TikTok: Sports’ Next Great Social Media Venture?

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  • Boasting formal sports partnerships with the NBA and NFL, TikTok's sports presence has grown significantly since debuting in 2017.
  • Recently, Benny the Bull and the Golden State Warriors became the first two North American sports franchises to eclipse one million TikTok followers.
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Photo Credit: Front Office Sports

When it comes to social media, professional sports, leagues and teams are often drawn to the next trend. 

Often seen as the predecessor to TikTok with its focus on video content mixed with relevant pop-culture music, Snapchat has more than 100 sports partnerships, the most notable  with MLB, NBA, NFL, and the NHL.

On Twitter, its sports portfolio is equally as impressive, as well as diverse. Outside of its relationships with the Big Four leagues, it also boasts ones with MLS, ESPN, video game developer Blizzard Entertainment and the Bleacher Report-owned House of Highlights, among others. 

And before Snapchat and Twitter, there was Facebook. Like its competitors, it holds partnerships with each Big Four league except for the NHL. It also has expanded its sports portfolio through professional soccer, with live content partners like MLS, La Liga and the UEFA Champions League. 

Now with a new decade upon us, the new focus of attention is TikTok.In 2016, it was launched as the-then Musical.ly, a lip-syncing social-media application. By 2017, Musical.ly was bought out by ByteDance, a Chinese developer, and renamed TikTok – which began expanding to markets outside of China.

Both ByteDance and TikTok have been able to capitalize on the acquisition. After securing $3 billion in funding from Softbank Group Corp. and other investors, ByteDance is now the world’s most valuable startup at $75 billion

For TikTok, Business Insider reported that on November 18, the app had reached 1.5 billion downloads across both the App Store and Google Play. It’s seen over 614 million downloads in 2019 alone – a 6% increase year-over-year. It’s also the third-most downloaded app year – and the only app in the top five not owned by Facebook, which includes itself, Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp.

On September 3, TikTok took a step into football when it announced its partnership with the NFL around the #WeReady Kick-Off campaign. The initiative allowed fans to showcase their team pride by creating their own unique TikTok videos using the #WeReady hashtag. The campaign was also related to the NFL’s Kick-Off marketing campaign centered around its 100th season.

The NFL has been pleased with the engagement TikTok’s platform has allowed so far this season, according to a source. The league is expected to launch similar marketing and branding campaigns around future tentpole events like the Super Bowl and the NFL Draft that aim to capture the passion of the NFL fans.

READ MORE: No Luck, No Problem For Indianapolis Colts

Since formalizing this partnership, NFL teams have slowly started to embrace TikTok. As of December 1, 29 of the NFL’s 32 teams are on TikTok. The only teams that have yet to join are the Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts and Oakland Raiders. However, the Colts and Jaguars are one of many teams to create mascot accounts, joining the Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans, Minnesota Vikings, and San Francisco 49ers in this area.

“We see a great deal of activity and engagement on [Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter] and we’ve learned how to engage differently in those unique platforms based on what they offer and what we can do,” said Ryan Huzjak, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ vice president of sales and marketing. “When the opportunity was presented by the NFL [to pursue TikTok] – we felt like it was a great opportunity just given our learnings on the other platforms that we should jump on quickly and try to learn as best we can.”

With the NFL’s official TikTok account at 1.7 million followers as of December 1, the number of clubs to surpass 100,000 followers has increased significantly. Each month since September, the number of teams has grown from one to three to 13 – and over nearly half of them now have reached that benchmark, according to a TikTok spokesperson. 

Here is a list of the teams with over 100,000 TikTok followers:

  • Philadelphia Eagles (447,400)
  • Dallas Cowboys (389,500)
  • Pittsburgh Steelers (316,800)
  • New England Patriots (282,400)
  • Chicago Bears (188,700)
  • Kansas City Chiefs (178,900)
  • New Orleans Saints (155,500)
  • Carolina Panthers (156,400)
  • Cleveland Browns (136,500)
  • New York Giants (139,200)
  • Baltimore Ravens (124,600)
  • Minnesota Vikings (111,900)
  • New York Jets (113,100)

The New York Giants aren’t just relying on their players to help the organization strengthen its standing on the platform. In late April, they added Chief Commercial Officer Pete Guelli, who has placed a bigger emphasis on New York improving its direct-to-consumer social-media presence, said Giants Vice President of Digital Marketing Nilay Shah.

When the NFL-TikTok partnership was made official, the Giants were one of the first teams to join the app. To commemorate the moment, Giants tight end Evan Engram created a 15-second social video ahead of the Giants’ season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.

Over time, the Giants have become the eighth-most followed NFL team on TikTok. They also recently had a post hit one million views for the first time – and featured a #ThrowBackThursday-esque tribute to Engram, Saquon Barkley, Daniel Jones, and Janoris Jenkins. 

“A lot of what we do is we look at what’s trending on [TikTok] more so than the other platforms,” Shah said. “We’re trying to figure out our content strategy around what’s trending, what people are looking at and being nimble on the fly and creating content that we know will be able to be amplified. Especially on TikTok – the quicker we can get our content on things that are trending, the better the numbers will be.”

READ MORE: How The Chicago Bulls’ Benny The Bull Inspired A TikTok Movement

Outside of the NFL signing onto TikTok, many professional sports teams have cited the app’s relationship with the NBA as further evidence to explore it. Although the NBA officially launched its TikTok account in October 2016, it didn’t officially partner with the app until two years later. 

As of December 1, the NBA is TikTok’s most-followed sports account in the world with more than 6.2 million followers. It also became the first North American league to have a team surpass one million followers on the app when the Golden State Warriors did so on November 5

The NBA declined to comment on its TikTok partnership.

Alongside the NFL, the NBA has received fairly significant buy-in from its teams on TikTok. Entering December, 22 of the NBA’s 30 clubs have created and posted at least one video on TikTok, according to Conviva, which specializes in global streaming and social media intelligence. 

While the New Orleans Pelicans are awaiting the return of Zion Williamson, they haven’t remained quiet on TikTok. Since launching an account on October 7, New Orleans has reached more than 185,600 followers – fifth-most in the NBA – and has exceeded 1.3 million likes. 

Similar to other teams’ approaches to TikTok, Pelicans Social Media Coordinator Leslie Gamboni treats the platform as if it were a “different language.” Thus far, she’s found little crossover success between the Pelicans’ Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok content. 

On TikTok, it’s important to generate content that reflects the interest of the Pelicans faithful, said Gamboni. As of December 1, New Orleans’s most successful post is of players like Lonzo Ball, Jaxton Hayes and others participating in the “Hit the Woah” challenge. Not only has it been viewed more than 6.6 million times, but it has also accounted for more than 521,200 likes – roughly 40% of the Pelicans’ 1.3-million likes combined.

“It’s about meeting the audiences already on TikTok and finding what they’re finding joy in and what they’re interested in and just applying that to our team and our players,” Gamboni said. “They don’t want to know about a community event – they want to see if the players relate to them or if they have similar experiences to them.” 

Another team that’s managed to find success on TikTok is the Orlando Magic. Despite only launching its team profile on September 30, the Magic has accrued nearly 192,000 followers and 2.9 million likes. 

The ability to seamlessly combine trends with relevant pop-culture music has made Orlando’s TikTok approach different from its other social media accounts, said Geoff Krohmer, the Magic’s director of live entertainment and production. 

One example of this is the Magic’s recent inclusion of Stuff the Magic Dragon, their mascot, onto TikTok. On November 11, Krohmer and his team posted a video of Stuff performing dance challenges on the court. While not originally meant for TikTok, Krohmer took that content and repurposed it on the app.

Emblematic of the “hip, organic” content that Krohmer wants to see on the Magic’s TikTok, the post has quickly become the team’s most-viewed video at more than 14.4 million views. Of the Magic’s combined 2.9 million likes, 2.4 million of them came from that one Stuff post.

“TikTok gives fans a truly unscripted and personal view into both teams and players themselves,” Krohmer said. “Beyond the team or the players, it’s also some of the entertainers and some of the supporting staff. It gives you a very raw and sometimes comedic look into things which you’re not necessarily getting – or you’re getting in small doses – on other platforms.”

Beyond the NBA and NFL, two of the Big Four’s other leagues have started to establish themselves on TikTok. In early January, MLB created a league TikTok account, gaining nearly 880,000 followers and more than 36.7 million likes during that timespan. However, league-wide interest in the app is still struggling to gain momentum; as of December 1, only 12 MLB teams have launched on TikTok.

Unlike the NBA and NFL, none of the MLB team accounts have eclipsed 100,000 TikTok followers. But some of the league’s more iconic brands are closing in on that mark, the most notable being the Chicago Cubs (84,500), Los Angeles Dodgers (54,900) and the Boston Red Sox (53,200).

MLB executives could not be reached regarding its relationship with TikTok.

READ MORE: Pittsburgh Penguins Shooting Their Shot On YouTube

And after deactivating its TikTok account which had originally launched in October 2017, the NHL recently reactivated it on November 12. As of December 1, it has more than 75,000 followers and 577,800 likes. Already, 16 of the league’s 31 teams are on the platform, with the Detroit Red Wings (61,600) and Vegas Golden Knights (44,900) attracting the most followers thus far.

Heading into 2020, much will be learned about TikTok’s relationship with professional sports entities. But there will also be more of a focus on the platform and its global reputation.

On November 1, the United States government announced a national security review of ByteDance’s TikTok buyout. The basis of the investigation is centered around U.S. lawmakers and their concerns that ByteDance is censoring politically sensitive data from TikTok related to China.

Other government and political officials are also worried that TikTok is collecting user data and sending it back to China. Recently, Musical.ly founder and Head of TikTok Alex Zhu began reporting directly to ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming. Before this, he reported to Zhang Nan, the head of ByteDance’s Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.

Front Office Sports reached out to both MLB and the NBA on TikTok’s government investigation, and either declined to comment or did not respond to the request. An NFL spokesperson refused to comment any further than referring to the league’s TikTok partnership as content-based. 

Sean Dennison, director of social media at the NHL, declined to comment on TikTok’s government investigation but emphasized the league’s thoughts on its social-media approach.

“The safety and health of our community on social media is first and foremost our priority,” Dennison said. “If at any point… we had any reason to think that any platform was not a safe place for us and our fans to engage with one another, then that would not be a focus of ours.”

When asked by Front Office Sports about its government inquiry, TikTok declined to comment, referencing two press releases – one explaining TikTok’s approach in the U.S. and another about its content moderation and data security practices – that featured quotes from TikTok U.S. General Manager Vanessa Pappas.

READ MORE: Golden State Warriors Quickly Find Success On TikTok

Sean Branagan, director of the center for digital media entrepreneurship at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, is closely watching potential “blocking forces” to TikTok. 

One obvious hindrance to TikTok’s growth in the United States is the fact that it is backed by a Chinese company, said Branagan. Another is its recent ban on paid political advertisements that promote or oppose a particular political figure or entity. He even speculates that similar to Facebook’s transition to an older audience, TikTok could potentially become a place for parents and grandparents – and lose its touch with younger demographics.

However, Branagan doesn’t see TikTok’s – or ByteDance’s – growth slowing down in 2020. In the coming months, TikTok is experimenting with ways that its users can monetize on there, whether it’s allowing them to add links to e-commerce sites in their profile bios or letting URLs send viewers to shopping websites straight from videos at a faster speed.

What TikTok needs to be doing during all of this is rolling out changes in a small, incremental fashion that allows fans to respond appropriately, said Branagan. As long as it does this – and achieves growth that’s both authentic and organic – TikTok will continue to resonate with younger sports fans.

“At this point, I think the speed of growth for TikTok – combined with its demographic of Gen Z and the populated 30 and under – that’s what drives it more than regulatory and governmental [issues],” Branangan said. “Because that audience doesn’t care – they just won’t care about it. If it’s fun and easy, then they’re in.”