I'm down in Las Vegas for the Blogs With Balls 2.0 sports blogging convention, and am thoroughly enjoying it thus far. Things kicked off this morning with a superb introductory video featuring Will Leitch,Matt Ufford and A.J. Daulerio. The video is presented below (from the Blogs With Balls site via HH Reynolds):
Blogs With Balls 2.0 Intro from HHR on Vimeo.
After the introduction, it was time for the first panel, which discussed athletes' abilities to directly connect to their fans through blogs, Twitter and other mediums. The panel featured former Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton (now running JockBiz and All Pro Blogger], Yardbarker CEO Pete Vlastelica, ESPN VP of series production and development Ron Wechsler and Carrot Creative president Mike Germano, and was moderated by Matt Sebek of Joe Sports Fan.
(Shaky cellphone pictures for the win!)
Vlastelica, whose company features blogs by the likes of Donovan McNabb and Nick Collision, argued for the importance of authenticity from athletes.
"These guys have personal brands they’re building through this incredibly authentic medium," he said. "In order to use that to its full potential, all their stuff needs to be authentic."
As an example, Vlastelica brought up Kevin Durant's recent TwitPic of his new Nike shoes.
"That had more marketing value than all of the commercials," he said.
He mentioned that many athletes take up blogging and Tweeting to try and increase their marketability, so they'll have lucrative careers as spokesmen once their playing days are done.
"They want to build up this personal brand so afterwards, they can then push product," he said.
Vlastelica also discussed the ability of blogs to give athletes a place to get their full thoughts out on an issue the way McNabb did a while ago after he walked into a media firestorm with a few short quotes about black quarterbacks.
"He went to his blog and he published a really smart, accurate, well-considered piece, and the situation went away," Vlastelica said.
Vlastelica said not all athletes are cut out for blogging, though.
"Not every athlete’s a blogger, just like not every person’s a blogger," he said.
Germano offered an interesting perspective on that, agreeing that all athletes aren't great writers but arguing that you don't have to be a nationally well-known athlete to blog given the amount of local fans out there looking for more information on their teams. He cited Chris Jent, who only played two NBA seasons but was one of his heroes growing up. (See also Joe Posnanski's Duane Kuiper obsession).
"No one knows who Chris Jent is even in this room, but to me he was the greatest basketball player," Germano said.
He also cited the growing numbers of lacrosse players on Twitter as proof of this, as these guys are using tools like Twitter and blogs to promote themselves and their sport (and have been very successful so far). Germano said the key is that they're promoting fan interactivity.
"Now they feel like they have a relationship with these players, and it’s helping the sport tremendously," he said. "Tweets are like the new personal signature. If an athlete tweets me, oh my god, I feel like I have a relationship with that person."
Thornton said athletes have to keep in mind that their actions affect how they're perceived just as much as their Tweets and blog posts, though. Rejecting autograph seekers or acting like a jerk at a restaurant can be much more damaging in the era of Twitter, Facebook and Deadspin than it was back in the days of Babe Ruth.
"Your brand is more than what you say," he said.
Thornton said several athletes have already used social media tools to promote their charity efforts. He thinks other high-profile guys like Chad Ocho Cinco should do the same thing.
"It’s Chad’s job to use his 200,000 followers or however many he has and really make that important," Thornton said. "Don’t just be a face on Twitter."
Thornton said athletes need to be careful about what they tweet, though, especially if they're discussing their teams.
"You really have to think about what you're saying, especially when it comes to the game, because a lot of that is private," he said. "You can't put everything out there."
Wechsler chimed in on that theme, adding that Twitter's allowed journalists to get a deeper insight into the players they cover.
"Twitter is an open mike where everything is picked up," he said. "From a journalistic perspective, it just helps advance the narrative."
He added that players who clearly have something to say and are personable make better subjects for ESPN shows.
"The athletes we find the most interesting and the most compelling are the ones who are advancing a narrative," he said.
Wechsler and Vlastelica both agreed that athletes' tweets and blogs (and independent blogs) aren't going to replace the big players in the sports media world any time soon, but they are valuable because they add other angles to the coverage.
"Social media is adding great spice to the sports media pie, but ESPN is still the pie," Vlastelica said. "For now, we’re more spicing the whole equation than anything else."
It was an interesting discussion all around, but that focus on different media coverage being parts of a whole particularly struck me. There are too many people in the blog world who focus on trying to replace the mainstream media, and too many mainstream journalists who are worried about being replaced by blogs and Tweets. I have a foot in both camps, so that does make me biased, but I believe there is plenty of room for everyone on the Internet. Mainstream media don't have to crush their competitors, and bloggers don't have to continually slag the mainstream in hopes of taking them down. Both have their place and can play important roles, and I think more people on both sides of the divide are starting to realize that. That makes me optimistic for the future.
(More to follow later on the day's other panels)