Of Tweets, Handles and Hashtags…

In 1929, the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians came up with an innovative idea for fans to distinguish their players from one another on the field…both teams put numbers on their uniforms. The need for numbers had been tossed around before, even used in other sports and by the Indians in baseball as early as 1916, but the Yanks, as the elite team in baseball, decided to take the chance and make the game that more friendly, and their players that much more distinguishable. So the numbers tradition in baseball for all teams was born. At first glance, maybe it wasn’t that much of a big deal, and it certainly wasn’t viewed as scandalous at the time, but the billions of dollars made in licensing and apparel in sport since can point to that little change in uniform. It wasn’t earth changing in terms of the game was played, but it certainly was for the way the game was sold.

Today’s uniform game is an ever changing shell game of quick sales and memorabilia collecting, from the shamrock covered special edition helmets of Notre Dame to the pink uniforms adorned by college teams in support of breast cancer awareness. Ironically the brand that has stayed the course perhaps more than any other (except Penn State and perhaps Alabama in college football) remains the Yankees, the only MLB team without a third uniform or even names on the back of their road jerseys. So with all the change going on almost daily in the uniform game, what’s next. more importantly what are the new communication vehicles that will be “firsts” that will seek to tie the media world and fandom to the teams of today?

Let’s try hash tags and twitter handles. On the “first” side, we had two breakthroughs recently. First the Mexican soccer club Jaguares de Chiapas decided to augment names on their jerseys with their teams twitter handles, and then this past week the enterprising grounds crew and marketing staff at the Mississippi State University decided to add a hashtag in the end zone for this week’s rivalry game for The Golden Egg against rival University of Mississippi this Saturday. What does it all mean? Right now it means it’s great to be first with an idea. Will it be a game changer in how fans engage with teams like numbers on uniforms? Hard to say. There is probably more value in the large static MSU hashtag than their will be for twitter handles which may be indistinguishable on the back of jerseys, but both are certainly noteworthy.

Now the use of hashtags in game representation is new but not unique. A few NBA teams dropped hashtags on dasherboards last year during games to incorporate in-game promotions into broadcasts, and that type of social media usage will probably increase and become as mainstream as url’s are now. It is just another form of message communication to a larger audience outside the venue. Twitter handles of teams could also play into that larger outreach, especially in signage, and corporate partners will certainly use their own handles to spark promotions and instant activation, especially as the usage of mobile devices continues to increase. Usage for the athlete him or herself is up for debate. Like every form of media, social media is not for everyone, and it can still be a distraction to many. So requiring athletes, or anybody for that matter, to use social media is silly.

Now one place where handles can become more useful is in traditional media outlets and information sources. A handle could very easily replace a hometown in a press release, especially one done digitally, with a link directly to the athlete or the team’s feed. that could spark a more immediate and positive reaction and give both fan and media member more information over time. the listing of handles in media guides and programs, as well as in other public information, may also become standard over time. However, almost like a nickname, that information should also be used at the discretion of the athlete, coach or administrator. It is not for everyone. Could it become cumbersome and confusing with too much information being pushed through portals, while the team wants to be able to control and monetize the message? Perhaps. However the chaos that could come at first will find its way through, and the bet that standardized use of social media information will come into play as well.

Also this week was the debate of the death of the press release, and the use of social media as the primary way to get information out to your audience. ESPN.com’s Maria Burns Ortiz had a good column on how the University of Arizona used twitter to announce the hiring of Rich Rodriguez as their new head football coach, in advance of the official press release and news conference. While it certainly was buzz worthy and somewhat innovative, the limits of breaking news in a limited number of characters, even with a photo attached is, well, limited. You also run the risk of people missing the message in the fleeting seconds that a twitter post is able to be read. Now coordinating that message with traditional media, and making sure that the right “influencers” are checking the feed at the right time is a different story. It all comes down to alignment, proper messaging and coordination.

So at the end of the day, are these moves going to be game changers and standard operating procedures in the future, like we have names and numbers on uniforms? if there is a sellable feature or a way to drive revenue to such innovations, possibly. If the “stickiness” of end zone hash tags and handles on uniforms and announcing coaches via twitter proves to be less than perfect or effective, probably not. What is great is the use of innovation and social media in a positive way to communicate, and combine that use with traditional media. After all, a hashtag in an end zone isn’t effective unless the game is televised, and twitter handles on uniforms at a high school game won’t do much to grow interest and footprint with a limited audience. Maybe its a gimmick, Maybe its a new era. Either way it certainly is buzzworthy, and that is where most innovation gets its push, even before it can be monetized.