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Simple Hashtags Elevated by Scarves Illuminate MLS Content Innovation

Adding a physical scarf element helps MLS differentiate from other leagues’ hashtag efforts on Twitter and highlights its innovative desires.

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MLS Hashtag Scarves

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As Major League Soccer prepares to launch its 24th season on March 2, a league focus remains on driving digital innovation.

MLS and Twitter unveiled the first full league set of team hashtags and emojis on Monday. While other leagues beat it to the punch with a full set of team hashtags, MLS has brought them into the real world with a set of team scarves. Each team will receive a few scarves for content opportunities and potential giveaways.

MLS Director of Social Melissa Marchionna said the scarves help up the ante just enough for the news.

“We’re always trying to do something different,” Marchionna said. “We saw a lot of great content from fellow leagues and businesses and we just wanted to take it up a notch.

“We’re really excited about the scarves, which add something tangible and reflective of the soccer experience. They’re such a dynamic piece of the stadium experience.”

MLS first used team hashtags for the four conference finalists last year during the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, which included Sporting KC, New York Red Bulls, Portland Timbers and the champion Atlanta United.

READ MORE: Inside MLS’ Digital Strategy and the Impact Zlatan Has Had

While the exact social media lift that the hashtags created is tough to measure, Marchionna said the implementation was a success in creating more opportunities for content and drive traffic to the regular Twitter broadcasts.

“We knew we wanted to get them for everybody,” she said. “We were excited to see fans having fun with the emojis, sharing them. It’s a moment of pride and that’s what we’re always looking for.”

To bring the project together, the MLS digital team worked with each team and Twitter to develop a hashtag and emoji that reflects each team.

“These emojis are a badge of honor, and we’re hoping fans use them more than they would without an emoji,” Marchionna said.

Last year, MLS and Twitter signed a three-year deal for weekly programming, including matches and features.

Marchionna said the two organizations have plenty of synergies, especially when it comes to how they think through ideas and innovate. She said it’s great to work with all digital platforms, but Twitter offers a similarly nimble partner constantly striving to level up operations.

Last season, MLS and Twitter partnered to provide fans the opportunity to take live photos at a game between the LA Galaxy and Los Angeles FC. The fan-operated camera was located by a corner flag at StubHub Center by submitting a #LALookIn hashtag. A photo was then taken and sent as a reply.

MLS Hashtag Scarves

A look at each of the team’s hashtag-triggered emojis. (Image via MLS)

Twitter representatives are similarly excited about working with colleagues at MLS to further connect supporters to their clubs through digital means.

“We love partnering with MLS, who continue to share Twitter’s passion for providing unique opportunities for fans to engage with their favorite clubs,” said Will Exline, sports partnerships manager at Twitter. “Not only is this the first time each MLS club will have a season-long custom emoji, they’ve bridged the digital and physical world by printing out the hashtags and emojis on scarves to bring the activation to life.”

READ MORE: How Wayne Rooney Added Millions of Additional Brand Value for D.C. United and MLS

The bridging between the digital and physical world is an aspect Marchionna said the MLS content teams generally try to accomplish. In the 24th season, which the league has high hopes for, Marchionna said the team will look to create impressive content and to push boundaries to further strengthen an already strong visual identity. She hinted at strong content pieces on MLS channels and with broadcast partners.

“We’re just excited about all kinds of social and digital content for distribution,” she said. “Bigger and better — that reflects our brand.”

As Marchionna pushes her team to constantly improve and be innovative, she said meetings don’t stop at a good idea.

“That’s our backup if what we do doesn’t work,” she said. “Good is never good enough.”

Pat Evans is a writer based in Las Vegas, focusing on sports business, food, and beverage. He graduated from Michigan State University in 2012. He's written two books: Grand Rapids Beer and Nevada Beer. Evans can be reached at pat@frntofficesport.com.

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Rachel Nichols and ‘The Jump’ Lead the Way in Daily NBA Coverage

With the NBA playoffs reaching their peak, Rachel Nichols and “The Jump” are ramping up coverage, bringing the latest news to the growing NBA community.

Bailey Knecht

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Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

One afternoon, in the middle of his appearance as a panelist on ESPN’s “The Jump,” Scottie Pippen received a text from Michael Jordan letting Pippen know MJ was watching the show. Another time, Bill Russell tweeted at host Rachel Nichols about that day’s episode.

“It’s the ultimate compliment because growing up, we idolized these players,” says Danny Corrales, ‘The Jump’ producer. “To know current and former players are looking at our show as a credible source of NBA news and information is really flattering.”

In its three and a half years on the air, “The Jump” has made a name for itself as the go-to show for daily basketball news, even for the sport’s biggest stars.

“The show is on at practice facilities, training facilities and hotels, so we’ll get texts and hear from players, GMs and front office people, talking about rumors we address on the show,” Nichols says.

It’s not just Hall of Famers and NBA team personnel that tune in. “The Jump” averages around 300,000 viewers per day and is regularly one of the most-watched ESPN shows on-demand.

The common thread between those who watch? A deep love for the NBA and all of its drama, on and off the court.

“That’s what we’re striving for, that everyone from NBA fans to players to team owners can come hang out with us,” Nichols says. “It’s a centralized hub or hangout.”

READ MORE: ESPN Brings AR to Life for NBA Playoffs

With the playoffs in full swing, the Emmy-nominated crew is now out of the studio and on the road, providing on-site coverage for the remainder of the season.

“To me, being where the game is has always been an important part of my coverage,” Nichols says. “I feel like I need to be here, going to practice and talking to guys, going to games, going into the locker room and talking about what’s going on…It brings an immediacy, a currency, and that helps viewers be there with us.”

A prime-time version of the show has also been added for the NBA Finals, airing on ESPN from 8 to 8:30 p.m. ET ahead of weekday Finals games.

“Every time we hit the road, we try to replicate our daily show as best as we can, and it’s not easy being on the road because there’s a comfort level you gain in the studio,” Corrales says. “Our goal for this year is to continue to do the show the way we do the normal show, with the same topics, same guests and same passionate energy.”

READ NOW: Ernie Johnson Talks March Madness, Sports Media and More

When she created “The Jump,” Nichols pushed for it to feel like a casual basketball discussion with friends. The show features media members and former players conversing around a table, and the studio is set up more like a living room than a traditional anchor desk.

“That’s what I’m doing on my weekend afternoon—sitting around, talking about basketball with friends, and that transferred into everything about the show,” Nichols says. “It’s not a big, huge set, and there are no big monitors, because I don’t have big monitors in my living room, so why would we have that here?”

Rather than showing highlights or going in-depth on Xs and Os, Nichols and her panelists dive into the quirky, peripheral side of the sport.

“We’re having an educated basketball conversation and telling you things you don’t know, so if you’re a diehard, you’re still learning, but we hope it’s accessible for other people, too,” Nichols says.

It’s not all about the fun, lighthearted side of the NBA, though. An experienced journalist, Nichols does not shy away from heavy topics in her introductory monologues and interviews, such as the Dallas Mavericks’ sexual misconduct investigation in 2018.

“In a way, I’ve been prepping my whole career,” says Nichols, who has covered major controversies involving sports figures like Roger Goodell and Floyd Mayweather. “I’ve done investigative pieces, and I’ve covered serious league issues for months at a time. I feel good that if something serious comes up, I can steer the conversation.”

Nichols and her crew have made an effort to balance those serious topics with the NBA’s goofier stories, though. For example, they recently discussed a Milwaukee-based radio station that refuses to play Drake songs during the Bucks’ playoff series against the Toronto Raptors.

“We’re giving good weight to both [serious and fun] topics, and we’re staying true to the character of the show and who I am, too,” Nichols said.

The NBA is rarely bereft of topics to discuss, so Nichols leans on fans and NBA Twitter to find fresh content and drive the conversation. She says social media has “helped with that communal feel, like we’re all in this together.”

With the Finals around the corner, that community will embrace the drama, with Nichols and her crew leading the discussion every step of the way.

“The NBA is a celebrity league, and the players are superstars,” Nichols says. “People feel like they know these guys, so the whole thing feels like a high school cafeteria, where we know what table everybody is sitting at. We also have a table in the cafeteria, and now we have a yearbook.”

When she first pitched “The Jump,” Nichols took a risk, hoping to find an audience for a daily afternoon basketball show. Now, just a few years later, “The Jump” has become the preferred NBA show for basketball junkies—regular fans to NBA legends alike.

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ESPN Brings AR to Life for NBA Playoffs

Front Office Sports

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May 20, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) passes the ball past Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) and forward Meyers Leonard (11) during the second half in game four of the Western conference finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Moda Center. The Warriors won 119-117 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else.

During this year’s Western Conference Finals, you may have seen graphics that made you feel like you were playing an NBA 2K game instead of watching the Warriors sweep the Trail Blazers. 

Why? Because ESPN and Second Spectrum teamed up to deliver real-time AR graphics to provide viewers with advanced stats and engagement opportunities. 

What do you need to know?

‘ESPN Mode’, as it is called, is part of the network’s push to provide more differentiated viewing opportunities for fans through its digital offerings.

Outside of AR, ESPN has been offering a feed from a robotic camera above the rim, as well as one for pre-game layup lines, and during warmups for both teams.

They also rolled out a new NBA Twitter and YouTube pre-game show, Hoop Streams, as well as At The Mic, a show that covers post-game press conferences.

Why does Second Spectrum sound familiar? 

That’s because they are the company behind Clippers CourtVision, the technology that allows fans of the team to choose different streams that show different AR graphics during the broadcast of a game, similar to what ESPN was providing its fans. 

With CourtVision, fans get to choose from three streams, whereas with ESPN, the best of each different mode was combined into one. 

What did fans have to say?

The reaction to the graphics was mixed. Below is a look at what a few Twitter users had to say about them. 

– “Bruh. Wtf are these ridiculous graphics ESPN is forcing on us?!? Stop it.” – @vasu

– “I’m all sorts of excited for this.” – @iDontHoldHouses

–  “I like the idea here. A little too much going on IMO, but interested to see if this (hopefully in moderation) becomes more common.” – @declancmurray

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Mike Yam Helping Set a Path For Future Asian-American Broadcasters

Growing up, Mike Yam didn’t see many broadcasters that looked like him, so he didn’t figure it was a career option. He hopes to help change that perception.

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Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Yam was going to be a pediatrician.

However, at Fordham University,  he realized chemistry wasn’t his thing. In his dorm, he saw a classmate in a suit, headed to cover a New Jersey Nets game for the school radio station. The brief conversation resonated with Yam, as he realized he could turn his passion for sports into a career option and joined the radio station. He spent the next four years honing his craft.

“It didn’t click when I was younger, but you don’t see a heavy representation of Asian male broadcasters,” says Yam, now a lead anchor for the Pac-12 Network.

“I didn’t think being a sportscaster was an option. It was that iconic American dream to be a doctor or lawyer my parents wanted for me.”

READ MORE: Bartending, Country Music and Kay Adams’ Relentless Path to Success

Washington State Athletic Director Patrick Chun, himself the son of South Korean immigrants, can relate to the academic stresses Yam faced growing up. Chun became the first Asian-American athletic director of a Power 5 school in 2018.

“When Asian immigrants come to the U.S., their dreams manifest themselves in who their children become,” Chun says. “The biggest ideology difference in cultures are Asian-American kids are there for their parents and American parents are there for their kids. They put a premium on education and a premium on work ethic.”

Growing up, Yam noticed that other than Michael Kim, there were few sports broadcasters that looked like him. This is still a rarity today. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, less than 5 percent of announcers, in any industry, are Asian, while 73.5% are white and 17.3% are black.

Yam believes diversity is an imperative need in newsrooms, and the sharing of cultures and stories is important in making these places more worldly.

 Yam is sometimes discouraged when he speaks at universities to big groups and sees a lack of Asian-Americans in the crowd. He said the lack of representation can potentially prevent children from imagining their dreams. But it’s improving.

“From the on-air side, I get legitimately excited when I see other Asian Americans on air,” Yam says. “What’s next is continuing to develop younger students who have a passion for this and see a pathway in an industry that’s really cool. It’s so crucial and important for younger people to see someone who looks like them doing this.”

For Chun, it was less about who he saw in positions and more about who he surrounded himself with. He credits people like Washington State President Kirk Schulz and Ohio State University athletic directors Andy Geiger and Gene Smith, who helped him while in the Buckeyes’ athletic department.

“They opened my eyes that this could be a goal,” Chun says. “Gene Smith was the guy who planted the seed in my head and gave me a road map. Even though there was no one that looked like me, it never crossed my mind I might the first.”

Chun believes it will take some time for stereotypes and stigmas to be eliminated, but people like Schulz help.

“We were focused on finding a leader with the right blend of experience, vision, and passion to lead Cougar athletics to the next level of success,” Schulz said at the time of Chun’s hiring. “In Pat, we’re confident we found that person. His achievements in fundraising, boosting the academic success rate of student-athletes, and building strong relationships with the community – on and off-campus – are exemplary.”

Yam doesn’t blame discrimination for the lack of Asian Americans in sports media, but he does believe it’s the Asian-American immigrant mentality that has partly held the industry in check. His grandfather essentially snuck into the U.S. and worked for years to bring his family to America. Yam’s father isn’t a sports fan, but the father and son were able to chat about sports during Jeremy Lin’s breakout season with the New York Knicks.

READ MORE: Inside Julianne Viani’s Whirlwind of a Broadcasting Career

“That’s when I knew it was big, when non-sports fans were talking about it,” Yam says. “I never really think about the lack of representation at a professional level until you see someone. Sports is the great equalizer. Either you can do it, or you can’t.”

Yam was not blessed with athletic skills, but he did find a path to be involved in sports in life. Now he gets to facilitate conversations with great athletes and coaches and hopes more find a similar path.

“Who wouldn’t want to do this?” he asks. “What kid wouldn’t want to be in this situation? People just need to know it’s possible.”

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