Social media is enhancing sports games with real time fan participation

UVa lets fans interact via Twitter at football games

UVa uses Twitter to let fans interact during football games

With seven turnovers by the Virginia Cavaliers, the first game of the 2009 college football season was not fun for UVa fans, as they lost in an upset to William & Mary: 26-14. Ironically, the only thing that brought smiles to the fan’s faces was a turnover of another kind: the social media turnover of the Jumbotron display to the Cavalier fan base.

Early on, the football announcer invited fans to use Twitter to tweet text and pics during the game. He told the near-capacity crowd that tweets containing WMvUVA hashtags (#WMvUVA) would be displayed on the new Jumbotron screen that towers over the end zone. And they were displayed—at speeds approaching real time.

My friends and I had a great time posting school-spirited tweets and some fun pics to go with them.

Last year, a similar service allowed fans to text messages to a 5-digit number and see their messages show up on the screen. While that system worked well, the new Twitter approach kicks it up a notch. Now fans can include pictures with their tweets, enriching the message’s value. And more importantly, those messages are now public and searchable on Twitter. Even fans watching at home can get in on the action by sending hashtagged tweets.

There’s no question that this a great play for college sports. But the takeaway has broader implications: it highlights the pent-up demand for more fan interaction. Now that athletic departments can engage their fans during games with social media, why not continue that Game Day experience back on the web?

Virginia has already started this with their Facebook profile and Twitter account. However, this content is nowhere near what it could be because it’s only flowing one way. That sounds more like Web 1.0 than 2.0 to me. Fortunately, that’s easy for teams to fix.

Sports teams, your next step is to actively engage fans online. Here’s how. Use your Facebook status to post questions and start conversations. Seek feedback and ideas from fans. Don’t just tweet about upcoming games and scoreboard updates. Reply to tweets and get to know your fans better. Retweet fans’ comments to your followers. And offer them rich media. Your wallpapers and podcasts are a good start. But don’t stop there: why not let fans skin their browser with a Persona of their favorite teams, add a Twibbon of the mascot to their Twitter avatar, or send in fan videos. Utilize your media assets.

If you bring the Game Day experience to fans outside the stadium, they’ll get even more excited when the next game day arrives. It only takes a small time investment to connect with your fan community, and the potential payoff is huge—fans who are more excited and more loyal. And maybe, just maybe, fans that are more engaged will cheer the team to victory more often. Just sayin’.

How can your favorite teams better engage their fans? What teams are already leading the pack with social media?