When teams' social media feeds got real, made friends and started beefing

John Griffin/Icon Sportswire

What's snarky, self-deprecating and smack-talking all at once? Well, your favorite team's social media accounts, of course.

It's a fine line that accounts have to walk, especially in 2020, but when they do it correctly, it makes internet magic. And in a year when sports fans have had to find a new way to love their teams from afar, it makes sense that account managers have had to dig into the depths of their creative brains to connect with their fans.

And, with bowl season underway, the College Football Playoff on Friday, the NFL entering its final week of the regular season and the NBA into its second week of its season, it's peak time for the team social media accounts.

"You know, I think, one of the most important things we do is just read the room. In our case, our room is millions of followers and a fan base and also what's going on in the world," Rael Enteen, senior director of social media for the Washington Football Team, told ESPN. More than 1.2 million people follow the team on Twitter. Plus 900,000 on Instagram.

"So the best thing we can do is be reactive ... you know, really think through everything and not make rash decisions," he explained.

He and Astasia Williams, the team's senior social media manager, have had wins left and right during the 2020-21 NFL season. They could, with another win in Week 17 against the Philadelphia Eagles, be taking their show into the playoffs.

They are one of the many examples among pro and college sports teams creating a voice and personality with their social media accounts.

Finding your voice

Williams joined the Washington Football Team in February 2020, a few months after Ron Rivera was hired and a few weeks before Ohio State's Chase Young was drafted at No. 2 in the NFL draft.

Since then, Washington's voice across social media has completely changed, focusing on speaking to and representing residents in the DMV (that's District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia for those who don't know -- but if you follow the team's accounts, you know) who have been fans of the team through losses and off-field turmoil.

"We have all this new era stuff coming up -- we want to match our social voice to that," Williams said. "And so we did this tonality test in the beginning and we were trying out different slang, different words, talking with fans and engaging with them in the comments and replies to catch the vibes of where our fans were. And we just kind of took the results from that and we went along with it."

Compared with last year, Williams said the team is all-in on having fun, making pop culture references, talking about music and fashion, and making sure the players are known for more than just what they do on the field.

"That's what we want to continue to do," Williams said. "And that's what we want to do as we continue to grow our brand."

So while Enteen and Williams had a brand they had to mold, Alyssa Girardi and Gordon Weigers had a different job to do: build a new brand.

Founded as an expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights began playing just three seasons ago, in the 2017-18 NHL season. Interacting and engaging with fans who are likely new hockey fans while living in Las Vegas is something the team has been consistently focused on since its inception.

"So in the first season, that was a huge emphasis for us just because we were coming to a city, not knowing what the base knowledge of the sport was. That we were bringing your sport to a new city that did not have [an] established NHL team before," Girardi, senior manager of communications and content, told ESPN.

Pop culture, they have realized, has been a big win on their social channels since they burst into the Twitter spotlight in 2017 -- which means referencing favorite TV shows old and new whenever possible.

In December 2018, the Knights were quick to welcome Seattle as a new expansion team and the Knights' account was finally able to press "send" on a favorite tweet that had been sitting in the drafts.

One specific reply defines why social media is so important to the team: A history teacher, not a hockey fan, tweeted back at the team calling it one of the best things on the internet lately.

Making friends...

In 2018, the Golden Knights' social media accounts met a friend -- the UMBC Retrievers. The two accounts bonded over being underdogs -- and over real dogs, because, duh, this is the Internet -- during March Madness.

During that spring's NCAA tournament, UMBC became the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed, the Virginia Cavaliers, in the tournament. During the game, the team's Twitter account became a place to challenge haters, acknowledge history and then absolutely revel in the moment.

A month later, the Golden Knights had just clinched the Pacific Division, on their way to the Stanley Cup Final, surprising the NHL world and becoming BFFs with a fellow underdog team in a totally different sport.

Since going viral in 2018 with his tweets, Zach Seidel is still in charge of UMBC's social media -- Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. He's still having fun, still showing personality.

"... It's important to show that you're not, you know, just robots," Seidel said. "I do think there's a fine line between being mean to the other team and having some fun. But I do think it's a great thing because, you know, now you see all the kids with social media, posting fun stuff about it, and I really think it's great that it's really showing the fun side of it and the personalities of it."

... And enemies

Sure, there's a lot of fun. However, some teams don't get along in real life and won't on social media either. The year-round smack talk that defines rivalries carries over to teams' digital avatars.

When the 2019 NFL schedule was released, the Atlanta Falcons used their video to take a shot at their rivals, the New Orleans Saints. The previous season, the Saints lost in the NFC Championship Game to the Los Angeles Rams after a seemingly obvious pass interference penalty was not called.

Watch for the ram to gallop in and take out the band member.

And when former Falcons receiver Roddy White tweeted his criticism about Saints coach Sean Payton playing Taysom Hill at QB this season, Payton was quick to respond.

But the NFC South rivals weren't the only ones spilling their beefs all over social media. Big Ten football was particularly snarky this season.

Maryland took shots at Penn State:

Then, after Illinois defeated Nebraska, the team's account tweeted, "Good game Nebraska. Thanks for bringing back B1G football."

Nebraska was one of three Big Ten teams that voted against a league proposal to cancel the season during the coronavirus pandemic and then was one of the most vocal advocates to restart the season. Illinois eventually deleted the tweet.

The WNBA's Connecticut Sun are known for taking things personally online.

Even recently, as the Sacramento Kings started 2-0 in the new NBA season, they started feeling themselves on Twitter, only to be trolled after losing to the Phoenix Suns.

Being with the fans, digitally

Beefs aside, most of the teams -- as the Washington Football Team's social media managers said -- are there for their fans.

They represent a region or a brand. Or they let one fan feel good that the people in their team's front office feel as passionately about rivalries as they do.

It's truly all about having fun, said the Golden Knights' Girardi. Providing laughs and levity -- especially during this time -- is what is most important to the Golden Knights' accounts right now.

"We like to really toe the line between being informative but being [a] friend. ... We want people to be on our social channels and feel like we're a friend that they're watching the game with," Girardi said.

"You know some people are watching the game alone, so let's be kind of a friend and let's interact with those people and let's provide some laughs and some commentary."