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NASCAR, Other Pro Sports Staff High-Tech Social Media Centers

NASCAR, the NFL and other pro sports are combining high-tech data analytics with old-school public relations. They've built what are basically tech command centers where employees engage with fans and monitor trends on social media. The centers have been popping up over the past five years or so, and one of the newest ones is in Charlotte.

On the eighth floor of the NASCAR building uptown, Sean Doherty runs what's officially called the Fan and Media Engagement Center. In short, it's the tech command center.

"The team here is looking at a video wall, essentially," he said during Sunday's race. "It's a matrix of 13 46-inch HD digital displays."

The operation opened a year ago. During Sunday's race, a team of three people manned the controls, watching charts and typing out notes and tweets.

Hewlett-Packard created the data analytics system here, and NASCAR uses it to dissect what people are saying about the sport on social media.

Anna Richter pointed to a screen with a chart.

"We can click in and see the chatter that's actually behind each spike, and we will label that later so we can just go back and look and say 'OK, this was (the) green flag,' and so on and so forth," she said.

The green flag to start the race is usually one of the highest peaks on the chart, which ends up looking like a colorful mountain range.

When controversies arise, the team can act like a spotter and clue in NASCAR's crisis communications team.

But the main job here is to monitor trends and engage with fans. Edwin Colmenares was working NASCAR's official Twitter account during the race.

"Usually people retweet my response from the @NASCAR account or they usually take a screenshot of the response and tweet it back out," he said. "When I see that, I think it's pretty cool because I made someone's day just by typing that out."

And that happy fan keeps the conversation going – and glowing – about NASCAR. Public relations at its finest, said marketing consultant Peter Shankman.

"They're actually able to allow the customer to do their PR for them, and that's massive," he said.

Shankman said when customers or fans are pushing the message, it's the best PR you can get.

That's one of the reasons every major American pro sport is playing this high-tech game. The NBA has a command center in New Jersey. The MLB has one in New York City. The NHL social media team usually sets up in Toronto. And the NFL has centers in London, New York and Los Angeles.

"We are 24/7/365 understanding what's being said about the NFL, its teams, its players, its coaches and everything associated to the game of football," said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy.

Other leagues and teams are also starting to focus more on their social media footprint. Helping them do that is now consultant Eric Fernandez's full-time job.

"We started seeing the momentum on this business pick up probably about 18 months ago," he said.

Fernandez's clients have included Major League Soccer, Minor League Baseball and even the Australian cricket league.

To be sure, there are risks involved in stepping up your social media game. You can put your foot in your digital mouth or oversell your sponsors in a way that's obvious and annoying.

But Fernandez said the benefits outweigh the costs, and here's another reason:

"You can actually use it to really understand at a very granular level what do consumers think about your brand, and oh by the way, what do they think about them now," he said.

In other words, forget about focus groups or surveys, you can now get instant feedback on Twitter and Facebook.

Leagues are also taking advantage of how their product often lends itself to brief, attention-grabbing highlights they can tweet.

Does that make you want to watch more basketball or check out more highlights? Good, says the person in charge of the NBA's command center, Melissa Rosenthal Brenner.

"You're on Twitter and you see something interesting trending, and you're like wait, what is that? And it might point you to watch a particular program," she said. "That's a general sense of where the world's going, that it's the new TV guide for choosing programming."

Nielson, the TV ratings company, has found that the volume of tweets can cause statistically significant changes in live TV ratings.

And back on the 8th floor of the NASCAR building, Sean Doherty said when what's happening on TV gets boring, you can use social media to keep your fans tuned in.

During a rain delay at the Talladega race last year, Doherty's team started tweeting about NASCAR's fancy new track-drying device, the Air Titan. Some of the racing teams joined in.   

"They were putting tweets up that were almost those Chuck Norris jokes," he said.


Eventually, the track-drying device started trending on Twitter.

"That was one case where we saw conversation levels dip and were able to act to maintain interest in the race and also showcase this new technology that we were debuting last year," Doherty said.

But the pro sports leagues are staying old school in some ways, too.

The NFL still gets thousands of letters every year. And Doherty said when he notices fans complaining online about a NASCAR mobile product that another team on the 8th floor works on, sometimes he'll just walk down the hall to give them a heads up.