The Los Angeles Kings are 7-1 since we asked if anyone could stop them. They're steamrolling the Coyotes like they steamrolled the Blues and Canucks, and they're a good bet to steamroll whichever team wins the Port Authority Bus Terminal Series. They have unquestionably been the best thing about the Stanley Cup playoffs. The second-best thing about the playoffs to date? The Kings' Twitter feed, @LAKings, which is a window into the future of social media in sports.
The Kings' feed, unlike most teams', spits attitude and emotion, like a fan's might. Here's a choice selection from Tuesday night during the game against Phoenix:
The fans here look pretty bummed they haven't been able to wave their pom poms.
— LA Kings (@LAKings) May 16, 2012
This is damn near the perfect tweet. It uses access—a dispatch from a road game—to gently sass the opposing fans.
But the biggest statement for @LAKings came earlier in the playoffs, after the team took a 1-0 series lead against the Vancouver Canucks: "To everyone in Canada outside of BC you're welcome." That tweet came from Pat Donahue, 27, the Kings' digital media coordinator, who co-writes the Twitter account with Dewayne Hankins, 31, the Kings' director of digital media. Hankins, who joined the Kings from the Minnesota Wild in November 2010, had always worked in sports public relations. He didn't start handling social media, though, until the end of his time in Minnesota. Donahue interned for the Kings' digital media department early in 2011 before joining the team full-time later that year.
There was an uproar up north, and the Kings eventually apologized for it. (Hankins says the tweet was right on the line between what's appropriate and what's inappropriate.)
Yet they didn't take it down. And, to date, Hankins tells me, it's been retweeted over 17,000 times, while the Kings' official account has gained 43,000 Twitter followers since that night, a 57 percent increase in their subscriber base in one month. The team's on-ice surge has wowed us all—they went from a 20-to-1 longshot to, as of last night, 11-to-10 favorites to win the Cup—but the digital media apparatus within the Kings' organization has similarly excelled. Hankins and Mike Altieri, the Kings' vice president of communications, say they've succeeded only because their team is winning. And they're right, at least in the sense that no eliminated team would have reason to chirp during the playoffs.
But where the Kings' hockey triumph has followed a traditional path—talented young team with otherworldly goalie changes coaches, acquires another sniper, wins in postseason—their Twitter voice is something new. It's servicey, yes, but also puerile and deadpan. There's personality in the Kings' stream. The subscriber knows there's a human sensibility behind the feed and appreciates it. Other outfits—the wretched, punning, overcaffeinated @MLB feed, for example—communicate in hyperbolic, punctuation-heavy messages that are evidently some marketing expert's idea of how human people communicate on the digital internet web machine. (Hankins is right, for example, when he tells me that the Vancouver Twitter storm, and the subsequent surge, wouldn't have happened "if Pat didn't write the perfect tweet.")
We wouldn't care about the feed, though, if it were @DewayneAndPatTalkinHockey. But putting humans behind a feed representing the team allows us to envision the team as a sentient entity with its own identity and its own voice. We always search for identities for our teams. We want them to be tough, resilient, whatever. But the Kings' feed adds a new dimension—what would your team say if it could talk? It's a way to defy the old Jerry Seinfeld routine about how sports fandom is really just cheering for laundry. I root for the Kings because they're caustic!
Even if the rest of pro sports hasn't realized it yet, this is what's next. The team injects itself into fans' mornings and afternoons and evenings and off-days with small blasts of personality. (The Kings, for example, have gone from less than 800 Twitter mentions a day to over 6,000.) Every team you follow could do it. Yes, Altieri slaps some sinister-sounding corporate-speak on it—"maximizing engagement"—and, yes, all the plucky Kings web staffers ultimately serve at the pleasure of crypto-culture warrior Philip Anschutz, but the Twitter voice is enough fun on its own to ignore all that. Hankins envisions a web where rivals banter through their official accounts: "How much fun could that be?" Lots, we bet. The Nationals could unfollow the Phillies and put them on blast. The Vikings could thank or taunt the Minnesota state legislature. It's a little terrifying, yes, but the future always is.