Social media turns good sports fans into great ones. Why isn't that enough?

Imagine a time ten years ago, before social media became so prevalent and trendy. It isn't hard. In fact, it's refreshing. Now imagine someone going to the head of marketing at a major professional sports team and asking them what they thought about a technology and marketing strategy that would take some of their better fans and turned them into their best ones. These are the type who buy season tickets, throw down for merchandise and spread the word at every turn.

According to a survey recently conducted by Catalyst Public Relations in conjunction with SportsBusiness Journal, that's what we have in social media.

The results show that 61 percent of MLB fans and 55 percent of NFL fans consider themselves bigger fans of the respective leagues since they started following their favorite teams on Facebook, Twitter and similar sites. In addition, more than half of MLB fans (and 43 percent of NFL fans) said they spend more time watching and following the league now than they did prior to their social-media engagement. [...]

“What these numbers show is that social media is an extremely effective vehicle for engaging passionate fans, especially the younger and the more affluent fans,” said Bret Werner, Catalyst’s managing partner. “Increasing the enjoyment factor of fans increases the likelihood that fans will engage leagues and their sponsors through multiple touch points.”

To the hypothetical marketer from the year 2000, that'd be enough. Now? Nope.

Today's marketers insist on 'monetizing' these social media outreaches, forcing advertising and promotions upon those fans simply looking to gain a little extra insight. These fans are looking to be more knowledgeable, passionate. And the teams these fans support look to take advantage of that passion.

Yet harnessing that impact continues to be a primary challenge for properties and brands.

“Monetizing this is a balancing act for all sides involved,” said Jason Yeh, director of new media for MLB Advanced Media. “It’s fertile ground for marketing, but it’s very easy to turn people off.”

Fewer than half of fans ages 18 to 33 claimed to have responded to brand promotions or other offers “every time” or “most of the time.” The number is even lower, 22 percent, for fans ages 46 to 64.

The desire for marketers and teams to throw reigns on the passion stirred up by social media is only going to limit the power they're looking to harness. Honestly, marketers are just beginning to understand how to use social media and we're not going to give it a moment to breathe?

Teams and their sponsors should focus on stirring and sparking the conversations that have proven so positive. They can do this by engaging the conversations already out there. No need to create a sponsor-laden team-hosted message board no one will use. Get out on the best independent blogs, personally engage fans on Twitter, speak to the influencers and thought-leaders.

Right now, teams believe engagement is about responding to random questions under a team-branded Twitter account or holding random contests on their Facebook fan page. Is this actually engaging their best fans? No.

So, is anyone doing it right? As a matter of fact, yes. According to that same Sports Business Journal article, the Philadelphia Eagles are dead on in their oncoming social media strategy.

The Philadelphia Eagles could provide a good case study for the Catalyst survey. This week, the club is scheduled to aggregate several popular unofficial fan sites under the franchise umbrella, ending its standing as one of the last big league teams with no such official social-media presence.

Tim McDermott, Eagles senior vice president and CMO, expects the marketing impact to be immediate and broad.

“Our first goal is to humanize the organization beyond the team landscape by connecting consumers with Eagles employees and with each other,” McDermott said. “From a marketing standpoint, almost overnight we can now go to our partners with a database of 300,000 fans.”

McDermott said the team’s marketing department is undergoing a major restructuring this month, including hiring a director of social media who has been charged with integrating social media into the team’s broadcasts, in-stadium media and marketing efforts.

It's ambitious, but reasonable. You know what a great first step would be? Getting Tim McDermott on Twitter.