Doing social media for sports teams is weird, new territory — and easier when they’re winning

It’s online, through the channels of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, that teams distribute news updates, market promotions and merchandise, provide highlights, share photos, GIFs and videos, interact with fans, and, when necessary, deal with trolls.
8 min. read
The Colorado Rockies’ assistant director of digital media and publications, Julian Valentin, poses for a portrait above Coors Field, May 17, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) colorado rockies; coors field; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;

It was nearly 10 p.m. Sunday, a couple hours removed from the Colorado Rockies' 9-6 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers at Coors Field, and Julian Valentin was doing what he always does after Rockies games: Sifting through the team's official Twitter account's mentions.

Most of the messages that night were positive. The Rockies had just completed a 6-4 homestand and sat nine games over .500. Inevitably, though, there was the occasional troll.

"Dear @Rockies," @ScottWarner18 wrote. "Do us all a favor and fire your whiny announcers.. or have them watch 10,000hrs of Vin Scully calling games to learn something."

"This is one thing Giants fans and Dodgers fans (especially those who live in the Rockies region) can agree on," @cougjunkie chimed in with. "Those guys are the worst."

Valentin thought about an appropriate response — something that would poke fun at the two men who'd invaded the Rockies mentions but also wouldn't be interpreted as mean spirited. Valentin settled on a GIF of Justin Timberlake's photoshopped face literally crying a river. He copied the link to the GIF and hit send.

As the Rockies assistant director of digital media and publications, Valentin is in charge of the team that runs the Rockies' social media accounts. In the last few years, their responsibilities have swelled to include distributing news updates, marketing promotions and merchandise, providing highlights, sharing photos, GIFs and videos, interacting with fans, and, when necessary, dealing with trolls.

It's online, through the channels of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, that the Rockies social media team provides weather updates, shares the starting lineup, advertises fertilizer, makes "Shawshank Redemption" jokes, gives fans a window into candid momentsdoles out Nolan Arenado high five GIFs to punny fans and combats criticism that crosses the line with Timberlake photoshops.

Valentin was playing professional soccer before he accepted a job with the Rockies in 2011. His initial role with the team was as a club journalist. He assisted in writing and producing the team's print publication, Rockies Magazine. It didn't take long for him to start assuming more responsibility on the rapidly growing digital side of things.

“That was sort of the X-factor when I took this job," Valentin said. "I didn’t know what it would become or how it would evolve. But it’s what’s driven me the last six, seven years."

Valentin's days now revolve around obsessing over what and when he and his team promote across the Rockies' various social media channels. He sent his final tweet from the Rockies' account at 12:35 a.m. Tuesday and was back at his desk by 7:30 a.m. mapping out on a sticky note what he wanted to post every hour from 10:15 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. on Twitter and Facebook.

He works with Lauren Jacaruso, who runs the team's Instagram and Snapchat accounts, and an in-game social media coordinator who's responsible for tweeting during games.

Game days can be hectic. On Sunday, which was Mother's Day, the Rockies' social media team fired off 133 tweets, 10 Instagram posts and nine Facebook posts. They worked with Colorado's in-house photographers to provide fans with a constant stream of stuff to interact with.

"All we try to do is be the driving force, try to be the kindling for the fire that is our online community," Valentin said. "It’s a fun opportunity we have to lead the discussion around our team and our fan base. It’s something that we enjoy and take very seriously."

The way fans interact with social media content can depend largely on the way a team is performing. Promoting a team on social media channels is obviously easier work when that team is winning.

Last season was a good one for the Colorado Rapids. They finished with the second-most points in the MLS and advanced all the way to the Western Conference Championship. This year, conversely, has been a struggle. The Rapids are off to a 2-1-7 start and sit at the bottom of their conference with seven points in 10 matches.

“It can be difficult when there are not a lot of highlights and things to engage with," said Rapids director of digital and social media Alex McGeorge. "It has been a tough start to the season. You just try to stay positive without sugarcoating it too much. Fans can sniff you out if you’re trying to sugarcoat things all the time. We try to be authentic.

"It’s not our job to try and win soccer games and sign players, so we just try to tell our stories as best we can.”

McGeorge was working for Fox Sports' digital team before he came aboard with the Rapids ahead of the 2015 season. When he started, Colorado's public relations team was primarily handling the Rapids' social media accounts. Now McGeorge heads a team of five that runs the team's social media accounts, writes stories and creates videos for the team's website.

"I think if you have a really good social media team, it’s almost an extension of the team on the field and really being that connection point between the fans and the club," McGeorge said. "Really being able to share that experience with the fans and engaging with them."

One of the dilemmas sports teams' social media managers wrestle with is how to entertain without offending. In late January, the Portland Trail Blazers tweeted a video of Chandler Parsons air-balling a 3-pointer from its official handle. The tweet set off a social media spat between Parsons and Blazers guard C.J. McCollum.

The NBA eventually intervened, sending a memo in February that prohibited teams from "mocking and/or ridiculing opponents." It was a stern warning, but no one was fired.

Back in April 2015 a then-Houston Rockets social media employee was let go after tweeting a gun emoji next to a horse head emoji, which was used to represent the Dallas Mavericks mascot.

"Shhhhh. Just close your eyes," the text of the since-deleted tweet read. "It will all be over soon."

“It’s a fine balance," Valentin said. "I'm proud of the voice that we (the Rockies) have. We’re all about being entertaining, fan-friendly, positive. My personality is not vindictive, not angry. All the interactions I have are a positive slant. That’s what it’s all about. I try to spread positivity. I think in the last few years, shock value on Twitter especially, has become a way to get Retweets, a way to get headlines."

Rajiv Kahanna, who's head of digital and social for Nielsen Sports North America, believes that one of the best strategies a social media team can take is to show what its players are doing when they're not on the field.

"Sports fans want to know what teams are doing off the court to get to know them at a more personal level," Khanna said. 

One of Rockies star third baseman Nolan Arenado's favorite offseason activities is playing a neighborhood Wiffle Ball game with a handful of close friends and family. They held the game on New Year's Day this year.

Together, Arenado and the Rockies hatched the idea to stream the game on Instagram live. Valentin estimated that it reached half a million people that day.

“There are so many roles that we try to fill," Valentin said. "Social media is entertainment. It’s a sales machine. We try to sell tickets. We try to sell merchandise. We try to build a community."

“I just try to make sure that we are being interesting. Because I think if we are being interesting and presenting our content in an interesting and creative way, I think all those things we want are going to come into place."

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