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Sports World Takes on TikTok as Next Social Media Frontier

TikTok has invaded popular culture. Now, it’s made its way into the sports world as leagues and teams try to capitalize on the short-form video platform.

Mike Piellucci

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It has made believers out of Gen Z, propelled Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and launched no shortage of lip sync videos.  Now, TikTok is invading the sports world.

Although the app is still in its infancy, major professional leagues and teams all over the globe are jumping on board and integrating the short-form video platform into their social media strategy alongside entrenched platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

“We saw the power and creativity, and also that it’s something new,” says Felix Loesner, head of social media at FC Bayern Munich. “It’s something like the old Vine where you can have creative storytelling for a special young audience. This makes the app so interesting for us.”

READ MORE: WNBA Targets Broader National Reach With CBS Sports Deal

The American version of TikTok originally launched as the lip-synching app Music.ly in April 2014. Three years later, in November 2017, Music.ly was purchased by the Chinese company ByteDance, who then folded it into their existing app, TikTok, in August 2018. Yet TikTok spent almost the entirety of 2018 growing into an international sensation; according to one report, as of November 2018, TikTok was the third-most downloaded app globally between Google Play and Apple’s App Store.

So it was only a matter of time before it began to make waves in the sports world. The NBA, NHL and MLB have all launched league accounts while the NFLPA reached a deal with the platform in January to allow TikTok users to implement 3D augmented reality stickers of its players. On the team side, everyone from Bayern Munich to the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Los Angeles Dodgers have gotten in the game, too.

There are two powerful demographic lures. The first is the audience age. As of March 2018, nearly 40% of TikTok users were under the age of 20, with an additional 26% between 20 and 29 years old. It’s a potential goldmine for sports leagues eager to find ways to connect to Gen Z.

“I think what makes TikTok so exciting is that literally one of our biggest goals in the entire company is cultivating the next generation of fans,” says NBA Vice President of Social and Digital Content Bob Carney. “It gets really, really exciting for everybody when you can reach a completely new audience.”

The second is gender. Although only 44 percent of TikTok users are female, Carney says the bulk of the NBA’s 4.3 million followers are young females, while Loesner notes that Bayern Munich’s nearly 86,000 followers are roughly an even split of men and women. Ditto Sue Jo, the Dodgers social media coordinator, who just launched her team’s account around Opening Day but already has noticed that “it’s a younger crowd, a lot more female-based” – the polar opposite of baseball’s core audience.

The question they’re all grappling with is how to best engage their users. TikTok only provides a maximum of 15 seconds for each video, forcing content creators to tell efficient stories. To that end, befitting the app’s musical and idiosyncratic roots, many ideas center on the lighter-hearted moments in sports. The Dodgers’ most-liked video to date was one of Clayton Kershaw and Alex Verdugo dancing in the team’s dugout. Bayern Munich, which timed its account launch ahead of a rivalry match against Borussia Dortmund, garnered almost 135,000 likes on a behind-the-scenes walkthrough video on gameday at the Allianz Arena. The NBA, meanwhile, has been on the platform since the Music.ly days and built much of its audience through posting quirky in-game moments.

“When we first got going, we were really focused on using it as an outlet to showcase all of the fun moments that were happening in and around the arena,” Carney says, before noting that every game is shot from 10 camera angles while many also feature social producers. “There was so much content that we didn’t have a home for.”

More recently, though, the league has found success by dropping in highlights and setting them to music. It wasn’t part of the original plan – the league already had a history of utilizing Twitter and Facebook as its home for game-related action and developments. But even as relative veterans on TikTok, Carney is cognizant that the league needed to stay nimble on what fits the platform so long as they don’t stray too far from what’s already working.

And, in TikTok’s case, Jo has found that it’s the least packaged items that often pop the loudest.

“I don’t necessarily think that a lot of pre-produced content does well on platforms like TikTok,” she says. “There’s a platform at a time and place for stuff like that, but I think with this, the more organic it is, the more natural it feels, [then] the more excitement that people kind of feel from it.”

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Could that eventually change? Perhaps. As new as TikTok is, Carney says the NBA’s philosophy on the platform is the same as it is on all socials: No one should ever expect things to stay the same for long.

“We refuse to get complacent, and we are constantly adapting based on the data,” Carney says. “That’s really been our philosophy since Day One on social. You really need to be because it does change so fast, and the trends change so fast, too.

“The platform changes, the users change and the brands change. So it’s constantly a moving target. So the best you could do is analyze the data and adapt based on it.”

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CrossFit Deletes Its Facebook Account, Denounces “Utopian Socialists”

The fitness and regime company posted a bullet-pointed list of grievances with the social media network in the days following their exodus.

Robert Silverman

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In a sprawling, occasionally hyperbolic, and definitely adversarial public statement, CrossFit announced on Thursday that it has deleted its main Facebook and Instagram accounts. Citing data and privacy concerns and spurred by the brief suspension of one private Facebook diet group, the fitness and trademarked workout company has cut ties with this cabal of “utopian socialists,” as CrossFit described the individuals who run Facebook, a company estimated to be worth $512 billion.

Evidence of the social media exodus was apparently first unearthed by Armen Hammer, a fitness podcaster who posted a screenshot of the now-deleted CrossFit account on Instagram on Monday. He posted a screenshot of the now-deleted CrossFit account on Instagram on Monday, scrawling “Um…what?” over the image and adding the text: “So this is interesting. What’s up @crossfit? You guys okay over there?”

Two days later, a CrossFit affiliate in the United Kingdom confirmed that the deletion was neither the result of a temporary suspension nor a minor glitch. By Thursday, CrossFit was ready to offer a full explanation of its reasoning.

The missive posted on CrossFit’s website begins by positing the company as the final bulwark against the “ tsunami of chronic disease” other, non-CrossFit health and wellness companies, have unleashed upon an unwitting world, specifically the “unholy alliance of academia, government, and multinational food, beverage, and pharmaceutical companies.” While the site continues to publish reported articles and video features on their website, their ex-Facebook and Instagram pages, CrossFit claims, served as a vital hub for their unceasing efforts to promote truth, justice, and a grueling exercise regime. They were a place to combat “overreaching governments, malicious competitors, and corrupt academic organizations,” CrossFit wrote.

But alas, the good fight will no longer be fought—at least on social media. The inciting incident was the temporary suspension without explanation of a low-carb diet private group Facebook page, Banting 7 Day Meal Plans. Located in South Africa, the group boasts over 1.6 million members. Reached by phone, a CrossFit spokesperson said they had no formal relationship with Banting 7 Day Meal Plans, but were notified of the suspension by the “group owner.” (A Banting 7 Day Meal Plans moderator did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication.)

Further, “Several members of CrossFit’s leadership have personal connections with the low carb community, such as Professor Tim Noakes,” the spokesperson said via email. Noakes, a South African low-carb diet guru, has been featured prominently on CrossFit’s website. In 2014, Noakes suggested to a mother on Twitter that her baby could be put on a low-carb, high-fat diet. A year later, he was brought before the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA), alleging Noakes had behaved unethically. (One CrossFit blog covering the ordeal was titled: “Nutritional Fascism and the ‘Twitter Trial.’”) The HPCSA ultimately ruled in favor of Noakes, who did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

Though Banting 7 Day Meal Plans account has since been reinstated, Facebook had finally gone too far, according to a spokesperson. “This highlights the incredibly precarious nature of [Facebook’s moderation policies and guidelines],” the spokesperson said. “You can build a community and get it removed and you don’t get an explanation.”

If you can work your way through the sweaty, muscular prose in their statement, the issues with Facebook raised by CrossFit are valid. (Facebook declined to comment.) In addition to the aforementioned question of how the site is moderated and guidelines are enforced, CrossFit outlined eight points of contention with Facebook’s ongoing practices. They included, but were not limited to: aggregating and then selling user data without permission, both to corporate and governmental entities; participating in civilian surveillance programs; the lack of security and inability to protect intellectual property; the spreading of misinformation; and the massive and frequent breaches of Facebook’s security protocols, all of which have been extensively reported in the last few years.

But CrossFit also wrote: “Facebook’s news feeds are censored and crafted to reflect the political leanings of Facebook’s utopian socialists while remaining vulnerable to misinformation campaigns designed to stir up violence and prejudice.”

Do they really believe, regardless of whatever societal ills have been unleashed by the social network—including the possible aiding and abetting of genocide—that Facebook’s leaders would in any way consider themselves socialists, utopian or otherwise?

The spokesperson admitted with a chuckle that that wasn’t intended to be read as a literal description of Mark Zuckerberg’s or any other Facebook executive’s political leanings. Instead, the phrase was meant to convey their overall “worldview.” The larger message, the spokesperson said, was that Facebook and other social media sites represent an ongoing “social experiment” which has exacerbated and amplified bad actors on both sides of the political spectrum. Nor was this an attempt to tie CrossFit to any particular political ideology, other than opposing censorship.

Using extreme language is not new for CrossFit. Founder Greg Glassman previously described his globe-spanning fitness empire as “a religion run by a biker gang.” When Congress proposed legislation requiring trainers to obtain certification or face possible criminal charges, Glassman swore he’d meet force with force. “I’m going to get my own asshole lobbyists,” Glassman bragged to Maxim Magazine in 2015. “I’m going to fuck some people up.”

Similarly, CrossFit’s social media team has on occasion taken an equally adversarial pose. As Inc. reported in 2013, whenever they encounter an online entity CrossFit deems an enemy, from random bloggers to parody accounts, they declare total war. Or as Inc. wrote: “the goal is simple: obliterate them.”  

The spokesperson added: “As you can see in our statement, we’re kind of a contrarian group.”

CrossFit may have abandoned posting for now—and they still maintain a presence on both Twitter and YouTube, both of which have their own issues with censorship and suborning extremism—but it is willing to reconsider should Facebook alter how it functions.

Of course, with CrossFit partially exiting the digital stage, a few copycat accounts have cropped up, looking to dupe unwitting individuals and snag a follower or two. (On Thursday, Facebook announced that it had deleted more than 3 billion fraudulent accounts during a six-month period, from October 2018 to March 2019.)  Still, CrossFit insisted they weren’t attempting to compel Facebook to enact any reforms.

“From our perspective, we have broad specific concerns about how Facebook manages data and serves as an authority over groups that develop on its property,” the spokesperson said. Given the lack of faith in Facebook’s ability to take a stand against powerful, entrenched interests, both public and private, “We don’t want to support Facebook with our audience and our platform.”

READ MORE: Inside the World of Pirated Streams, And What It Takes to Stop Them

And for the individuals running the 15,000 CrossFit outposts spanning 162 countries, this shouldn’t be considered a top-down mandate. Each affiliate is free to choose how and where they chose to market themselves, both online and off.

One affiliate, though, seems inclined to back the parent company. Hari Singh, the owner of CrossFit NYC, which opened in 2006 and ranks as the eighth oldest CrossFit affiliate in existence, said their page would remain active, at least for the moment.

“We’ll decide if Facebook has any value to us moving forward,” Singh said by phone. “I’m not sure that it does.”  

*Editor’s Note: An original version of this story had Armen Hammer listed as the actor and star of the movie “The Social Network.” The correct Armen Hammer is a fitness podcaster. We have made the correction and apologize for the confusion.

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Turning ESPN Around

Jimmy Pitaro has been able to increase digital offerings and improve the brand’s image in the wake of the network being criticized for being too political.

Front Office Sports

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Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

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

In just over a year since joining ESPN as the company’s president, it looks as if Jimmy Pitaro has been able to turn things around.

After a period of turbulence that included layoffs, a strained relationship with the NFL, and a falling linear subscriber base, things at the WWL seem to be looking up.

What has worked?

  • ESPN+: The OTT streaming service now has a reported 2 million subscribers after a year of being live.
  • New Digital Offerings: ESPN has expanded its presence on platforms like Snapchat, YouTube and Twitter.
  • Leveraging ABC: To further its reach, ESPN has found success putting marquee events and games (NBA games, NFL Draft, college football games) on the free to air TV channel.

More sports, fewer politics…

While some championed ESPN’s coverage of events where politics and sports seemingly intertwined, Pitaro believes he has brought clarity to the company when it comes to what fans of ESPN truly want.

“Without question, our data tells us our fans do not want us to cover politics. My job is to provide clarity. I really believe that some of our talent was confused on what was expected of them. If you fast-forward to today, I don’t believe they are confused.” – Jimmy Pitaro to Stephen Battaglio of the LA Times.

What they are saying…

“We’ve done some brand research that suggests ESPN’s brand is stronger than it was a few years ago.” – Bob Iger to Disney investors

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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.”

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.”

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

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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