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The art of snark | Is it okay for teams to troll their rivals on social media?

  • US sports teams more likely to take swipes at opponents
  • NBA issued memo prohibiting teams from mocking opponents
  • Teams need to find their voice on social media

The LA Kings have been widely credited as the pioneers of “snark” in sports social media.

Back in 2012, the ice hockey franchise was on a roll that would see the team lift the Stanley Cup for the first time. The Kings were brash, bold and very, very good; qualities that their Twitter account would reflect to perfection.

“To anyone in Canada outside BC, you’re welcome,” they proclaimed after beating the Vancouver Canucks.

“This video contains @DustinBrown23 hitting Henrik Sedin,” said another. “Feel free to watch as often as you’d like.”

Hardly spectacular sass these days, but no club was talking quite like this at the time.

It was a groundbreakingly fresh attitude and sparked a tradition of US sports teams taking sporadic swipes at opponents on social media. Most of the time, it could be bracketed as “banter.” However, occasionally it moved into more serious topics, such as last year’s Twitter exchange between Major League Soccer rivals LA Galaxy and Portland Timbers over injuries in their games.

That would spark an ongoing feud between the teams on the platform. The latest shots fired came on March 13 when the Galaxy put out a mesmerising video trolling Diego Chara for diving to get Jelle van Damme booked.

Sentiment

Given that they compete in one of the most digitally-focused sports leagues in the world, it is no surprise that teams in the NBA have also been prepared to live closer the edge than most in terms of social media sentiment. It has been one of many tactics that have kept basketball close on the coat tails of NFL as the most popular sport in the US.

But, occasionally, teams have gone too far. A Houston Rockets employee was fired in 2015 and an apology issued after they published a tweet containing emojis of a gun pointing to the head of the horse. It was a dig suggesting that the Dallas Mavericks had been finally put out of their misery following a series-clinching defeat.

A more recent example saw the Portland Trailblazers poke fun at Chandler Parsons of the Memphis Grizzlies after a bad miss when the teams met.

However, most of the time a little trash talk was just an integral part of the game which, in turn, had been reflected on social media. And, of course, the fans, especially those hard-to-please Millennials, lapped it up.

So, there was a certain consternation from teams when, early this year, the League sent round a memo prohibiting them from posting anything “mocking and/or ridiculing” game officials or opponents.

It is too early to predict the long-term effects of the change. The only immediate reaction saw an outbreak of unerring politeness between certain NBA teams.

PICTURE: Chandler Parsons of the Memphis Grizzlies

Edge

However, over the longer term, it might see the much-loved ‘edge’ knocked off teams’ social media accounts. That may affect engagement on their platforms then, in turn, interest and ticket sales.

For his part, Micah Hart, a former director of digital at the Atlanta Hawks, is not surprised by the change of policy.

“Most US leagues are pretty conservative when it comes to brand management,” he says. “Every time one of these situations makes news, it tightens the leash just a little bit more on what teams can do without getting called on the carpet.

“Typically, teams are poking fun at each other as entities, not individuals and, in my experience, that is the line that, when crossed, gets people on the inside most angry. I get it too though, teams hate distractions and also need to cultivate good relationships with every player for potential future trades and signings.

“That said, I think sometimes the punishments can overcorrect too much. Most of the time these small flare-ups are immediately forgotten as the public moves on to the next shiny object and, when news leaks of the latest social edict, it ends up creating more of a negative hit than whatever incident occurred in the first place.”

Sean Callanan, a Melbourne-based digital consultant who has worked with NBA franchises and sports team all over the world, also argues more could be lost than gained by these latest measures.

“NBA Twitter was one of the key differentiators for the NBA social scene and, by pulling back the line, the platform will have less appeal to fans,” he says. “For me, it was a big over-correction over a ‘brand look’.

"The life of a tweet is tiny and far more positive stories were generated than negative ones. It could see a talent drain of staff that aren't given the freedom to push the envelope and they could be lost to non-sports brands, which would be disappointing.

Having been responsible for digital and social media accounts at major football clubs in the Premier League and MLS, I am more sympathetic with the stance taken by NBA.

Yes, social media posts are ephemeral but, at the same time, there are also lots of them. The club feed is constant, even in the offseason, and every communication is part of a fan’s overall perception.

Social media accounts are effectively the voice of the club. Occasional point-scoring with your rivals is fine but constant one-upmanship, if unchecked, can take social media sentiment into a space it should rarely occupy.

PICTURE: Frank Lampard

Rules

Until now, the rules of this particular game have not been written and, of course, one person’s on-point humour is another’s over-the-top snark.

For example, the retirement of Frank Lampard last year was met by fitting eulogies around the football world, with New York City leading the way. However, local rival New York Red Bulls took a different approach by tweeting a GIF of the midfielder being nutmegged during a derby game last season along with the words "See You" and a waving hand. The retweets and likes, traditional measures of engagement on social media, suggested it was a success. However, the UK media interpreted the tweet as "lacking class".

Similarly, when the official Liverpool Twitter account replied with the word "delete" to a little goading post from an unofficial Manchester United account, Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville was quick to respond. He suggested that the exchange would unnecessarily hype the upcoming game between the sides, adding that if he were a Liverpool player, he would "be hammering the Twitter guy."

While it might seem a stretch to suggest that a few tweets could influence the result of a sporting contest given the multitude of factors at play, teams spend a vast amount of resources creating the right environment for their athletes to excel. They do not take kindly to a draining incident, especially one manufactured from the inside.

Another aspect is the increasing monetisation of social media by teams. More and more partners base their investment on branded content aggregated by a team's Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat channels. They could be deterred by a team who are perceived to have continually crossed the line of good taste. 

Of course, on the flipside, partners will want engagement for their posts. This is more likely to come from accounts that entertain their fans. A diet of anodyne “club vanilla” will seldom achieve that aim.

But then ‘snark’ is not always the answer. European football teams are much less likely to indulge in the rough stuff and yet they dominate the list of most followed sports clubs in the world.

As Callanan points out, the key is neither angelic nor devilish behaviour; it is much more important to tell an authentic story that resonates with your supporters.

Authentic

“‘Edge’ only works for teams who also project that persona and whose fan base also adopt it,” Callanan says. “It worked for the LA Kings and has done for other challenger or edgy franchises. But it wouldn't work with a classic traditional franchise steeped in history. It wouldn't sound right.

“The [social media] tone must always fit the team's brand and persona. If you want to change the tone it has to be a long and deliberate approach to re-educate the fans that this is how the team communicates.”

For Hart, now director of content and strategy at IMG Live, the approach was similar during his highly successful spell marshalling the Hawks’ digital growth.

“Our guiding principles were to establish ourselves as the collective ‘voice of the fan’ and to react to what was going on with the team, the highs and the lows, as our fans would,” Hart says.

“We were out to build long-term relationships with our fan base, and we felt authenticity was critical to establishing that. We were never going to bash our team but if something hurt we didn’t want to pretend as if nothing happened.

“But,” he adds, “sport is supposed to be fun and so is social media too. It is important to protect and elevate your brand but, I also think it’s helpful to remember your place in the world.

"Be serious, yes, but don’t take yourself too seriously.” 

No-one could ever accuse the LA Kings social media accounts of that.

Richard Clarke is a digital and social media consultant.  He holds the distinction of having run the social media accounts at major football clubs in the Premier League and MLS having worked for EPL club Arsenal and MLS club the Colorado Rapids. @MrRichardClarke

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