The integral role of social media in sports is hard to ignore.

Athletes represent some of the most-followed accounts across social media at large.

Heck, it’s hard to find an athlete that isn’t engaging with fans via social in some form.

US Women's National Team soccer athlete Alex Morgan's Instagram profile

Meanwhile, real-time sporting events and competitions are prime for social media engagement. From team news and trash talk and beyond, sports-related topics are almost always trending on Twitter.

But sports teams on social media don’t trend or score engagement by accident. The best practices of social media in social media are changing in the current social climate, too.

In this guide, we’ll highlight how social media and sports are evolving and what teams and athletes can do to adapt.

The current state of social media in sports

No surprises here: sports teams have been rocked as a result of COVID-19.

Seasons put on hold. Uncertain futures for players and fans alike.

However, the buzz behind sports in social media hasn’t gone away. Not by a long shot.

Case-in-point, the recent Michael Jordan miniseries The Last Dance was the subject of over 1.5 million tweets during its finale episode. WWE’s Wrestlemania scored a staggering 13.8 million social media engagements across all platforms in April.

Meanwhile, the enthusiasm behind Liverpool’s Premier League victory following the recent restart of the EPL season speaks for itself.

The takeaway? Sports fans are chomping at the bit to talk about their favorite teams and athletes via social.

This especially rings true as leagues resume something resembling “normal.” Fans will likewise be eager to sound off in response to changes such as limited fan presence at live events.

But in the face of COVID-19 or otherwise, the role of social media in sports will continue to center around a combination of the following:

  • Keeping fans up-to-date on team news (think: player signings, contracts, league announcements)
  • Providing fans with opportunities to engage with teams and sound off (think: caption contests, Q&As)
  • Highlighting team-related community events and news

What’s trending in sports and social media right now?

Now, let’s talk about some recent trends for social media in sports based on data from the most recent Sprout Social Index.

The following trends and best practices are fair game across all platforms and represent proven ways to engage your audience.

Emphasis on real-time updates and “live” content

Much of what makes sports so buzzworthy for social media is the fact that games happen in real-time.

Additionally, die-hard fans are eager to speak their minds and engage with teams (for better or worse).

And so anything teams can do to capture and encourage those real-time engagements is a plus. Some popular tactics for doing so include:

  • Live Tweeting events such as games, press conferences or drafts
  • Providing fans with a team or game-specific hashtag to publish to
  • Gathering fan feedback via polls or Q&A sessions on Instagram or Facebook Live.

For example, let’s check out how Tottenham Hotspur uses both Twitter and Instagram to build hype during a match.

Using their #COYS (“Come on you Spurs!”) tag, the team Twitter account posts firsthand video from the team’s manager to share with fans.

Meanwhile, they provide play-by-play updates, stadium footage and goal announcements through their Instagram Stories.

The Tottenham Hotspurs use social media during live events to keep fans around the world engaged in real time.

Fans are likewise encouraged to vote for their favorite players after the match is over to keep the hype train going.

The Tottenham Hotspurs use social media during live events to keep fans around the world engaged in real time.

According to our own data, creativity is the most important factor in what makes a social account stand out. For social media in sports, that means exploring new avenues and opportunities to engage fans in real-time. It also means clever captions that make your account feel like it’s being run by an actual fan versus a corporation.

Athletes going behind-the-scenes via Stories

No surprises here.

Tapping into your followers’ sense of FOMO (fear of missing out), ephemeral content such as Instagram Stories are the number one thing that consumers want to see more of from brands.

The same logic applies to social media in sports, particularly with athletes. Through Stories, players are able to show off their day-to-day lives and go behind-the-scenes.

Using Instagram Stories and other social media features is a way to bring the human side of athletes to their fans.

Because they’re so simple and off-the-cuff, Stories likewise remove the “corporate” feel of sports content on social media. Athletes and teams alike should take full advantage of Stories to stay fresh in the minds of their followers.

Showing support for social causes

As noted in our #BrandsGetReal survey, companies shouldn’t shy away from taking a stand on social and political issues.

Sports teams and athletes are notably using their platforms to take a stand.

For example, MLB has recently highlighted players protesting for racial justice across their league account and the response has largely been positive. NHL has done something similar with their #HockeyisforEveryone campaign to show solidarity with the LGBQ+ community.

Although taking a stand might alienate some fans, so much of social media in sports revolves around activism. Naysayers might be loud, but teams rightfully see speaking out as a responsibility given their reach and the size of their audiences.

How social media helps humanize teams and athletes

There’s no denying the potential disconnect between athletes on big-money contracts and the average fan.

A huge function of social media in sports is the ability for players to show off their human side. Consider the following ways that teams and athletes alike can use social media to connect with fans.

Embracing memes and humorous content

Content that makes fans laugh tends to perform well in terms of likes, shares and comments.

Want proof? Look no further than the Philadelphia Flyers’ account for mascot Gritty. Many of the account’s post uses bizarre and surreal humor to rack up engagement post after post.

Meanwhile, major team accounts aren’t afraid to jump on the meme bandwagon. Doing so not only allows teams to show off their personality, but also poises their posts to potentially go viral.

We also see a lot of playful content for athletes via Instagram Stories and TikTok, too. For example, trending dances and challenges go hand in hand with athletes and social media.

Showing off support in local communities

As noted earlier, activism and causes are huge for social media in sports.

Teams can humanize themselves by showing what they’re doing to make a difference in their local communities. This includes coverage of charity events and initiatives that impact fans on the ground.

Empowering athletes to tell their stories and engage with fans

Authenticity is key to creating connections with fans.

Many athletes are endearing and downright hilarious on social media. On the flip side, some use their platforms primarily for activism.

Either way, athletes should be trusted to be themselves.

Additionally, social media allows athletes to go back-and-forth with fans directly. While the concept of getting your favorite athlete’s attention a decade ago was impossible, platforms like Twitter have made it a reality.

The importance of style, security and consistency for social media in sports

Sports social media accounts need to take special care of how they handle themselves.

For starters, don’t neglect account security for athletes and teams alike. It’s hard to find a team that hasn’t been the victim of a hacked Twitter account, signaling the need for more security when it comes to log-ins.

Additionally, teams and athletes need to be on the same page in terms of how they communicate with their fans.

Avoiding social media apologies or potential backlash from fans can be tough for those in sports. This is partially due to teams having massive audiences, but also the currently charged political climate.

Athletes should be allowed to speak their minds, but teams should be particularly mindful of how they engage with followers. For example, how do you deal with trolls? Does your team have a distinct brand voice that extends to all of your accounts?

Teams should have conversations about values and what’s expected as a brand on social media. These expectations also extend to athletes and those responsible for making posts on behalf of a team’s account. Although social media policies for leagues aren’t public, establishing some “ground rules” is a smart move.

And with that, we wrap up our guide!

What do the future of sports and social media look like?

No matter how you slice it, social media will continue to play a major role in sports.

Especially as teams return to the field and fans return to the stands, teams should do everything in their power to keep the buzz and momentum going via social media. The tips and best practices above can help you do exactly that.

If you haven’t already, make sure you check out the latest Sprout Social Index to see the latest trends to engage audiences in the world of sports and beyond.