As Super Bowl week kicks off Sunday with the Pro Bowl playoff in Hawaii, the NFL is hoping to kick up its ratings with the announcement that players will now be allowed to Tweet from the sidelines during the game.
The league has a strict policy against using social media during playtime for the regular season games, but as spokesman Jon Zimmer said from Honolulu where the game will be played, “We are always looking for ways to experiment with new ideas.”
“This game is a good venue for us to try out some new things,” he said.
To be sure, social media has exploded as a way to connect fans and players more directly. But while the move may make sense from a marketing point of view, some critics question the intrusion of more social media opportunities into a professional game setting.
"I don't think this is a good idea,” says Kelly Lux, the Online Community Manager at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University in New York, and host of Community Manager Chat.
The players are there to play football, she says via email, “not to Tweet.”
“Their focus needs to be on the game,” she says. “Asking or encouraging them to participate in a conversation on Twitter would take their head out of the game."
For now, this new policy is strictly relegated to the annual all-star game. There is a clear firewall between what will be allowed for this singular event and policies about Twitter and other social media during the normal season, Mr. Zimmer points out. And the routine for tweeting during the game this Sunday will be tightly controlled.
Players will be allowed to stop by computers set up on the 20-yard line and tap out a 140 character shout-out to fans – under the vigilant eyes of NFL representatives.
“Nothing will go out that hasn’t been checked first,” says Zimmer, who adds, “Obviously, they are not allowed to be doing this if they have any on-field duties.”
The players may not linger and only one player can be tapping and tweeting at a time. This does not affect the NFL’s current policy of no personal devices on the field. Players may tweet from the locker room during half-time, but “they have to leave their own devices behind when they come back out,” says Zimmer.
Enthusiasts of the power of social media to amplify the sporting experience applaud this experiment.
“This is an all-star game,” points out David Brody, head of marketing for PlayUp, a social networking app that connects sports fans through private and public group messaging as they follow sporting events in real-time.
“The entire point of the day is to entertain the fans,” he adds, pointing out that the Pro Bowl has moved its venue and date several times over the past few years. “The NFL needs to do whatever it can to build awareness.”
But some critics point out that even as a marketing ploy, the move to more social media is a misstep.
“There are marketing and public relations ploys that makes sense, but this decision by the NFL is hard to comprehend,” says John Goodman, a former TV producer who now runs his own public relations firm, adding that the decision shows what “silly things smart people will do to try to gain attention and TV ratings.”
He doubts the move will help ratings. Ever since the advent of the Super Bowl, he says, the Pro Bowl has been the “least meaningful of all the professional sports all-star games since it happens at the end of the season when no one cares who’s playing, or who wins.”
The attempt to attract a younger demographic by expanding social media exposure, says Mr. Goodman, is “a silly public relations ploy that’s also a turn-off to most true NFL fans above the age of 16.”
“An already silly game, just got sillier,” he says.