Curveball: MLB's tight control over social media

by Stephen Bolen on Jun 02, 2010

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The New York Yankees are banning iPads from the house that Ruth A-Rod built. At first glance, it looks like this was a knee-jerk reaction to ban a laptop-like device from the stands.

But when you dig deeper and look at previous moves that the league has made, it really paints a much larger picture: Major League Baseball, specifically the office of the Commissioner of Baseball, wants to control all baseball-related discussions online – especially those happening in real-time.

Let’s hit for the cycle and take a look at how MLB wants to control social spaces, shall we?

Leadoff single

Major League Baseball (MLB), and their interactive arm, Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM), jumped on social media early in the game. Late in 2009, MLBAM added Twitter updates to their web-based Gameday viewer, allowing fans to connect in real-time with other fans via a team hashtag.

The Gameday viewer would then aggregate all game-realted hashtag tweets (filtering out the profane and defamatory ones, natch) and integrate them into the Gameday experience – a very cool feature.

MLB's tight integration of Twitter into their online gameday experience

In all, an excellent use of Twitter as an accessory to content, and a wonderful way to strengthen the community around a brand/product.

A double down the line

BaseballSo what happens when a whole promotion is crafted around the outcome of a singular event that has yet to transpire?

The operator of the @MLB Twitter account was quite braggadocios around the 2009 World Series, insisting that all 10 trending topics were about – or at least had ties to (regardless of how tenuous those connections actually were) – the World Series. In reality, this was not the case. I wrote about it on November 5, 2009:

Last night, @MLB declared that all 10 of the trending topics were about baseball. Only, they weren’t. It was crammed down our throats by @MLB that #losemynumber and Glee were somehow relevant, but in reality, had absolutely nothing to do with the World Series or MLB. #losemynumber was defined by Twitter’s trending topics results page as “People are tweeting reasons they would like other people to refrain from calling them.” – hardly relevant/related to baseball, no matter how hard they tried, and Glee wasn’t about how Glee sang the National Anthem in Game 3 of the World Series (as @MLB would have you believe), but rather about how the World Series game had preempted that night’s new episode of Glee. So, while technically about baseball (a very tenuous connection, mind you), it had more of a negative connotation than something positive.

Brand monitoring 101, sure, but MLB just seemed over-excited to start their Yankees 2009 World Series Champions Merchandise contest.

Triple to the gap

How does MLB handle the bombastic personalities like White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen (who has already become quite the prolific tweeter) in these social spaces? The short answer is, they really can’t. But, it’s not like they haven’t tried…

“I guess I can’t have fun,” Guillen told the Chicago Tribune. “I flunked in school five times, and I never had as much trouble as I’m having right now. Why do I have to explain to people why I’m doing this? Like I said, I talked to [White Sox General Manager] Kenny (Williams) about it, it’s not anything that involves the ballclub.

“There are a lot of people in baseball that have Twitter. Why me? Why do I have to explain why I have Twitter? Obviously, I know I’m the manager of the team and the face of the ballclub, but there are a couple guys out there, I won’t say any names, that have Twitter.

“I guess they’re not famous, or people don’t care about it. The one thing I promise people, well I don’t have to promise, but (owner) Jerry (Reinsdorf) and Kenny. It’s nothing to do with the White Sox. I hope I don’t have to say I got in a fight with my wife last night.”

This is especially amusing if you know the history of the crazy tweeting Guillen family.

Home run

Word broke on April 28 that MLB.com-affiliated writers had to nix their personal tweeting in favor of a baseball-only dialogue – even if the writers in question were using their personal Twitter accounts. On NBC Sports’ Hardball Talk blog, Aaron Gleeman had a doosy of a scoop:

Multiple sources have confirmed to me that Major League Baseball is cracking down on Twitter usage, ordering MLB.com writers to cease tweeting about all non-baseball topics and scolding players for their Twitter usage in general.

Certainly setting standards for the type of content MLB employees post on Twitter is reasonable, but simply banning all non-baseball talk for MLB.com writers and preemptively scolding players who’ve done nothing wrong is … well, it’s just a real shame.

I’m told a big part of the policy change is due to MLB not wanting non-baseball tweets showing up on the MLB.com Twitter feed/aggregator, but banning every writer from non-baseball talk because of that is like killing a fly with a sledgehammer.

Unfortunately, in an effort to filter and control the content that the MLB.com writers were producing on Twitter, they inadvertently divorced their writers from the fans, thus removing all humanizing aspects of the interactions between the key brand influencers and the consumers.

For an organization that “got it” early on, Major League Baseball really ended up retarding their efforts with a single draconian guideline for their writers.

Pinch hit

Here is the disclaimer for the MLB Gameday AtBat Twitter feature:
The views and content displayed through this widget are solely those of Twitter contributors. MLBAM makes no guarantees about such content. Twitter.com is a user-generated site and this widget will display only user-generated content. The content submitted by users is not edited, fact-checked or screened before such content is posted. Your use of this widget is governed by Twitter.com’s terms of service, also available below. If you see something through this widget that you wish to report as a violation, click here to contact the Twitter Terms of Service team.

For further reading as to why the Reported MLB Twitter crackdown matters, Will Leitch’s piece in New York Magazine is a must-read:

The idea of a policy like this is exactly what we’ve all been afraid of happening at some point: MLB.com becoming so popular that they stopped serving fans and started acting like every other sports league. MLB is the one that’s supposed to “get” the web — the one that was creating a new kind of beat writer, the one associated with the team but independent, a free voice to talk openly.

On Deck

I know what you’re thinking – two articles about baseball? Is that all Stephen is going to write about? Check back next week. I swear there’s a non-baseball feature on deck. And another non-baseball feature in the hole.

Post Author

Stephen Bolen (@sbolen) is a St. Louis-based social media professional specializing in B2B marketing and web content management. He also owns and operates Gamma Ray Media, specializing in small business internet marketing....