L.A. has the king of sports franchise social media

Social Media

Pat Donahue is the man behind the L.A. Kings innovative twitter account. Los Angeles, CA February 24, 2015.  (Photos by John McCoy / Los Angeles Daily News)

You are representing a billion-dollar franchise to an entire generation. You have mere seconds to craft 140 characters for millions of people awaiting your proclamation, and they better form something captivating.

What do you do?

“It takes a lot of confidence,” Dodgers social media coordinator Matt Mesa said. “I think I read things three to four times before I hit send. It’s a challenge. It’s a big burden.”

A combined 50 million people follow the eight existing professional sports franchises in Southern California on social media. And that’s just on three channels: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Those running the team accounts, well, their jobs didn’t exist five years ago. In a city with a half-century of rich sports tradition, the social media branches of the biggest games in town are just now emerging from infancy.

The Lakers registered their social accounts less than seven years ago. With a following now approaching 30 million, you won’t find a freewheeling intern at the keyboard.

The Lakers have six full-time employees who contribute to the team’s social media efforts, the strategy for which is formulated by a hierarchy with rungs in the marketing department and business operations all the way up to Lakers president and governor Jeanie Buss.

Social media doesn’t fly below even Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s radar. The eighth richest sports franchise owner in the world occasionally sends “associates” to review the same social media calendar Jeff Fisher and company discuss during a designated 30-second segment of Rams’ coaches meetings.

A Twitter account largely credited with transforming social media in sports, aided by a couple of Stanley Cups, has been a primary vehicle for the elevation of the Kings.

The importance of social media to a sports franchise is deep into the process of being fully realized.

The Los Angeles market provides a perfect cross-section of approaches to the medium, ranging from the envelope-pushing Kings to the calculatedly traditional Lakers.

But there’s nothing traditional about social media, relatively uncharted territory in the marketing world where ingenuity moving as fast as the world-class athletes who supply the subject matter converges with profit-seeking corporations trying to feed their bottom line.

“If fans are able to constantly engage, it keeps them interested and leads to our primary monetization opportunities of tickets and merchandise and those broadcast rights,” Lakers director of new media and technology Nick Kioski said. “Social media helps keep people informed. And as generations pass, people consume information differently and it’s very important for us to keep up with that.”

When Pat Donahue Jr. was interning in the Kings analytics department in 2010, most pro sports team’s Twitter accounts weren’t even manned by a person. Over the next couple of years, RSS feeds gave way to basic public relations Twitter accounts.

Change is a relative term in the ever-evolving social media realm, but what Donahue and the Kings did in 2012 qualifies as a seismic shift.

Dwayne Haskins, who hired Donahue, pitched Kings brass on a Twitter account with a massive infusion of personality. At the time, humor, sarcasm, wit and trash talking were a revolutionary diversion from conventional wisdom.

“We talked about ‘Let’s do this as ourselves’ and we started writing jokes,” said Donahue, the Kings director of digital media and production. “There’s very much a strategy behind it, but it was like, ‘This is us.’”

Before the philosophy infiltrated sports, there was no reason to feature a tweet on Sportscenter. The Kings are largely credited with conceptualizing what has become the norm.

The transition invited criticism as Donahue walked a fine line with an edgy approach native to the social space, but foreign to entities worth hundreds of millions of dollars. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Kings have long since been justified.

“I love what the Kings do. I think they’re the best at it and they spawned a million people that want to be them,” Lakers director of new media Ty Nowell said. “Half the teams out there are trying to do what they do, mostly unsuccessfully.”


Considering the 2012 Kings were in a market including a Lakers team fresh off five NBA championships in the last decade, a Dodgers franchise on its way to a record-high payroll, the most decorated team in MLS and another hockey team 30 miles away, the Kings front office was willing to agree to the unprecedented social media approach.

Kings senior director of marketing Heather Bardocz said the organization is well aware of the difficulties a hockey team faces in the L.A. market and is proud of the handsome rewards paid by its courageous approach on social media.

“If people attribute our personality on social to our team and it makes them want to be a part of it, come see it and watch on television and support us, it’s massive,” Bardocz said. “For us, our social is massively important.”

Donahue is the first to say his work on Twitter wouldn’t have gained national recognition without the eighth-seeded Kings’ legendary run to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 2012. The quips, the jabs and the originality combined with the upset victories generated the perfect storm.

“The Kings’ 2012 Cup run changed sports and social media,” Galaxy director of digital media and marketing Chris Thomas said. “A ton of credit goes to Pat for flipping social in the direction it’s going in sports. Having someone that close to us have that kind of success digitally allowed us to pitch our bosses our ideas that used to sound crazy.”


The Galaxy, one of the first in MLS to adopt a snarky, humorous and sarcastic tone with its Twitter account, has continued its evolution to avoid boredom at all costs. Thomas said he draws the most inspiration from ClickHole, a satirical account launched by The Onion, making ClickHole essentially a parody of a parody, if you can wrap your mind around that.

Harnessing the direction of the Galaxy social media approach is no simple task either.

“We’re trying to turn our account almost weird,” Thomas said. “We want to be the friend on the couch telling the inside jokes and providing insight. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

The Galaxy and the Kings, among others, have already cycled through the trend of trash talking other teams on social media and are on the tail end of the GIF craze.

The Lakers, meanwhile, don’t make a practice of engaging in the banter with other team accounts.

“It’s not our brand,” Lakers chief operating officer Tim Harris said. “In general we don’t have to shock and awe because we don’t have to wave our hands and say ‘Look at me.’”

It’s safe to say the Lakers’ approach is working just fine. They have nearly 18 million more likes on Facebook, four million more Twitter followers and a million and a half more Instagram followers than the closest competitors in the Southern California sports market.


It was a piece of fruit that put the Dodgers’ Mesa in the type of awkward position social media coordinators often find themselves.

In the middle of a game during the 2015 season, utilityman Kike Hernandez emphatically approached Mesa just as the Dodgers ended a franchise-record 35-inning scoreless drought. He was holding, of all things, a banana.

After Joc Pederson hit a game-winning home run later that May evening, Hernandez again implored Mesa that it was the ‘rally banana’ that deserved the credit.

“The first time he came up to me I was like ‘OK,’” Mesa said in a skeptical tone. “And after the home run, I took the picture of him with the banana that ended up everywhere. I am basically the gatekeeper for Dodger Stadium. I make a lot of decisions about what goes out to the public and this illustrates how fine that line is between something people will like and something they’ll think is bizarre. A lot of it is putting it out there and seeing what sticks.”

Over the next couple of months Hernandez’s ‘rally banana’ fame soared to such heights that both Chiquita Brands International and the Del Monte banana company contacted him. Social media was the primary vehicle for the craze.

However abnormal, things like the ‘rally banana’ are gold for social media coordinators charged with keeping fans’ interest for 162 baseball games or 82 basketball games.

Whether he’s live tweeting games or fulfilling requests from Dodgers’ ownership, co-owner Stan Kasten frequently visits Mesa’s desk, the social media coordinator works 60 to 80 hours a week generating content.

The Dodgers are active on eight different social channels, from Snapchat to Pinterest. And savvy coordinators know they can’t just cut and paste for different mediums.

“You have different demographics using different channels, so we know we’re marketing to younger people on our Snapchat,” Ducks social media producer A.J. Manderichio said. “We want to make sure you’re not seeing the same information on all our channels because it gets repetitive, but also some mediums are better for different things. You maybe want to be a little more interactive on Twitter, more long form on Facebook and you, of course, want that great photo for Instagram.”


By definition of their job description, social media coordinators blur the line between team employees and media members. They are afforded more access than the media in most circumstances, but coaches, players and management aren’t exactly handing out all-access passes for the betterment of their team Facebook page.

Most social coordinators are on their own to create the most meaningful inroads; good old-fashioned relationships with the faces of the franchise.

“I think I’ve earned a lot of the guys’ trust by now,” Rams digital media manager Nate Bain said. “I’ve made guys mad before by posting stuff that they didn’t like, but now I run stuff by them a lot of times. As I get to know more guys, they understand more about what I’m trying to do and they give me more latitude with what we do together.”

Their paychecks come from the same place, but there are plenty of degrees of separation between athletes and social media coordinators.

Social media obligations aren’t typically part of a player’s contract. Yet. Cooperation, much less collaboration, is about finding a mutual interest.

“You’d be surprised how little you have in common with 20-year-old millionaires,” Nowell said. “I suck at basketball and I don’t have a lot of money, but I’m cool with the Lakers players because we all work together. As social media’s come along and our team’s gotten much younger, they get it. They want stuff for their Instagram pages. They’ll help us out because we help them out. And they know our team account can get them a lot of publicity.”


Corporations of all types market their products on social media, but most don’t have the built-in advantages of sports.

While more TV shows shift to live formats for social media purposes, the number of live events in sports is unmatched in any industry.

The passion inherent to sports is near impossible to manufacture in other branches of the corporate world. But perhaps the most compelling reason sports and social media are such a perfect match is that they’re both, well, social.

“Sports is inherently a social activity, whether it’s in the stadium with your friends or at home or at a bar,” Kioski said. “It’s something that people tend to consume with other people. And obviously social media is about the same thing. So it’s just multiple overlaps with how social media was designed to work and how sports has always worked.”

Sports and social media even utilize the same terms. Facebook calls them fans. So do the Dodgers.

The built-in advantages of their industry aren’t lost on social media coordinators. There are plenty of things harder to sell than sports.

“Coming up with new content and new ways to present it and trying not to lose people’s interest over the course of a long season is hard,” Donahue said, “But there’s nothing like sports. I’m just glad I’m not pushing cheese.”