Ohio State’s SELA Hosts 3rd Annual Sports Law Forum, “The Impact of Social Media & New Technology on Sport”
On Friday, February 26, the Sports & Entertainment Law Association (SELA) at Ohio State University, Moritz College of Law hosted its 3rd Annual Sports Law Forum. The forum was titled, “The Impact of Social Media & New Technology on Sport,” and it featured a distinguished four-person panel in an open-ended question and answer format. The forum concluded with a networking session for the students in attendance to personally speak with each panelist.
The panelists* for the event were:
- Larry Silverman, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Pittsburgh Pirates
- Henry Ford, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Fox Sports Ohio
- Ray DeWeese, Director of Sponsorship Sales, Ohio State Sports Marketing & IMG College Partnership
- Jason Hillman, General Counsel, Cleveland Cavaliers
(*) Bios for each can be found here, written by Adam Primm of SELA for his introduction of each panelist. (Trust me, they’re all impressive.)
One of the most noticeable elements of the forum was how the panelists provided a great diversity of perspectives and ideas as sports collide with social media and new technologies. Henry Ford provided the perspective from a media company broadcasting live events (and also from his previous experience as a journalist). Larry Silverman and Jason Hillman represented the views of professional teams and were able to note instances where baseball and basketball were different. Lastly, Ray DeWeese rounded out the panel as the topics relate to amateur athletes.
Here are some of the key questions, answers, and discussion points that I noted during the event:
Why have restrictions on social media by players around game-time?
I had always assumed the restrictions leagues placed on players tweeting before and after games was merely to maintain the professionalism of the sports—that tweeting made a mockery of the sport. However, the real purpose, or a purpose, is that it protects the value of the pre-game and post-game interviews for traditional media outlets. Those interviews important to news and sport outlets, and if you allow a player to tweet his feelings directly after a game, rather than speak to media, the value to the media is then lost.
How much can organizations (teams/leagues) control use of social media?
This was an important question that came up for discussion a few times during the panel. The question original arose in reaction to Ozzie Guillen’s personal twitter and the Chicago White Sox wanting him to take it down. Guillen insists every tweet will be personal and not be as a representative of the team, but still, the team is worried that lines may be crossed and their brand may suffer. The diversity of perspectives from the panel was helpful on this issue. The noted that it is easier to restrict the use of social media for front office staff and for amateur athletes than for professional athletes. The distinction: professional athletes represent an individual brand—themselves—that is harder to restrict, while amateur athletes and front office staff are representatives of the entire brand.
What are future technologies?
In one sense, we do not know what future technologies will bring, and the landscape of how we view sports will be drastically different in the next few years. The panel agreed that many new technologies are already available, and in the near future, they will be much more prevalent. They mentioned things like watching games on your phone and streaming online, and with both of those options, more freedom to choose from multiple camera angles, select your own highlights to watch, and have live interaction with the broadcast.
China as a growth market.
Hillman presented a staggering figure about China. There are ~300 million people in the United States; there are ~300 million in China that watch basketball. That is remarkable, especially considering that the market is underdeveloped with significant opportunities for marketing. He noted that there is a single entity, NBA China, that each team in the NBA chips in to manage marketing in that market, but that each team still has control within their own territory to make partnerships with Chinese marketers.
How can traditional media react to validity of sources with social media?
This question was brought up in light of instances when imposters in social media can affect traditional media outlets or the reputation of celebrities. One instance was someone who impersonated Tony La Russa and made remarks on an issue that were contrary to his views, thus damaging his reputation. La Russa filed suit claiming that Twitter’s lack of operational control led to his reputation being damaged. As a response, Twitter has since increased its efforts to validate celebrity accounts. It was also noted that social media websites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are protected by a new digital information act. The protection provides that even if defamatory content is posted, the website will not be liable so long as they take it down within a reasonable time after becoming aware of the content.
“Conduct detrimental to the team” as it relates to social media.
This issue was brought up in light of the incident with Larry Johnson. Hillman noted that player contracts have a “general moral turpitude” clause that allows a team to fine or suspend a player for conduct that is detrimental to the team. It is different in the NFL where contracts are not guaranteed, so the Chiefs were free to cut Johnson, even if the Twitter remarks were not the sole cause for them to do so. In the NBA, or other leagues where a fine or suspension is more appropriate, Hillman said that an incident that arises through social media would be cited to as a teaching tool for other players to learn from, more than be seen as a reason for disciplinary actions.
How does social media affect recruiting, drafting, and trade deadlines?
DeWeese noted that all contact, whether it be telephone calls, text messages, Facebook, or Twitter fall within the restrictions for recruiting high school or collegiate athletes. Hillman also noted that a team would never resort to social media as a form of contact for a player under a restricted contract with another team because there is too much at stake in doing so. Hillman added that social media has significantly increased the amount of information available regarding drafts and trades; he said his daily commitment to reading hoophype.com increases from about 20 minutes to 1-2 hours around the trade deadline.
Do teams prepare players for exposure and risks of social media?
Silverman said that every spring the baseball players get basic training on how to deal with the media, publicity, etc, but that the training has not extended to the use of social media, at least for the Pirates and he doesn’t know if other teams do or not. He told a quick story of how a player had posted a picture of his new Mercedes, acquired after getting his signing bonus, on his Facebook page. He warned that all this does is make the car and the player a target. DeWeese mentioned that with the NCAA, training with using social media comes from the compliance departments.
How do negative stories affect organizations?
There have been countless stories that result from or spread like wild fire through social media: Larry Johnson, Greg Oden, George Hill, and Gilbert Arenas were all referenced. Hillman remarked that the main problem with the Arenas situation was how he went from a contrite apology to then mocking it, thus undoing any good he may done with the apology. He said that these incidents have the potential to implode an entire organization and can destroy an entire brand
How will American Needle Supreme Court case impact sports?
Although there have been differing views on how the American Needle case will impact the sports industry, Hillman was joined with the side that it has the potential to chance the entire scope of sports. He noted that it was an interesting and aggressive strategy from the NFL for seeking single-entity status, similar to the anti-trust protection that MLB enjoys. Silverman also conceded that, sure, baseball has some strong monopoly power within itself, but he made a point to say that the competition with other sports and forms of entertainment are still strong.
With so much potential for problems, are social media efforts worth the trouble? This was my favorite question of the forum for two reasons: (1) so much of the discussion was in reaction to negatives of social media, so it was a very worth question to consider, and (2) because each panelist had an excellent point to make.
- Ford, who had made this point earlier in the panel, highlighted that social media enhances traditional media outlets and live broadcasts. He focused on the value of access and distribution with viewers. He said that every opportunity to connect with the public is valuable.
- Hillman, adding to Ford’s remarks and mentioning the broadcast partnership with the Cavs and Fox Sports, stated how cool it is that viewers can send questions to the on-air talent and have an answer in real-time over the broadcast of the games.
- Silverman spoke about how every game of March Madness is available online, and although there was fear at one time that this may cannibalize the television ratings, ratings have not gone down. He attributes this to the fact that allowing games to be viewed online increases the overall interest in the sport and the event. And so long as the distribution is regulated so that all interests of the media, advertisers, teams, and leagues are covered, it is a good thing. Silverman also noted that overall the developments of social media have been positive, but like any other type of media, it is only the bad stories that get told. Lastly, he said that there are issues on the legal side that have not even been considered yet.
- DeWeese compared social media to a double-edged sword: it has the great potential to spread a brand because it is so accessible, but also warned that it is also harder to control with so many people capable of representing the brand.