The Lakers haven't had much trouble selling tickets or hawking jerseys over the last two years, not with the team winning back-to-back championships.
FOR THE RECORD:
Social media: An article in Sunday's Sports section about how the Lakers and other professional teams are using new media such as Facebook and Twitter misspelled the last name of international soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo as Renaldo. —
Still, front-office executives have forced themselves to imagine a time when the sun might not shine so brightly on Staples Center, and when generating revenue becomes tougher.
"Let's make sure we have a voice out there," senior vice president Tim Harris recalled saying at a meeting not long ago. "Because I don't want to start buying a lot of billboards."
Harris was talking about a new way to connect with fans and promote the team.
The Lakers have made it their business to post regularly on Facebook and tweet on Twitter, attracting more than 3.6 million fans on those sites. They have joined a growing number of franchises and leagues experimenting with social media.
The New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys — not to mention Real Madrid and Liverpool in soccer —have built large followings. So have the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball.
They are stepping beyond websites and blogs, delving into another realm that can offer news, encourage debate and, perhaps, boost profits along the way.
"People are passionate about sports brands and entertainment brands," said Sanjay Sood, an associate marketing professor at UCLA. "They want to engage, they want to opt in."
But this is unfamiliar territory for sports executives who wonder if online chatter, often delivered in 140-character bursts, can translate into cash.
"It's a constant learning process," said Michael Altieri, the Kings' vice president of communication and broadcasting. "We have nothing figured out."
No one in sports has yet to approach the social media numbers generated by, say, the late Michael Jackson (16.3 million "likes" on Facebook), President Obama (10.8 million) or even Skittles candy (6.7 million).
Sportsfangraph.com publishes industrywide rankings based on the combined number of Facebook and Twitter fans. The Lakers rank second behind the NBA.
The only other local entries in the top 100 are the Dodgers, at No. 36 with 298,547 fans, and the Angels, No. 82 with 132,797.
Southern California's hockey and soccer franchises stand well down the list, as do the Sparks, Clippers and the two biggest colleges, UCLA and USC, where officials have not been as aggressive in forging a presence.
Certainly, success in social media can be tricky. Team executives must learn to post at times when fans are likely to be in front of their computers. Twitter comes with specific nuances and etiquette.
Whenever people click the button to follow you, it is polite to reciprocate by following them. Messages should be slightly fewer than the maximum 140 characters so that fans can add the proper re-tweet syntax when forwarding to friends who do not follow the team.
"I wouldn't say we knew all of this at first," said Josh Rawitch, the Dodgers' vice president of communications, whose duties have grown to encompass new media. "We learned pretty quickly."
More than anything, Rawitch and his counterparts have tried to strike a balance when it comes to peddling tickets and special offers.
Though interaction by keyboard might seem remote, social media has profited from a sense of intimacy. Consider that soccer star Cristiano Renaldo has 8.2 million "likes" on Facebook and Kobe Bryant has more — 3.3 million — than his own team.
"What fans want, they want to have the back story," Sood said. "They want to feel like they're getting access."
So teams know they must provide breaking news and behind-the-scenes tidbits along with the marketing.
The Angels recently alternated an update on outfielder Juan Rivera's blurred vision with a reminder to fans about bidding on All-Star game memorabilia. The Lakers posted player interviews in and around an offer to buy commemorative pins.
This off-season, the Ducks have used Facebook to announce roster moves, which can help generate an audience. When LeBron James signed with the Miami Heat, that team's Facebook "likes" jumped 143%.
But more fans can also bring more headaches.
In the beginning, teams were drawn to the Internet by the promise of control. Rather than worry about how newspapers, television and radio might portray a certain game or trade, they hired reporters to post articles on their own websites.
Social media is less predictable. When the Lakers announced the addition of free-agent guard Steve Blake on Facebook this month, they could not be sure what kind of comments the post might generate.
"Now you're in this sort of dialogue where other people take hold," Harris said. "The masses might push your message in a different direction than you intended it to go."
Pat Coyle, the industry consultant responsible for sportsfangraph.com, believes that most front offices have accepted the risk and resist temptation to censor. Local team executives said they take down posts only rarely.
"Profanity, spam and people who are trolling just to pick a fight," said Nick Kioski, the Lakers' director of new media and technology. "They'll say 'Lakers suck' 50 times. It doesn't need to be said 50 times."
So why are teams willing to endure negative comments?
If nothing else, social media delivers a highly targeted audience, thousands of people who have, in effect, raised their hands and said, "I'm a fan and potential customer."
Teams can direct traffic from Facebook and Twitter to their own websites where they sell tickets and merchandise. "That's traffic they can monetize," said Coyle, who also runs the Indianapolis Colts' online fan site.
Coyle believes the give-and-take of social media — the debate among fans — encourages consumer loyalty.
"If you connect fans to each other," he said, "they'll feel closer to the team."
Precise revenue from social media is difficult to measure at this point, Sood said. But, like the Lakers, more and more teams are willing to devote staff to exploring new media.
And there might be more opportunity on the way. Teams are looking at "behavioral targeting" — making use of consumer data available through social media — and watching developments such as the Foursquare networking website.
At the very least, Rawitch likes the idea of getting people to think about, if not interact with, the Dodgers every day.
"It might not be the easiest thing to quantify," he said. "But there's almost no way to argue that doesn't help the team."
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