NFL games are consistently the most-watched television events in America, every year. Now, the League and other sports have a new throne to claim: social. “Sure, social media itself has grown in the past year,” says Tom Thai, head of marketing for social TV startup Bluefin Labs. “But the social TV consumer activity growth has outpaced it. Generally seeing triple digit growth in social TV.”

As “second-screen” viewing (like surfing on a tablet while watching TV) becomes the norm, sports dominance is taking over social as well. The NFL boasts the second, third, and fourth highest tweets-per-second moments: Eli Manning’s final drive to win Super Bowl XLVI (12,233 TPS), Madonna’s halftime show during that game (10,245 TPS), and Tim Tebow’s touchdown pass to advance over the Steelers in last season’s playoffs (9,402 TPS).

The smartest teams are already using social to engage and reward their passionate fans – and brands can learn from their example.

Digital huddle: give fans a place to connect and share

The University of Oregon, already a brand marketing innovator through their partnership with Nike (recruits love those flashy uniforms), is similarly ahead of the social curve. The seventh-largest social presence in college sports (nearly 50,000 Twitter and Facebook followers) now interacts directly with Ducks fans through the “QuackCave” – a social command center inspired by Dell’s. “We have an ever-growing, technically savvy fan base that’s deeply passionate about the Ducks,” says Andy McNamara, who oversees and manages the athletic department’s social media accounts. “The QuackCave will allow us to connect and respond to them in a personal and unique way.”

The NHL’s New Jersey Devils “Mission Control” has a similar goal, but with a twist – the team’s official branded social accounts are manned by 25 volunteer “superfans” who interact with other enthusiasts in 12 hour shifts on game days. Connecting fans with other fans emphasizes the team’s devotion to their supporters, says Michael DiLorenzo, NHL’s director of social media marketing and strategy. “The message it sends to the fan is that we know how important this experience is to you to the extent that we are going to build an apparatus that is specific to you.”

Offer exclusive content fans can’t get elsewhere

The New York Giants take elite content straight to fans through social. While traditional media only gets to see the beginning of practices, and can only talk to players after practice is over, the Giants’ Twitter account shares in-practice photos and quotes, to the delight of 327,000 followers. At beginning of games, the account tweets names of team captains, who won the coin toss, and whether they elected to kick or receive – information unavailable on TV while the station is instead showing ads. “That is what this is all about – giving the fans access they cannot get anywhere else,” says Nilay Shah, social media manager for the Giants.

The University of Texas’s co-venture with ESPN – The Longhorn Network – butters its bread with exclusive practice video and coaches’ breakdowns. LHN then uses Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter to spread select content to fans – and build demand for the network.

To foster excitement and attract a larger audience to the normally low-rated Pro Bowl, the NFL let players tweet during halftime with the #ProBowl hashtag. This in-game commentary from players isn’t normally available – players are banned from tweeting beginning 90 minutes before every game and until they’ve finished their post-game media obligations.

Make promotions creative and meaningful

“Sponsors used to want in on an email blast, they now want in on Facebook and Twitter,” says Shah. But flooding social with meaningless sponsorships would dilute the networks’ value. “We don’t want to just slap a sponsor on social media,” Shah explains. “We want to come up with creative ideas that will get the fans engaged.”

The Giants display fan pictures and tweets on the jumbotron at halftime, often as part of a sponsored contest. At the end of games, fans are also asked to vote for their player of the game on Twitter – and the winning player’s jersey is then 20% off that week on the team site.

New York was also the first team to use augmented reality in campaigns. Last winter they partnered with Tiffany’s to let fans virtually “try on” a Super Bowl ring via the team’s mobile app. Fans could also create images of themselves posing (virtually speaking) with the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Fans posted 50,000 images to Facebook and Twitter through the app.

Sports organizations are jumping on social to deepen their rabidly passionate fans’ love and rally supporters around their favorite teams and players. Brands that follow their lead will score some passionate fans of their own.

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