The NFL season starts Thursday…is twitter ready?

I make no bones about the fact I am a huge fan of NFL football. Judging by what I have seen from many of the SMMI faithful lately, so are you. It seems the labor struggles between the Players Association and the club owners this past summer has done nothing to diminish the excitement we feel as the regular season gets underway Thursday night. I know I’m psyched to root for my team as they begin their quest for the Lombardi Trophy.

But this is a social media blog, so my angle on the new football season has to do with how it will be impacted by social media – especially twitter. According to 1185 NFL players are on twitter, and from a cursory glance I see very few with less than 1,000 followers. While I admit that number includes some coaches and guys who aren’t on active rosters after cuts came this week, the percentage of NFL players using social media and the reach they have is astonishing – I challenge you to find another industry with this kind of social impact.

We have already seen instances of twitter impacting the day-to-day workings of the 2011 NFL. During training camp Houston Texans running back Arian Foster (a significant player on his team and a fantasy football favorite) tweeted about the hamstring injury he sustained in a game before the same information was conveyed to the media and other teams by the Texans. A few days later Foster tweeted a picture of his MRI with the note that the “white stuff surrounding the muscle is known in the medical world as anti-awesomeness”. I think it is safe to say that this move was not in line with the team’s PR manual. Needless to say, Foster’s tweets were picked up by the major sports broadcasters within minutes and were spread around the world before the team could even react.

The NFL is a league with a strong understanding of protocol. The success and integrity of their brand requires that the public never believe a team is getting preferential treatment or that individuals have knowledge others do not. The games must be won and lost on the field…nowhere else. Sounds familiar, right? Many of our brands have the same challenge with our customers. To address the need for transparency, the NFL created its injury-reporting system in the 1940s, has upheld it carefully and continues to monitor injury reporting closely today.

So how does a brand with a strict concern for disclosure and fairness handle a member community so in touch with social media? The answers can be a guide for us all as we deal with our own groups and their tweets.

The first move the NFL made was to prohibit gameday tweets. According to a @reply I received from NFL Senior VP of Public Relations Greg Aiello “(the) use of twitter/social media is barred for players, coaches and game operations people from 90 minutes before kickoff until after the post-game news media period.” Certainly a good move to keep last-minute injuries/strategy from making it to some and not others but not necessarily enough to keep all the info from getting out. That said, I don’t know the NFL has the ability to suppress tweets from every one of the 1185 players each and every week. Just like in our organizations, management of communication has to be done at a much more local level.

But are player tweets that useful? I asked Philadelphia Daily News beat reporter Les Bowen if he gets any benefit from player tweets, and if using twitter gives him a “leg-up” on his more “old-school” colleagues. He admitted that while sifting through retweets of fans telling players how great they are is cumbersome, twitter has given reporters (and fans) unique insight into players off-field personalities and their reactions to other off-field happenings. He also opined that with the recent growth in player tweets (including the MRI photo mentioned above) the future of beat reporting in the NFL may change during the 2011 season.

I think I agree…and I know I’ll be following along. For any of us who manage brands, the NFL could end up being an amazing social media case study.

Enjoy football, friends!

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