Interactive blitz: Ravens tackle social media, high-def stadium experience

At the Baltimore Ravens headquarters in Owings Mills, digital media assistant Ryan Mink churns out a constant stream of Twitter, Facebook and blog posts while tracking what fans are saying online.

At the team's stadium in downtown Baltimore, Larry Rosen, vice president of broadcasting, tinkers in the new, multimillion-dollar control room where he hopes to rivet fans with high-definition imagery of plays on the field. "If you're going to be here," he says, "let me thrill you."

Meet two members on the behind-the-scenes team that conducts an interactive media blitz for the Ravens. Their goal is to satisfy an increasingly tech-savvy fan base that's clamoring for every scrap of information about the Ravens and for more ways to get closer to the action.

As the regular National Football League season gets under way, the Ravens and other teams are entering a new era of technology by using the convergence of razor-sharp video, the mobile Web and social media sites to give their fans a more personalized experience in the stadium, in their homes and on the go.

"We want to be where the fans are," said Michelle Andres, vice president of the Ravens' digital operations. "We need to be on Twitter; we need to be on Facebook."

Before the rise of social media and even the Internet, teams such as the Ravens rarely connected with fans apart from game days. Fans scoured third-party purveyors of information, such as the local newspaper and television and radio stations. Any direct interactions with players often occurred during annual training camps or fan appreciation days.

But these days, the Internet allows teams and players to connect more personally and nearly instantaneously with fans. Stars such as Ravens running back Ray Rice and Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco have built up large followings on Twitter in their spare time away from the field.

"I think what it really does is humanize these players," said Lila Shapiro-Cyr, 36, a Baltimore real estate lawyer who follows several Ravens players on Twitter. "Some of them in particular are really good at trying to engage people."

The Ravens have 16,000-plus followers on the team's main Twitter account. And the team has amassed more than 166,000 fans on Facebook — more than double the number of seats at M&T Bank Stadium. A little more than a year ago, the team had hardly any Facebook fans.

Several other NFL teams have even more fans. Among the most popular: the Dallas Cowboys, at more than 1.2 million fans, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, at more than 800,000.

"It's the golden age for fans," said Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesman. "Here's an opportunity to not only read about a player's activity, but talk to the player. It's a modern-day version of standing outside a locker room and waiting for players to come out."

It's also a good time for professional sports teams, who rely on revenue from sponsorships as well as ticket and merchandise sales. Sponsorships are more lucrative when teams can show advertisers they attract a lot of viewers on television as well as website visitors and fans, pro sports analysts say.

"Teams are really in the eyeball business," said Lewis Howe, founder of the Sports Executives Association and "They need people to watch them. They need people in the stands and watching the games because that helps get the ratings up and it helps sponsorships."

There are two main venues for fans that the Ravens try to refine and polish every year. The first is the stadium. While those seats might be closest to the action, the challenge nowadays is to give fans in the stadium a similar multimedia experience to what they might get sitting at home with large, flat-screen TVs, computers and mobile devices.

That's why the Ravens installed two high-definition scoreboards that double as video screens earlier this year. They are 96-by-24 feet and are perched at opposite ends of the 71,000-seat stadium. The team shared the $9 million tab with the Maryland Stadium Authority.

For this year's games, the video production team will use a high-definition portable wireless camera, or "steady cam," to show parts of the stadium that fans might not ordinarily see up close, such as inside the tunnel where players enter the field.

The new big screens also will display for the first time fantasy football league statistics and live video feeds from other games across the league.

"At home, you would get that [information] from the networks, but you never got that at a stadium before," Rosen said.

The stadium experience might soon become even more high-tech. Imagine being able to use your mobile phone to order a hot dog or beer from your seat or to check on the line at the restroom.

The model for such a mobile hub is the New Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey — home of the NFL's New York Jets and New York Giants. The stadium has a fiber-optic network built by technology companies Verizon Wireless and Cisco Systems to support mobile food orders and other services.

The second venue where the Ravens are trying to maximize the fan experience is on the Internet — where the team's multimedia strategy can reach fans outside the stadium.

"We're sold out" at the stadium, said Andres, the digital operations VP. "For us, it's not about selling tickets. It's about how do we make them part of our family, so to speak, outside of them being able to attend the game."

Andres runs an almost-24/7 news operation, with about nine staffers, including writers, editors, producers and photographers. Her staff attends team news conferences and writes daily stories, albeit with an obvious pro-Ravens slant.

Andres' digital interactive team posts up to five stories a day on the team's main website and then posts that content throughout the day on Twitter and Facebook.

Visits to have grown more than 60 percent from last year to this year, according to Andres.

Through the website and with social media, fans can check on the health and status of individual players, as well as their comings and goings. Ravens who have proved popular online include the two Rays: running back Ray Rice and linebacker Ray Lewis.

"Through Facebook and social media, we hear from [fans], sometimes thousands of times a day," said Mink, the digital media assistant. "It's like a daily conversation with our fans, which brings us closer to them."

Those added insights into the team engender greater loyalty and enthusiasm among fans who use social media to connect not only with the players but also with one another.

Niall Fagan, 32, who works for a public relations firm in Dublin, Ireland, became a Ravens fan while working in Ocean City during his summers off from college. Fagan's allegiance to the team hasn't faded, and he plans to travel to Baltimore this fall to see them play.

Said Fagan by e-mail: "Being able to converse with other Ravens fans on Facebook allows me to stay close to the team even though I am over 3,000 miles away!"

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