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Panelists bring their A-game

Social media, fan base and NFL all on the agenda at Variety Sports Summit

The promise of social media, the perils of losing goodwill with fans and L.A.’s struggle to land an NFL franchise were among the topics discussed Thursday at the Variety/Sports Video Group’s Sports Entertainment Summit at the Sofitel Hotel.

Social media has great potential to create more engaged fans and more devoted TV viewers, said Perkins Miller, chief operating officer of Universal Sports Networks, during a sesh on new media platforms.

Miller also gave the examples of equestrian and cycling as sports that social media has brought lots more fans to his network.

Facebook exec Nick Grudin said the L.A. Lakers have more than 9 million fans on their Facebook page, but not even half that many people are in the city of Los Angeles, so it’s clear that social media has brought in fans from all over.

Social media also allows fans — and athletes — to check in at different destinations online, and then companies can know where fans are watching and who they’re watching with, and send other people to them and build more community.

People want to watch sports together, the panelists agreed, and if they can’t connect physically, they can do so online. There’s a lot of business in sharing these days, and Twitter’s Omid Ashtari said it helps to better understand the consumer.

Later in the day, Dana White, prexy of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, extolled the virtues of Twitter and its ability to help build fan bases. He was puzzled by sports leagues that impose Twitter restrictions on their athletes. “We bonus guys for tweeting!” he said, adding he’s never seen anything as powerful as social media.

Piggybacking on that topic and the subject of technology, John Collins, chief operating officer of the NHL, said the iPad experience is almost better now than traditional TV. The irony is that one of the knocks on hockey has always been the difficulty of following the sport on a TV screen, and now the screen is even smaller.

Keynote speaker Peter Guber spoke of the fragility of relationships between teams and fans. Service is the key, he underlined. Give that fan excellence at every turn — from the parking attendant to the hot dog guy to the point guard or first baseman — and you’ll maintain that bond for years.

Guber mentioned embattled Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt in this breath. McCourt, he said, did some good things at first, turning around a team owned by Fox that operated at a loss and building it back up to be profitable again. But he lost his way somewhere along the line, as Dodgers fans are only too painfully aware.

Guber advised those in the sports business to aim for the heart, not the wallet. The thinking is, if you grab their hearts, they’ll open their wallets.

The producers of the upcoming film “Moneyball” hope that baseball diehards as well as non-fans will open up their wallets in response to the pic’s broader themes of redemption and struggles against tough odds.

“There are second acts in most walks of life, and (Oakland A’s g.m.) Billy (Beane) picked up on that,” producer Michael De Luca said.

Producer Rachael Horovitz, who also worked at New Line, drew parallels between the A’s and the company during its scrappy heyday.

“New Line was like the Oakland A’s,” said Horovitz. “The day-to-day choices were always, “We don’t have a lot of money … so we have to think differently.”

Wasserman Media Group topper Casey Wasserman attributed his love of sports to the influence his grandfather, legendary MCA/Universal mogul Lew Wasserman, exerted on him when he was young. Today his company represents 1,100 athletes, and includes some of the stars of the U.S. Women’s soccer team, which lately has been great advertising for his company.

Wasserman also raised the touchy subject of Los Angeles’ lack of an NFL franchise. Across the realms of politics, the NFL, development and business, there is a “crazy large circle” of constituencies that have to be appeased before a stadium and an NFL team can happen in L.A., Wasserman noted. But, he said, right now the city has its best chance in a long time to land a team.

John Skipper, ESPN’s exec veep of content, enthused during a wide-ranging Q&A about the gains of soccer.

Women’s World Cup fever has grown with the U.S. team’s dramatic success, leaving Skipper validated for ESPN’s embrace of and approach to the sport.

“We decided we’re not going to explain the game,” Skipper said. “We’re not gonna dumb it down. We’re not gonna apologize for 0-0 ties. … The beauty of soccer is the tension of how hard it is to score and the fact that you can score (suddenly) at any time.”

Among other topics, Skipper also addressed the difficulty of launching new networks — something ESPN has been doing at a steady pace in recent years. It’s readying the launch of the Texas sports-oriented Longhorn Network.

“When people (contemplate) networks, they always forget the most fundamental thing: 8,760. That’s the number of hours in a 24-7-365 day network,” Skipper said. “People say ‘We have 110 games.’ Great — you only have (about 8,000) hours to go.”

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