CHICAGO – Bridget Houlihan rifled through her gift bag and pulled out a gray T-shirt with a circular Chicago Cubs emblem on the front and FOLLOWER emblazoned across the back, resting on a row of logos from the top social media websites. "This is awesome," she said.
Baseball thinks Houlihan is pretty sweet, too, and major league teams like the Cubs are hoping to entice more fans like her to come out to the ballpark. Social media nights have become a common part of the promotional schedule, and some of the best ticket deals and giveaways can be found on Twitter and Facebook. Savvy franchises are trying to create the right mix online, part content and part business opportunity — keeping their followers engaged while also padding the bottom line.
Players such as Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips and Miami Marlins outfielder Logan Morrison are Twitter superstars, but devoted fans across the country also are responding to the personal touch provided by the teams' online presence.
Social media nights vary from ballpark to ballpark, but some aspects are fairly consistent. The Cubs offered specially priced tickets and put together contests for their online fans. They encouraged their Twitter followers to use the hashtag (hash)CubsSocial to mark their tweets throughout the night.
"I think it's going to be mandatory for all clubs to be not just involved in it, but go all-in, not just dip your toes in the water," said Jamie Ramsey, who works in the Reds' media relations department and writes a blog for Major League Baseball's website. "Teams are going to realize how important it is to help sell tickets, generate revenue and keep the fan base interested and engaged.
"I think it's still kind of new to everybody. Once teams realize how to master it and do what works for them, it's going to keep growing and become as important as your marketing department, your sales department."
Houlihan, 33, of Chicago, attended the first social media night at Wrigley Field on Wednesday with her boyfriend, George Hayman, and his brother, Pete. She pounced on her phone when the Cubs announced a Twitter contest, and managed to post in time to win an autographed pack of the social media-themed cards that were part of the promotion.
"I think it's really awesome to put together events like this," Houlihan said. "I've been going to social media events for several years now and I find it's the perfect way to network because you meet people through Twitter and then you go meet them in person and it gives an entree into what they like to talk about, things that you have in common."
The Cubs put approximately 300 special bleacher tickets on sale for the promotion and sold each one. They are planning a second social media night for September.
Kevin Saghy, a public relations and marketing specialist for the Cubs who helps run their Twitter account, said the key to generating revenue in the field is content.
"If your focus is revenue and your content reflects that, I don't believe that's a wise strategy ... That's not why people are there," he said. "They're there to converse. So we've taken the other approach where it's definitely a priority for us, it's something we track, and I can say from 2010 to last year, as we got more involved and offered better content on our platforms, we quadrupled our revenue. So we're up about 300 percent."
Major league teams also are finding loads of intangible benefits to their social media presence, ranging from increased brand awareness all the way down to a connection with a single customer who leaves with a positive impression.
Saghy will monitor Twitter for Cubs fans celebrating their birthday or making their first trip to Wrigley Field, then put together a bag of free goodies to place under their seat before they arrive. The Indians have a designated social media suite at Progressive Field, and team president Mark Shapiro has stopped by to visit with fans and answer questions.
Several teams hold in-game scavenger hunts that award autographed memorabilia or team apparel, and some clubs put together contests that result in upgraded tickets for their online followers.
"From a business standpoint, we use social media mainly as a way to connect with fans, give them unique access and provide a different perspective," said Tom Garfinkel, the interim CEO of the San Diego Padres. "Obviously, it can be used to communicate promotions and sell tickets, and we do that, to a lesser extent. We try very hard to maintain an authentic voice and make sure our followers are getting value from the content we are posting — not just being sold on something. We also use it to crowd-source ideas. It's a living focus group."
Washington is putting together a tweet-up for July 3 that includes discounted tickets and a commemorative poster. There are plans for a player meet and greet and a Twitter request line for pregame ballpark music. But the most compelling aspect of the Nationals' promotion involves the location of tweet-up seats, which will improve as more fans RSVP for the game before tickets go on sale on June 22.
"It's about fan engagement and the ability then to be able to enter into that discussion, and not being too corporate, but helping lead and participate in that conversation," Nationals chief operating officer Andy Feffer said. "Why? Because the social media platform is now an access point — to the club, to the players, to promotions, to ticket sales, to the story that's being told. And the story really lives now in the social media world. It's extended into that community more than it ever has before."
Dan Migala, a founding partner of Property Consulting Group who worked for the Padres and has consulted for other major league teams, thinks social media will become even more important for sports teams in the future.
"I don't think that there's ever been a better time to be a fan than right now because for the first time really as a fan you have a two-way relationship with your favorite team," he said. "For some teams that's a very exciting proposition and some, they're probably scared to death.
"But my dad and his generation, it was a one-way relationship. You bought a ticket, they took your money, you came to the game and you bought as much stuff as you could and they never responded to you. Now they can know when your birthday is. Now they can communicate and answer questions in real time. It's a really powerful vehicle but you have to embrace it."
AP Sports Writers Joe Kay in Cincinnati, Bernie Wilson in San Diego, Howard Fendrich in Washington and Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap