al-horford-hyperdunk2012

Hawks.com

Al Horford may be one of the NBA’s brightest up and coming stars, but basketball has always been a team game. The 30 franchises that make up the league have generated a revenue pie in excess of $5 billion. The digital age has enabled this game to reach its worldwide audience anywhere, anytime. Teams can build up their own local fan base through the sundry of platforms available.

Much like our #NFLTechSeries, this time SportTechie delves into the digital strategies–from web, social media, mobile apps, and any other technological connection–of each team and analyzes them, including insights from some of the digital executives involved. Today, the #NBADigitalSeries 2013-14 continues with the Atlanta Hawks. Stay tuned to for ongoing coverage of the #NBADigitalSeries.

Atlanta is a tough professional sports town. Long before Rob Parker called out sports fans in the capital of the South, Atlanta’s major sports franchises were battling this truth.

The city currently has teams in the three of the four major leagues (the Thrashers Jets of the NHL left Atlanta for Winnipeg in 2011, marking the second time Atlanta has lost a hockey team to relocation), and amongst the organizations, the Atlanta Hawks have by far the steepest hill to climb when it comes to generating fan support. Basketball takes a backseat to football (college and pro) and baseball when it comes to the town’s allegiances.

Since Atlanta is a transient city, complete with a sprawling metropolis and terrible traffic, attendance at sporting events tends to lag behind other comparably sized markets and successful franchises. The Braves, one of the most popular, recognizable MLB franchises over the last 25 years, ranked 21st in attendance last season – a year in which they won 96 games and captured their first division title in eight seasons. By that standard, the Hawks have been doing a respectable job building their brand and cultivating a loyal fan base; in 2013, the team was 23rd in the NBA in attendance.

But things are changing for the Hawks on the court. Over the last three seasons, they have hired a new general manager (Danny Ferry) and a new coach (Mike Budenholzer), and have revamped their roster, jettisoning All-Star guard Joe Johnson, Slam Dunk champion Josh Smith and 6th Man of the Year Jamal Crawford – perhaps the team’s three most-marketable players. The NBA is commonly referred to as a “Star’s League,” and the team, and marketing department, are currently without one to coax fans out to the Highlight Factory (the nickname for Philips Arena, team’s home court).

Amidst a roster overhaul, the club’s digital strategy has undergone a makeover too.

Frequent patrons of Hawks games run into a lot of opposing fans, or people who’ve just come to see Lebron James or Dwight Howard or Kevin Durant. Without the benefit of a star player as a big draw, the Hawks have made building up the intimate fan-player connection a critical focus of their marketing strategy. According to Ailey Penningroth, senior vice president and chief marketing officer,

“…fans really want to be on the inside. They want to be behind the scenes, they want to see unique content. The more connected they feel personally, the more passionate they will be about the team.”

To that end, social media has served as a primary tool in developing fan-player connections, and the Hawks feature a five-person Interactive Marketing Department dedicated to managing the team’s social media platforms and engaging the fan base. And the department’s work appears to be paying off. In May of 2013, the team had roughly 317k “Likes” on Facebook and 135k Twitter Followers; presently, those numbers are more than 714k and 196k. Those are 225% and 45% increases respectively, marked improvements for a nine-month span.

atlanta hawks facebook nba digital tech

One visit to the team’s Twitter or Facebook page and you begin to understand the plan in action. Let’s start with the background image: The Atlanta skyline, with notable local landmarks (World of Coca Cola, Original Chic Fil A, Georgia Aquarium), cresting the horizon of a basketball landscape and Lou Williams – a sixth man injured most of last season – photoshopped in the frame, off to the side. The message is clear – the Hawks experience isn’t about a certain player or the names on the back of the jerseys; it is about the Atlanta experience. As Penningroth puts it, “We work hard to expose our players’ names and faces as people just like them. We want to make this Atlanta’s team.”

Which is why those attending Hawks games don’t see the usual montage of adrenaline inducing pump-up footage to kick off each game, instead fans at Philips Arena are treated to Hawks players traveling through Atlanta itself, passing by many of the same iconic buildings and landmarks pictured in the photo gracing the backdrop of their social media campaigns.

The team has also created a Social Media Hub page on the official Hawks site. Here, the Hawks give fans a one-stop shop for team content and social engagement. The Social Media Hub include streams for the team’s Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts, as well as the Hawks’ BasketBlog, where fans can find recaps, previews and updates on how Al Horford’s rehab is going.

In the Social Media Hub, fans are immersed in behind-the-scenes content. The team’s Twitter account (the most active, by Tweet volume, in the Southeast Division) spent All-Star weekend providing inside looks at Paul Millsap’s time in New Orleans. And the team’s YouTube account weaves in the standard locker room interviews with some fun marketing bits (like spoofs of the AT&T ‘It’s not complicated’ commercials and the Syfy disaster horror B movie Sharknado).

Beyond connecting with fans through comedic relief and endearing content (see video below), there is a serious effort to activate the fans. On the landing page of the team’s site, there is a Hawks Poll section designed to engage fans in live a Twitter poll, as well as a Social Spotlight section where fans can tweet a hashtag to unlock special content and earn a discount on merchandise.

The Social Media efforts have bled over to the in-arena experience. In 2012, the team hosted their first Social Media night, and have hosted one each year since. And during a 96-92 win against the Lakers last March, an injured Lou Williams took over the team’s Twitter account to live tweet the game.

@ATLHawks

It was an unprecedented move to bring fans inside the mind of an NBA player as he experiences a game. And Lou, a prolific social-media user with close to 20k tweets and 82.2k followers himself, wasn’t afraid to have a little fun and troll Lakers fans either:

https://twitter.com/TeamLou23/statuses/312020996989284352

The Hawks’ digital trash talking isn’t just reserved for courtside seats either. In recent years, the organization has moved to utilize some of the 200+ digital billboards scattering the city to unite the city against a common enemy: the team’s next opponent. These CBS Outdoor billboards allow the team to run innovative, fast-hitting campaigns that flash some wit and encourage fans to “Come to Play” at the Highlight Factory.

The problems facing the Hawks are clear. Six-straight playoff appearances aren’t enough in a state that eats-breathes-sleeps football and has seen the Braves capture more division titles in two decades than most see in a lifetime. Winning isn’t everything, and the Hawks are making dedicated efforts, spearheaded in the digital realm, to connect with the community and get fans re-imagining the Atlanta Hawks experience.

Now it’s time for the players to start bringing the highlights back to the Highlight Factory.