Sometimes it seems like the changes come first up north. In 2003 the Toronto Maple Leafs shocked the sports and media world by breaking news on their website first about the firing of a coach. The amount of coverage the team received by bypassing the traditional set off alarms across the media landscape. Alarms for a practice which is today the norm for many.
However in the pre social media world, using your own platform to control the message and not going the traditional way…with a press conference, maybe finding an outlet with a big circulation to go to… was blasphemeous. The media and the teams needed each other, so protocol and tradition on how to speak to fans where and when was tantamount.
Then there were Tiger Woods and Roger Clemens and others, using their own personal news sites to talk about new sponsors or other initiatives. Come get the web traffic and the news and tell things in the voice you choose, and let the media come to your site to get what they need.
Now with all the social channels available, teams, athletes, brands go direct to consumer bypassing at least initially the traditional way of what used to happen. Communication direct to consumer is what was wanted by the person on the street, and now it is probably more the rule than the exception.
However on the team level, and on the college level, sports is slow to adapt to completing the communication puzzle. Many organizations house social media as part of marketing, while “PR” is left to its own silo of being the liaison between those covering the team and the team itself.
That is slowly changing, with organizations like the LA Clippers bringing all “communications” under one roof; social, fan engagement, marketing communications and all aspects of team media. ESPN has long preached “360 degree communication,” where anyone who has a touch point with the media and the consumer needs to be able to use all forms of communication to storytell, from mobile and video to long form writing. Slowly, some better funded and proactive college programs, Clemson University being one of the most progressive, are coming around to the same notion; that communicating just with media is not enough; you have the ability as a brand to correctly take your message right to the consumer, and using all forms of media to do that properly and effectively will spread the message further, build consensus and also amplify your audience. The fan, especially the core fan, can create the loudest and most effective platform if he or she is messaged properly and authentically.
This week there was another shift, again north of the border, as the Toronto Blue Jays made some major changes in communications leadership, a shift amongst team sports may be a sign of things to come. The club let go of several of their longtime staffers, and moved their vice-president of communications Jay Stenhouse, to a new role with their fan-engagement department with baseball media under the banner of communications. Leading the charge now will be Sebastian Gatica, who was the vice-president of fan engagement and has a solid history as a communications pro at places like the NHL, a brand which has long thought fan first.
“In recent years, our business has become more focused on engaging fans through compelling experiences, unique content and personalized service,” the Blue Jays said in a statement. “[Wednesday’s] changes reflect that evolving nature of our business as we shift to meet these needs through a new structure and resources aimed at delivering memorable experiences to our passionate fan base.”
Now does this mean that communications, especially in sports, is any less about people and relationships? No way. It is more about proactive relationships than ever before. It is also more about advanced storytelling and making sure that story is told directly to the consumer by all means possible. The cup of coffee with the beat writer is still invaluable, as are the personal discussions with TV producers, videographers and anyone who can help you tell your message.
However one thing that continues to change, and will continue to sweep longer term professionals away who will not adapt, is the reticence not to change but to better understand all forms of media and who influencers are and how they can best fit into the communications ecosystem. Still too often you hear major market colleges or teams or even some leagues whining that they can’t deal with “bloggers” or “influencers” because they need space for traditional media types. In reality the balance needs to be struck, as today’s podcaster or vlogger is going to be tomorrow’s multimedia expert at a growing platform, be that something like The Postgame or Stadium or Oath or Ozy.com, or someone who has built a solid niche following and knows how and why to aggregate a large following. Looking back, so many people panned Bleacher Report, or still roll their eyes at Barstool Sports or even at Deadspin or The Big Lead, yet these multi-level media platforms continue to evolve and know how to speak DIRECTLY and quickly to a fan base.
So does the Blue Jays move this week signal a change for all teams from a more traditional mindset? No. The teams, schools and leagues that are listening to the marketplace and see the value not just of content, but of using all areas of distribution, traditional media and direct to fan, are evolving albeit a little slowly. It may not be a broad upheaval like what happened with the Jays, it may be more subtle under a progressive communications leader.
However be sure of one thing communicators; change is coming, and those who don’t adapt will be in for a rough time. The best part about this change is it gives all a chance to learn and adapt and get better at what one does. The challenge is balancing that learning with the every day. Time management is key, and if you don’t balance your time, you may have more than you need while you update your CV.
The Leafs change years back was viewed as cataclysmic by media types, and it was really a glimpse into where we are today. The Jays change may be another foreshadowing of the future in sports and entertainment media. Maybe watching all the goings on in Toronto would be a smart thing for the progressive adapters. Disruption is not always a bad thing so long as you are willing to watch, listen and learn.