Timing is everything in sports, and when Conor Clarance arrived at Twitter Canada in April as the new head of sports partnerships, his timing wasn’t great.
Clarance (pictured) arrived at the social platform from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment—where he’d spent the previous 10 months as manager of global partnerships—a few weeks after major professional sports leagues around the world suspended their season indefinitely because of the global pandemic.
The day Twitter offered him the job was the day it became apparent that the coronavirus would bring sports around the world to a standstill. “It was the most interesting day in my career,” says Clarance, who has yet to actually set foot in Twitter Canada’s downtown Toronto office because of work from home protocols. “It was a really unique set of events.”
In Canada, Twitter engagement around sports content fell quickly during the early days of the pandemic, with @NHL mentions in the second quarter down 23% from the comparable year-earlier period and Canadian @NBA mentions down 83%. Mentions for individual franchises like @MapleLeafs and @Raptors were also down, 67% and 93% respectively.
That’s not to say that “Sports Twitter” fell completely silent, only that the conversations changed. In the absence of live competition, they shifted to barroom-type discussions around rivalries, franchises’ greatest players, all-time teams, etc.
And into the live-action void, ESPN debuted the documentary series The Last Dance, chronicling the last days of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. The 10-part series generated more than 11 million tweets according to Twitter. At one point during the series finale, 25 of the top 30 trending topics on its platform were related to the show.
It also demonstrated how a quick-thinking social media manager can turn routine Twitter conversation into highly shareable content. In response to a revelation during The Last Dance that Jordan believed he contracted a case of food poisoning from a pizza delivery, frozen pizza brand DiGiorno smartly tweeted out “Delivery pizza. Go figure.” The simple four-word tweet earned more than 14,500 retweets and 72,500 likes.
Delivery pizza. Go figure.
— DiGiorno (@DiGiorno) May 18, 2020
But while sports conversations continued in the absence of actual games, the recent return to play is a clear indicator of just how much pent-up demand there has been for live game action among North American sports fans.
According to Twitter, the sports conversation among just its American users grew 31% between May and June as major pro leagues began either returning to play or ramping up for a return.
It was led by a 70% increase in conversations around the PGA, followed by the NFL at 62%, MLB at 59%, NBA at 17% and the NHL at 3%. “It’s a smorgasbord of predictions, rivalries, and a whole lot of Tweets,” said research analyst Makenna Bigelow.
Twitter, too, is welcoming the return of one its core content pillars, along with news and entertainment, particularly after its second quarter advertising revenue fell 23% to US$562 million.
Twitter’s argument is simple: Sports offers brands the opportunity to build cultural relevance, particularly when a sports-starved populace is tuning in nightly (and often daily) to a full slate of games.
“[B]elieve us, cultural relevance matters,” said Twitter’s U.S. head of sports partnerships, T.J. Adeshola, in a recent post on Twitter’s marketing blog. “Brands that are on Twitter are 41% more likely to be seen as culturally relevant than those not on Twitter.”
During its Q2 earnings call last month, the company said it hoped the return of live sports would have a positive effect on audience growth as well as “sponsorship and advertising content opportunities.”
As for Clarance, his first few months with Twitter felt like a pre-season warmup. “For someone who’s just started in a new role, having almost two months to figure out the role felt like I did training camp and now we’re in the regular season,” he says
Sports Twitter promises to be extraordinarily hectic during this sporting frenzy. There have been just 21 sports “equinoxes,” when all four of the major North American pro leagues are in action on the same day (there were none between 1985 and 2001), but Clarance says that could happen multiple times this fall as the restarted NBA and NHL seasons combine with Major League Baseball and the start of the NFL season.
Clarance predicts that September could be the busiest month ever on Twitter. “It’s a recipe for conversation around those sports, and we should see some pretty heavy growth,” he says.
The NBA is marking the return to play with several Twitter-based initiatives, including #NBATwitter courtside tweets (giving fans the opportunity to have their tweets featured on in-venue video boards during warm-ups and halftime during opening weekend), virtual cheering, in which fans can impact the venue’s visual effects by “cheering” for their favourite team through the NBA app, NBA.com and Twitter, and the return of NBA Twitter emojis.
What’s less clear right now is how brands plan to activate against the return to play, although Clarance says the pandemic has given them the confidence to be quicker to market when it comes to their messaging.
“What we’re seeing is that there’s a license for brands to not necessarily have to put out the most perfect content ever, and that allows for things to be quicker and a little bit grittier,” he says.
And just like the athletes themselves, brands are going to start the season at various stages of preparedness, says Clarance.”There are going to be the brands that are ready for it and briefed their agencies months ago… and there are also going to be the brands that are super-nimble and latch onto an idea, whatever it is, and run with it.”
The beauty of this new-look return-to-sports, he says, is that brands will have ample time to adjust their strategy and messaging. “If brands don’t feel totally ready right now, it’s okay,” he says. “It’s going to be a long [few] months.”