Baseball's All-Star Twitter Strategy Keeps Players on a Short Leash

Want to know what’s going on behind the scenes, in real time, during the baseball All-Star Game on Tuesday? Check out Twitter, where Major League Baseball has told players to tweet away during the game. But will the players be allowed to say anything interesting?

The idea sounds promising: "Fans want to get closer to sport," said Matt Bourne, Major League Baseball's vice president of business public relations. "Players tweeting while the game and other All-Star week activities are in progress is an interesting and unique way [for fans] to feel closer to the game.”

However, tweeting during the All-Star Game will be tightly controlled. Players who are actively involved in play won't be allowed to tweet during the contest. Only players who are no longer in the game will be able to use Twitter and Facebook. “After a player leaves the game, they do a media circuit: Typically they talk to Fox - the game’s broadcaster - and some print reporters. Now we've added one more step for the players’ postgame wrap-up: the social media room,” Bourne says.

Beyond that, players will be able to use Twitter or Facebook via their personal accounts. Those who don’t have personal accounts on either social platform can utilize the MLB All Star Game Twitter account or the Major League Baseball Player’s Association, or MLB’s Facebook page. Part of the plan is to set up Q&A sessions between players and fans during the game on Facebook. Bourne also expects players to respond to fan tweets.

But the messages players post on Twitter and Facebook are likely to be innocuous clichés. The MLB hasn't yet issued comprehensive guidelines for the All-Star game. Officials will meet on Monday and Tuesday to discuss what they will do if a player posts something during the game that is not appropriate. However, MLB officials will be posted at each station, so they may literally be looking over players' shoulders as they tweet.

The better a player is, the more interesting and provocative he can be, says Jim Bouton, author of the groundbreaking and bestselling baseball tell-all Ball Four. “You’re only as smart as your batting average,” Bouton said. “And the guy who is outspoken and candid with sports writers is probably going to be the same personality who tweets.”

(That is, if the players are actually writing their own tweets. “The Tweets may or may not be real,” he added. “Players didn’t used to respond to their own fan mail. Others did it for them. It’s likely to be the same with Twitter. Some guys will actually tweet, and others will have someone else do it for them.”)

Sports leagues are only just beginning to experiment with orchestrating players' social-media presence. The NFL first allowed its players to use Twitter via computers set up on each sideline during the 2012 Pro Bowl. The NFL let them tweet whatever they wanted - presumably because the Pro Bowl is a meaningless game.

In contrast, the MLB All-Star Game will determine which team has home-field advantage in the World Series. Consequently, the MLB has put big restrictions in place. “We don’t want them relaying information that may change game strategy,” Bourne said. A player could, for example, tweet that one of his team’s players is sick or has a sore arm.

That may be about as exciting as All-Star tweets could get, even without restrictions. The Pro Bowl tweets tended toward blather, according to The Hollywood Reporter, which cited examples like this from Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace: “Having a great time out here with some awesome players!! Plus we get to tweet on top of that!!!!”

MLB is well aware of the importance of social media. It maintains many official league Twitter feeds, as well as 30 official team Twitter accounts. Players can pretty much use social media freely. Some, Bourne said, have done so very effectively. “We’ve seen a change in endorsements and companies looking to partner with players," he added. "They look at a variety of factors when they consider these partnerships, and if a player has strong social media reach, they become more attractive.”

While the restrictions during the All-Star Game may make player tweets largely innocuous, the sheer volume of fan activity on Twitter, combined with some interaction with players, is part of a bigger strategy: Meet the fans where they are. Then see what works and what doesn’t. “There’s anecdotal information and research that when something catches fire on Twitter it drives people to watch,” Bourne says. “We could be talking to people already watching and who are chatting in real time, or something interesting could pique the curiosity of someone not watching. It’s the first time that we’ve done this, so we have to just see what happens.”