Sports World Takes on TikTok as Next Social Media Frontier

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It has made believers out of Gen Z, propelled Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and launched no shortage of lip sync videos.  Now, TikTok is invading the sports world.

Although the app is still in its infancy, major professional leagues and teams all over the globe are jumping on board and integrating the short-form video platform into their social media strategy alongside entrenched platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

“We saw the power and creativity, and also that it’s something new,” says Felix Loesner, head of social media at FC Bayern Munich. “It’s something like the old Vine where you can have creative storytelling for a special young audience. This makes the app so interesting for us.”

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The American version of TikTok originally launched as the lip-synching app Music.ly in April 2014. Three years later, in November 2017, Music.ly was purchased by the Chinese company ByteDance, who then folded it into their existing app, TikTok, in August 2018. Yet TikTok spent almost the entirety of 2018 growing into an international sensation; according to one report, as of November 2018, TikTok was the third-most downloaded app globally between Google Play and Apple’s App Store.

So it was only a matter of time before it began to make waves in the sports world. The NBA, NHL and MLB have all launched league accounts while the NFLPA reached a deal with the platform in January to allow TikTok users to implement 3D augmented reality stickers of its players. On the team side, everyone from Bayern Munich to the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Los Angeles Dodgers have gotten in the game, too.

There are two powerful demographic lures. The first is the audience age. As of March 2018, nearly 40% of TikTok users were under the age of 20, with an additional 26% between 20 and 29 years old. It’s a potential goldmine for sports leagues eager to find ways to connect to Gen Z.

“I think what makes TikTok so exciting is that literally one of our biggest goals in the entire company is cultivating the next generation of fans,” says NBA Vice President of Social and Digital Content Bob Carney. “It gets really, really exciting for everybody when you can reach a completely new audience.”

The second is gender. Although only 44 percent of TikTok users are female, Carney says the bulk of the NBA’s 4.3 million followers are young females, while Loesner notes that Bayern Munich’s nearly 86,000 followers are roughly an even split of men and women. Ditto Sue Jo, the Dodgers social media coordinator, who just launched her team’s account around Opening Day but already has noticed that “it’s a younger crowd, a lot more female-based” – the polar opposite of baseball’s core audience.

The question they’re all grappling with is how to best engage their users. TikTok only provides a maximum of 15 seconds for each video, forcing content creators to tell efficient stories. To that end, befitting the app’s musical and idiosyncratic roots, many ideas center on the lighter-hearted moments in sports. The Dodgers’ most-liked video to date was one of Clayton Kershaw and Alex Verdugo dancing in the team’s dugout. Bayern Munich, which timed its account launch ahead of a rivalry match against Borussia Dortmund, garnered almost 135,000 likes on a behind-the-scenes walkthrough video on gameday at the Allianz Arena. The NBA, meanwhile, has been on the platform since the Music.ly days and built much of its audience through posting quirky in-game moments.

“When we first got going, we were really focused on using it as an outlet to showcase all of the fun moments that were happening in and around the arena,” Carney says, before noting that every game is shot from 10 camera angles while many also feature social producers. “There was so much content that we didn’t have a home for.”

More recently, though, the league has found success by dropping in highlights and setting them to music. It wasn’t part of the original plan – the league already had a history of utilizing Twitter and Facebook as its home for game-related action and developments. But even as relative veterans on TikTok, Carney is cognizant that the league needed to stay nimble on what fits the platform so long as they don’t stray too far from what’s already working.

And, in TikTok’s case, Jo has found that it’s the least packaged items that often pop the loudest.

“I don’t necessarily think that a lot of pre-produced content does well on platforms like TikTok,” she says. “There’s a platform at a time and place for stuff like that, but I think with this, the more organic it is, the more natural it feels, [then] the more excitement that people kind of feel from it.”

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Could that eventually change? Perhaps. As new as TikTok is, Carney says the NBA’s philosophy on the platform is the same as it is on all socials: No one should ever expect things to stay the same for long.

“We refuse to get complacent, and we are constantly adapting based on the data,” Carney says. “That’s really been our philosophy since Day One on social. You really need to be because it does change so fast, and the trends change so fast, too.

“The platform changes, the users change and the brands change. So it’s constantly a moving target. So the best you could do is analyze the data and adapt based on it.”