Clutching Onto Social Media

Boxing, wrestling, MMA event promoters reach out to fans online

The pay-per-view ring sports category is getting a welcome marketing punch from the Web and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, as event distributors look to develop a more direct engagement with both fans and casual viewers.

Companies like HBO and Showtime are supplementing direct-mail pieces and newspaper and magazine ads that typically tout upcoming PPV ring events with Twitter chats with fighters, video clips of workouts on Facebook and interactive ads on Websites. Others, like Top Rank and Ultimate Fighting Championship, are engaging Web users by offering live streaming video of fights via the Internet and Facebook.

The emerging social media space, which helps event providers reach young, passionate and tech-savvy fans, has quickly become as important a PPV event marketing tool as the cross-channel spot. “There’s clearly an engaged audience out there that wants this information and wants to be a part of the conversation in a big way,” says Ken Hershman, Showtime Sports executive VP/general manager. “We all benefi t from it—the fans benefit and [event providers] benefi t, and it makes things more exciting.”

Executives say the social media phenomenon has opened up myriad opportunities to talk directly to consumers about an upcoming fight or ring entertainment event in virtual real time that only a few years ago may have taken weeks via the mainstream media, according to Todd DuBoef, Top Rank president.

“Years ago, it was about getting on the phone with the writers and getting them on the line with [boxing promoters] Bob Arum or Don King and letting them chirp about what was going on,” DuBoef says. “Now, through social media, we have an immediate, results-driven platform for us to create publicity and awareness….We can get out there and get to the fans on an immediate basis and give them information.”

It’s not uncommon to have fighters and trainers—or company executives—take questions from fans via Twitter.

UFC President Dana White oversees the popular mixed martial arts outfi t’s Twitter site, which has more than 300,000 followers. The Twitter feed is updated daily—sometimes even hourly—on changes to upcoming PPV event cards and other information of interest to MMA fans.

“The beauty of it is that Dana can choose to give them an update on a fight-card change,” says Bryan Johnston, UFC chief marketing officer. “The thing that works for us is that there is no time lag in information, the fans are able to get updated on the spot.”

A few weeks prior to HBO’s Sept. 17 Floyd Mayweather-Victor Ortiz fight, HBO will offer fans access to both the Mayweather and Ortiz camps through videos placed on the HBO.com site and through Twitter, according to Tammy Ross, VP of HBO Pay-Per-View & Sports.

Arguably, no ring sports entity has leveraged the appeal of Facebook better than UFC. With more than 6 million Facebook friends, UFC has taken the social media service beyond just textbased communications. Last January, the page began offering streams of live fights on the undercards of its monthly PPV events.

The UFC’s monthly live offerings on Facebook, which feature three to four live fights, have netted the company on average 150,000 new Facebook friends for each event and are a PPV promotional window of sorts.

“The beauty of working with Facebook is that they are just as fluid as the UFC,” says Johnston. “They had never viewed themselves as a portal for live sports, but it’s an agnostic platform -- if you have a computer, or the right mobile phone, you can be anywhere and watch the fights for free.”

The company has also been on the cutting edge of offering live PPV events on the Web, providing users of UFC.TV the ability to watch PPV events from different camera angles, Johnston says.

Showtime has offered an enhanced version of its Strike-Force MMA telecasts online for $24.95. The net has distributed about a dozen such online PPV offerings via SHO.com, which offers various camera angles and appeals mostly to non-Showtime subs.

In May, Showtime teamed up with Top Rank to offer the Manny Pacquiao-Shane Mosley PPV event live over the Web—the first time a major PPV boxing match has been available on the Internet. Top Rank’s DuBoef would not reveal specific buy numbers from the online PPV offering, but says it “lived up to our modest expectations,” adding that he was encouraged by operator response to the online offering. DuBoef says that both the upcoming Pacquiao and Miguel Cotto fights will be offered on PPV via the Web.

HBO is looking to fuse both social media and traditional marketing together for its Sept. 17 Mayweather-Ortiz fight, according to Ross. The network has restructured its traditional direct mail piece to offer consumers a 24-day calendar leading up to the Sept. 17 fight that features daily opportunities to watch online video or to create a “social media engagement” through HBO, HBO.com and the network’s social media sites.

“Social media has become one of the spokes in the wheel of marketing [PPV events],” Ross says.“All we can do is be where potential consumers digest their news and information and entertainment, so what we’re successfully trying to do is marry a lot of those spokes together.”

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