Wondering What Not to Do When It Comes to Social Media? Learn From BCS

Don't Treat Facebook, Twitter as Broadcast Tools; Converse With Fans

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The BCS might not be your favorite institution, but it has kindly spent the last week creating a useful case study in how not to use social media.

In the last two weeks, the Bowl Championship Series -- which determines the sport's national championship game every year -- hired its first full-time executive director in Bill Hancock, retained former George W. Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer's firm to handle its PR, and added a Twitter feed (@insidetheBCS) and Facebook fan page.

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Marketers have big-time sponsorship rights to the biggest bowl games.

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    National championship game and Rose Bowl
    Orange Bowl
    Fiesta Bowl
    Sugar Bowl
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    Cotton Bowl
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    Alamo Bowl

But it made the classic mistake -- at least initially -- of treating these social-media platforms like propaganda broadcast tools, rather than a way of finding out what, exactly, fans want. For several days after its Twitter feed went live on Nov. 18, nothing but ire was directed the way of the organization, which helped fuel the anger by failing to respond in any meaningful way to the incoming messages.

"Social networks are a powerful, effective way to engage," Mr. Fleischer said. "Twitter is red-hot, it's full of controversy and although it has created a lot of vituperative tweets, it affords the BCS a great platform to get its point across." But its platform has not quieted fan ire toward the BCS. The biggest issue is that fans of college football want a national championship playoff system -- and the BCS has no interest in establishing one. Mr. Fleischer said his role will be to continue to get the word out about the BCS, and to "leave no stone unturned about how a playoff would create just as much controversy."

But the PR push has come off as another attempt of trying to convince outraged fans of why the BCS is right and they're wrong.

"If your product is hated because of a lack of understanding, social media gives you a good opportunity to communicate with consumers in an interactive and engaging manner. In the BCS example, I think their problem is that they are not fostering conversation," said Jeff Ma, co-founder and VP-research for the popular website Citizen Sports and the author of one of the most popular sports apps for iPhone, Sportacular. "Instead, they are trying to deliver a message."

On the very first day of taking to Twitter, @insidetheBCS was quickly beset by those comparing it to everything from Balloon Boy to the KKK.

According to social media/new business consultant Michael Gass, president of Michael Gass Consulting, Birmingham, Ala., "If they are genuinely searching for ways the BCS can improve through dialogue, that will be evident. If they try to use social media as a propaganda platform, you will know it soon enough."

Part of the early problem with the BCS Facebook page is that although Mr. Hancock was quoted as saying he wants to create "a two-way conversation," the only thing posted on the page's wall is from the BCS itself. And the early tweets seemed to be a stream of pro-BCS talking points.

Within the week, however, @insidetheBCS began responding with reasons why a playoff system might not work. Such explanations are what the BCS set out to do with the social-media tools, and they may be better than nothing.

But they're unlikely to do much to assuage fans who won't settle for anything less. Fans such as Jody Garrett, who commented on Facebook: "The BCS is the most-hated institution in the country. The IRS is a distant second with the KKK running third."

The BCS is the latest iteration of a system created in 1998 in response to what many saw as a flaw in the college-football bowl system -- the inability to match the top two teams in one game because of contracted tie-ins to certain bowls. The two best teams are now decided by a complicated formula that includes the human element and computerized rankings.

The playoff picture

A playoff system might not be good enough for NCAA Division I football but it's good enough for these other NCAA Sports:

  • Basketball (men's and women's)
  • Baseball
  • Softball
  • Soccer (men's and women's)
  • Ice Hockey
  • Field Hockey
  • Football (yes, football: Football Championships Subdivision, Division II and Division III)

In essence, opponents of the system want an NFL-style playoff system; proponents of the current plan say a playoff will devalue the regular season and ruin the tradition-laden, decades-old bowl system.

Nothing will change anytime soon. The BCS will be the system of record through 2014 now that the BCS and ESPN have signed a four-year, $500 million deal for the Walt Disney Co. network to televise the games. (This is Fox's last year of its contract.)

"Currently, college football's leadership has limited motivation, for a variety of reasons, to fundamentally overhaul the post season," said sports-marketing expert David Carter, a principal in the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group and exec director of the Sports Business Institute at one of those BCS powerhouses, the University of Southern California.

Adds sports-marketing exec Bob Dorfman of San Francisco's Baker Street Partners: "While a playoff system would likely generate even more sponsorship money, it might also diminish the significance of non-playoff bowl games—hurting attendance, ratings, sponsorship dollars and school payouts."

There are 34 college-football bowl games: the five BCS games (Rose, Orange, Sugar, Fiesta and national championship) with an average payout of $18 million per team, and the other 29 bowl games with payouts that range from $4.25 million to roughly $500,000.

The move to hire Mr. Fleischer has also been questioned by both fans and the media, with Sports Illustrated college-football writer Stewart Mandel tweeting, "I love that the BCS, the most unpopular entity in sports, hired a guy who worked under the most unpopular president in history."

Mr. Fleischer has two firms, Ari Fleischer Communications and Ari Fleischer Sports Communications, the latter of which is financially backed by Cleveland-based IMG Worldwide, arguably the most-powerful sports-representation and -marketing group in the country. Its subsidiary, IMG College, handles sports-marketing services and licensing for some of the biggest colleges in the country, including BCS powerhouse schools such as Texas, Florida and Ohio State, but Mr. Fleischer said he is keeping the IMG-backed firm out of the equation for obvious reasons and is doing PR for the BCS through Ari Fleischer Communications.

"When even the president of the United States is vowing to abolish the BCS, it's time to call in the heavy PR guns," Mr. Dorfman said. "Hiring Fleischer's firm can only help, particularly in defusing the anti-BCS sentiment on Capitol Hill, but it's a monumental task."

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