In the first ever installation of the TNI Podcast Series, we interviewed Tariq Ahmad, social media sports reseacher from The University of Northern Colorado. Tariq, soon to be Dr. Ahmad, has spent the better part of the past year researching NBA fans, teams and players to answer important social media questions that not only relate to the NBA, but to the entire social media community.

Watch the full podcast below:

We encourage you to link to Tariq on the web. Here are just a few suggestions of where to find him in cyber space:

Twitter: @tariq_ahmad
Link to Tariq’s SXSW presentation on Social Media and NBA
Participate in Tariq’s sports fans and location-based services survey

Video Transcription:

Liz: Hi and welcome to the first TNI podcast where we interview a fascinating web social media or interactive marketer. Today, we will be interviewing Tariq Ahmad. He is a Social Media and Sports Researcher currently pursuing his Doctorate in Sports Administration at the University of Northern Colorado. Tariq is currently looking at the NBA, studying and looking at their fans and the teams to see how they interact on social media and how they use social media. So, let’s welcome Tariq.

We know that you have been doing a deep dive into social media and the NBA. Can you just tell us a little bit about that project? How you got started? What you’ve been working on? What you are hoping to find out? Just kind out cover what you’ve been doing.

Tariq: Sure. Well, I’ve been working on the project for, say, about the last year or so. Last July of 2010, I conducted a survey on how NBA fans use social media, so specifically Facebook and Twitter to support their favorite teams through those mediums. I got interested in it probably a couple of months before. I am seeing how the NBA did such a great job with social media and that I like using social media.

So that way, I just decided to go ahead and put the both of them together. In general, there’s been a lot of research done on sports in general. But some social media is such a new entity coming up and becoming so popular in the last few years. Not a lot of research has been done on social media. So, I went ahead and decided to meet at the intersection of the NBA and social media, and do some research on this.

Research has been going good, like I said. Last July I focused on more of the fans, how the fans use social media to support their favorite teams. Now, probably coming up this summer I am going to flip the script and see how teams use it to connect with fans. Do the teams offer fans anything, any kind of specials, tangible or intangible benefits through social media?

How many people went with a social media team before each team thinks along those lines. I wanted to get more of the full picture because there is only two sides to a story. The fans might see it one way, but the teams see it a completely different way. So, I think this summer I am going to focus on the other side to try to get more of a complete picture on how social media NBA works with fans and teams and then teams and fans as well.

Liz: Great. That sounds real interesting. And, since you haven’t looked into like the team interaction, what have you found out about the fan interaction that’s most interesting?

Tariq: It’s been really good. I have actually found a lot of good information, like why people follow it and use social media to connect with teams. I would say the most interesting finding that came through research was probably one of the most unexpected findings. I had a couple of questions on my survey that asked: why do you follow specific players?

So, the choices were, the player is my favorite player, he plays on my favorite team, I enjoy status updates etc., etc. That one there, I enjoy status updates, like by far and away, everybody loved that one. I think it was like, 78% of people said that I enjoy reading player status updates. So, they want to hear Shaq saying, “Hey I am going to go get a sandwich” or they want to hear LeBron James saying, “Hey I am about to do laundry”, things like that. People just love things like that.

Liz: They want to know they’re real people.

Tariq: What’s that?

Liz: They want to know that their sports idols are real people.

Tariq: Exactly, yeah. I think people just love that. Not only for the fact that they’re more like an idol but also just to let them know they’re humans. Just that, you know, hey Shaq has to do laundry, also. LeBron had to eat. Chris Paul has to pick up his kids, or if he has kids. So, I think that’s the nice thing about social media is it really breaks down that medium between a fan and athlete.

Because before you would have the fan read about somebody, we’ll say Dwayne Wade. So, if you wanted to hear about Dwayne Wade, you would have to read a website article or watch him on TV or see him in a commercial to hear about Dwayne Wade. Now, with social media that middle part is broken down, and now you can directly contact Dwayne Wade through Facebook, through Twitter. And, you can get an inside perspective on his life even if it’s something mundane. It’s like, hey that’s cool that he’s sharing that with us for now. It’s almost like I am there with him, and now I have a new connection with that athlete.

So, I really think that’s why social media is so good because it really breaks down that middle barrier and allows for you to get closer to your favorite athletes.

Liz: That’s fascinating. Tariq, it was my impression that as part of this project you were looking at location based services. Am I correct? Have you done your research on location based services yet?

Tariq: I am actually currently doing that. It’s actually separate from the NBA study. I actually have a research survey out on that right now. I can go ahead and pass along the survey to you as well. This one’s going to be more specifically for sports fans in general on how they use LBF like Foursquare, Facebook Faces, Gowalla, things like that. Not only in general use but if they use it in connection with sports teams.

And I want to see: are they receiving any kind of benefits from checking in. Like, hey, are you checking the game you are getting 20% off the concession stand or free T-shirt.

Liz: Which would be a lot of money at the NBA event.

Tariq: Exactly, exactly. I’m looking at that to see how fans are using it. Why are they using it? And why they aren’t using it? And seeing if there is some way that we can give people a reason to check in. Because some people can be kind of on the fence about checking in, like why should I let you know where I am at? Hey, if you check into Madison Square Garden and we’re now giving you 25% off on the nachos, then more and more people may be likely to check in.

What I am wanting to see is people, why they check in or why they don’t check in? Are they receiving any rewards? And would they be more likely to check in if they receive some sort of reward? Not only a physical reward or a tangible reward, but parking discount, concessions but intangible discounts as well, such as meeting the players after the game or media access, locker room access, things like that.

So currently I have the study out. I should probably have the results here in the next two to three weeks as well. I will be sure to pass them along to you as well.

Liz: And one of the questions that came to mind when you are talking about that is: was there a specific reason that you decided to focus on the NBA? Or why you didn’t decide to focus on any of the other major leagues?

Tariq: The reason I did NBA is because overall the NBA does the best jobs or one of the best jobs using social media. If you look at their numbers I think like, the NBA as a league has, I don’t know like over 11 million followers combined on Facebook and Twitter. If you take the NBA, NHL, and MLB combined, it doesn’t even equal the number of NBA followers. I think the NBA was not only a pioneer, but they are like really way ahead of the curve in social media as well.

I don’t know if you have seen that they have created an NBA Legend Game which is actually a Facebook game that you basically start off as a career, you start off as a rookie and then you build your way up throughout a career until you become an NBA legend. By building your team, by building strategy, by acquiring all these intangibles and that game is only available through Facebook. And NBA said they actually reached, I believe, they said that they’ve reached over one million users on that game only in a couple of months.

So, I think the NBA not only has the numbers, but they do things like that like creating Facebook only games that allows fans to use social media to connect with them.

Liz: And do you think that what you found could also apply if they ever did decide to get more involved in social media, that it could apply to the NFL, NHL, MLB or even college level sports teams?

Tariq: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I think the thing is that, social media in general, like I said, is just a new way to connect with fans to connect with teams. Overall, the thing is like is it’s scalable and it’s definitely transferable. So, even if the research is done on the NBA, it’s definitely applicable to NFL, NHL, Major League Soccer, Major League Baseball, all these other sports.

Because there are certain things about social media, like to me engagement is a big thing. It’s great if you have a million fans on Facebook. But if you are not engaging with any of them, it doesn’t do you any good. Or you may take another team which has only 10,000 fans on Facebook, but they are engaging with the majority of them: hey, thanks for coming for the game, thanks for being a fan etc., etc. I think that’s the key. It’s important to engage with your fans and with your users, and that’s definitely applicable across any sport.

Because every sport and every team is going to have fans and the fans appreciate the team. But the team must let the fan know that they appreciate them as well. Social media is a good way to do that.

Liz: Great. Tariq, those are all the questions that we have for you today. We really appreciate you sharing your information with us. Is there anything else you want to add before we sign off?

Tariq: I think social media is a great tool. Really, it’s only been prominent for the last five years. I really think you are going to start seeing a lot more growth and a lot more trends going in the next five to ten years as it keeps growing. I really think there’s going to be a big emphasis on the location based services, allowing fans to check in.

I think there is going to be big push on mobile devices as well through social media and probably see some bigger trends and some more trends coming through. Those two specific ones among other social media entities in the next few years.

Definitely, we’re still scratching the surface of social media. But, I am definitely excited to see what teams and leagues and fans and athletes are going to be offering in the future.

Liz: And I guess it’ll give social media experts a new reason to get involved in professional basketball and watch the NBA.

Tariq: Exactly, exactly or any sport, any sport they want.

Liz: Great. Well, thank you so much. That concludes our interview with Tariq Ahmad, Social Media and Sports Researcher from the University of Northern Colorado. Thank you so much and keep looking for our podcasts as they come. We’ll talk to you soon.

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