.
Yet history can tell us very little about what Twitter means for the success of the league. Twitter is a new phenomenon and as such it’s difficult to figure out exactly what Twitter success means to a professional sports franchise, especially when it trends as a topic on a Friday night that was the final night of the season.
As I was caught up in a wave of tweets that was moving too fast to actually catch up with most of what was said, I began to wonder, what exactly is the significance of Twitter for the league…especially when the league will have no primary content again until Summer 2010?
Over the course of the past year or so, many people have examined this question but it struck me as even more interesting after the WNBA became a trending topic last night.
In my search for insight to answer the question about becoming a trending topic on Twitter, I came across the introduction Steve Weber’s book, "Twitter Marketing: Promote Yourself and Your Business on Earth’s Hottest Social Network", which is a handy guide of how to link business to Twitter.
Twitter offers markerters an unprecedented opportunity for marketing because it enables your target market to find you instead of you finding them. No longer must markerts blast advertisements to people who aren’t paying attention.
Twitter already has turned traditional marketing on its head. Forget having to scrape together a huge pile of cash for a marketing campaign, then pray it works. Hundreds of thousands of business, large and small, are using Twitter to lure new customers – and talk directly with them – at no cost.
And unlike traditional advertising, Twitter can pay dividends for years to come because ti forges a strong link between you and customers, enabling your biggest fans to become evangelists for your business. When you’re successful, your loyal customers begin spreading the word for you, generating true word of mouth.
The notion that Twitter can pay dividends for years to come seems tenuous claim for sports leagues given that athletes and teams have really only jumped in during the past year. That claim notwithstanding, the low cost, word of mouth buzz seems to fit nicely with a grassroots marketing effort that might be most successful for the WNBA.
However, Weber also articulates a challenge for the WNBA in describing how Twitter is a double-edged sword.
If you earn the community’s respect, they’ll help spread the word about you better than a million-dollar ad campaign. But if you’re boring, you’ll be ignored.
Well, as of right now, the WNBA is transitioning into about eight to nine months of boredom -- no games and players scattered across the world.
It’s great to end the season on a high note, but peaking and disappearing doesn’t quite seem like the easiest way to build a brand or sustain a brand’s momentum.
Capitalizing on the increased attention
Given the fleeting window of opportunity – and it would be interesting to know how many followers the WNBA, Indiana Fever, and Phoenix Mercury gained as a result of last night’s flood of tweets – the question becomes, how will the WNBA capitalize on all the attention?
It would seem that the answer is obvious – the WNBA should make every moment of its players off-season exploits abroad its primary business.
The games may not be televised and the players might not be quite as accessible, but the short-term investment of tracking its players more closely in order to hold onto some of this momentum seems to have long-term potential.
Then again, perhaps the lesson of the Twitter revolution is that the power of representation no longer sits solely with the league or mainstream journalists, but the average people who observe the game. Twitter is a big part of that, as described by Sarah Logar of Ohio University.
...while Twitter has helped some journalists, the new site seems to have created a sort of nervous energy among media professionals and journalism professors (Schuneman Symposium on Photojournalism and New Media, 2009). People are turning to Twitter in crisis situations, such as when a plane crash on the Hudson River in winter 2009 was initially made public through Twitter rather than traditional reporting methods (Miller, 2009). In the 2009 book, Twitter Power: How to Dominate Your Market One Tweet at a Time, marketing professional Joel Comm began his work by explaining the magnitude of Twitter’s effect on the worldwide community.
Comm pointed to the way the Mumbai bombings of November 2008 were initially reported by those with Twitter accounts rather than journalism degrees. This same piece of literature explained that because Twitter gives people in-the-heat-of-the-moment sort of coverage, or story coverage that can happen in the wake of important occurrences, it does what a news crew cannot. According to Comm (2009), Twitter delivers a news service that obtains its content from real people living the story. Secondhand accounts by reporting professionals may not be able to compare (Comm, 2009).
If the strength of Twitter is first-hand accounts, perhaps an even more interesting constituency is the players themselves who are actually the ones living the stories as they develop, whereas as fans – like journalists – are only watching from afar. It’s not only an opportunity for the players to spread the word about their game, but also gain greater control of how they are represented as female athletes.
The challenge of relying on player representation
The potential downside of relying solely on player self-reports for league branding seems to be that there is obviously a wide range of quality (as evidenced by Hoopfeed.com’s aforementioned awards). Unfortunately, the Twitter platform unfortunately doesn’t support a means to coordinate tweets from around the world for the sake of promoting a singular brand, as Logar describes.
Con Frantzeskos, a professional who specializes in understanding media such as Twitter,explained in that same 2009 Stafford article that the way Twitter’s site is structured must be revamped. The article found that while it draws people in, the level of stickiness needed to maintain Twitterers may not be sufficient to upkeep success. Frantzeskos went on to argue that Twitter does not tailor to people’s needs and wants like other internet services (Stafford, 2009).
Frantzeskos explained, "The first thing Twitter would have to do is bring in prioritization of people you would want to follow. I’d suggest there’s a means to prioritize topics or people, and that is necessary for Twitter to help retention rates" (Stafford, 2009, para. 13).
It would be great to have all he players join Twitter, but if it's too decentralized, player tweets might not actually contribute to WNBA branding.
Certain teams do follow their players closely on their WNBA web pages. Petrel of the Pleasant Dreams blog also does a remarkable job of keeping up with Atlanta Dream players (and by association, the WNBA players who play with them) in the off-season. Twitter will undoubtedly make their work of tracking athletes much easier.
But again, how does any of this affect league branding?
What we have learned about trending topics on Twitter
For Twitter to work, there of course has to be demand for the information a business is putting out there. As with any business, they have to spend some time creating that demand by finding the angles that people are interested in.
That is certainly not easy to do for women's sports, which is consistently derided and dismissed.
I suppose the fact that Marge Simpson is the #1 trending topic on Twitter for gracing the cover of Playboy Magazine (also a trending topic) the morning after the WNBA reached #5, says quite a bit about the impact of Twitter.
It’s still driven the same norms we live by off-line and as a result can be just as arbitrary and trivial as it is significant depending on the mood of netizens at any given moment.
To harness the power of such a tool, women’s sports will have to do more than just throw itself in the fray.
Extending Joel Comm’s point a bit, in an odd sort of way it would seem that Twitter is the technological realization of the final lines of Gil Scott Heron’s classic poem, "The Revolution Will Not be Televised":
The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.
The key element of Heron’s poem for me has always been the idea that the revolution demands active participation rather than passive consumption.
Unfortunately for women’s sports, there is still more active participation in support of men’s sports instead of women’s sports, meaning the revolutionary potential to actually shift norms is lost for those that have been traditionally marginalized.
Ultimately, the trend on social media is that it is not necessarily drumming up interest in new things, but merely replicating and reinforcing old biases patterns of interest; that is after all, what makes the fact that the WNBA was trending at all so surprising – women’s sports has been marginalized even in the very sphere that some propose will help it.