The Playoff Social Showdown

By Andrea Cohen

For sports fanatics, the playoffs mark the most exciting time of the year. With the NBA and NHL playoff seasons overlapping, late spring serves as nirvana for hockey and basketball enthusiasts. Diehard fans of either sport will watch their respective teams, but how do general sports fans decide which season to follow?

One way to determine the winning league is by turning to the most ubiquitous and easiest ways to direct conversation; social media. Both the NHL and NBA have an active and engaged social audience, but are they adequately optimizing their social channels to interact with fans during the playoffs?

Let’s examine which leagues social media plan is maximizing engagement:

The NBA’s Social Playoff Plan:

The NBA recognized that a social presence extended beyond just Twitter and Facebook, and in preparation for the 2012 playoffs, started a Pinterest and Tumblr account. Their Pinterest account took it one step further than just promoting their merchandise; they created a board showcasing various players’ hairstyles, a board for “odd couples,” showing players whose height differentiation provided comic relief as well as a board displaying players’ celebratory routines.

Not only does this break away from the more traditional way brands use Pinterest for e-commerce, it provides a way to tap into the female market. With 97 percent of Pinterest users being women, the NBA is able to target an even broader demographic.

With the NBA’s Tumblr account, “NBA Through the Lens,” the NBA showcases nostalgic imagery from basketball history. From Shaq and the Lakers celebrating one of their three championships, to Jordan’s 90s battle with Charles Barkley, the Tumblr page provides a great way for basketball fans to relive classic moments through photography.

In addition to these more progressive initiatives, the NBA has stuck to traditional social marketing methods using their Twitter feed. Along with the obvious hashtag #NBAPlayoffs, the NBA also launched a “Hoops Around the World” campaign that encouraged fans to share the locations in which they play and watch basketball, using the hashtag #hoops. The hashtag #hoops has generated nearly 4,000 tweets since the playoffs began on April 28.

Screen Shot 2012 05 16 at 3.42.02 PM e1337264886911 The Playoff Social ShowdownThe NBA also enlisted Shaq and Barkley during another Twitter campaign entitled, “The Shirt Off.” TNT showed a seven-minute video, also hosted on, where both players were asked to take their shirts off. Fans were then prompted to vote on Twitter using the hashtag #SHIRTOFF with #SHAQ or #CHUCK to vote for the player they thought looked the best shirtless. Fans were quick to engage with this fun and clever campaign. The hashtag has so far been used more than 26,000 times since the playoffs began.

Overall, the NBA stepped up their game to rival the energy generally associated with the playoffs. As Melissa Rosenthal Brenner, vice president of marketing for the NBA, said in an interview with Mashable:

“In the playoffs, everything gets heightened on and off the court, including fan interest. We want our social media feeds to follow suit.”

The NHL’s Rebuttal:

The NHL has been in a constant battle to expand their audience beyond the passionate hockey fan. During the 2011 playoffs, the NHL used the strategic campaign “History Will Be Made,” showing legendary moments in hockey history with the promise that at the end of 2011 playoffs, history would, in fact, be made. The obvious problem? Less enthusiastic hockey fans could not relate.

In 2012, they regrouped and learned the common thread among all fans – from diehard to fair weather – is that everyone knew the iconic name of the prize each team was vying for… the Stanley Cup. From this understanding, came the 2012 tagline, “Because It’s The Cup.”

Screen Shot 2012 05 16 at 3.41.29 PM e1337264784139 The Playoff Social ShowdownThe idea behind the campaign is that the Stanley Cup gives fans a reason to be social. In addition, the Stanley Cup itself was an entity fans understood and associated with a certain level of prestige. Each promotion starts with “because” and includes reasons for watching the Stanley Cup such as “Because it’s a good excuse to go out on a Wednesday night.” Or,  “Because in hockey, there are two halftimes. “

This messaging is used in every aspect of the NHL’s Stanley Cup promotional plan, from their digital marketing to social marketing to ads. The message is strong and succinct. The NHL kept the messaging consistent by creating a Twitter hashtag, #BecauseItsTheCup, a FourSquare badge, and sealed the hat trick with an entire Facebook page dedicated to the Stanley Cup itself, fully equipped with Stanley Cup facts, videos and imagery.

If that wasn’t enough, the NHL also branched out and created a Pinterest page displaying unique boards such as fan’s beards, kid’s drawings, hockey weddings, and an entire board dedicated to the slogan “Because It’s The Cup.”

To compliment their overarching theme, the NHL had a little fun on their Facebook page and gave fans the opportunity to grow a virtual beard through an application. The idea was simple, every time the fans team won, their beard would grow.

So, who wins?

The NBA has notoriously set the bar high when it comes to social strategizing, so toppling the social-savvy league is no small feat. But this year? I’m giving it to the NHL. They recognized what didn’t work last year, did their homework, and came back with a game-winning strategy.

Not only is their campaign innovative, enticing and relevant, their execution shows that they not only understand their target audience, but that they actually understand how to execute a fully integrated social media plan.

Kudos to the NHL for matching the exciting play on the ice, with exciting engagement off of it.

pixel The Playoff Social Showdown

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