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NFL insiders: Why we hate the NFL’s social media rules

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

Three weeks into the football season, the NFL put into effect a new social media policy for its 32 teams. The policy was met with widespread complaints and controversy, and the frustration has only grown since then, multiple sources at NFL teams tell Yahoo Finance.

The new rules threaten teams with hefty fines for posting “in-game” video footage (clips, GIFs, Vines) to their social media accounts before the league has first shared the clips to an internal server from which the teams’ social media folks pull content.

To explain further: When the Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant makes an incredible catch, the Cowboys cannot put video of the play on the team’s official Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook account until the NFL has made the clip available on its server.

The NFL has spun the change as a good thing for the teams: “The overall policy is evolving to allow teams to do much more than before,” NFL social media chief Tom Brady (no, not the player) told Yahoo Finance in October.

But two different people, who each head up social media for an NFL team, speaking to Yahoo Finance on condition of anonymity, say that the new policy limits what teams can do, rather than expands it. They say the league often takes too long to post a certain clip (which defeats the in-the-moment spirit of social media), or doesn’t post a certain clip at all. They complain that the league’s definition of the “in-game window,” which extends to an hour after a game has ended, is especially frustrating.

What changed about the NFL’s social media policy for teams

It’s important to note that the league limiting what can be posted while a game is airing is not new, and limiting the total number of clips a team can share per week is not new. What is new about the policy this season is that it explicitly cracks down on violations with a threat of up to $100,000 for posting in-game video footage independent of the league.

No team has been fined under the new policy yet, but many have been warned for violations, sources say.

On paper, one team social media manager says, the new policy does look better than the old one. The problem? “No team cared about the old policy, no one followed it, the limits were broken on everything and we got to do what we want,” he says. “Now they have these fines, so it’s more restrictive and threatening. We can’t provide the same level of access and content as we have provided in the past, and fans are going to wonder why that happened.”

The NFL says it’s unlikely it will miss any big moments, and says the reason it caps the volume of content teams can post is to keep quality high. “If we allowed the clubs, and ourselves, to put every single bit out there,” Brady says, “there could end up being a lot of noise.”

One of the two social media managers responds, “The league says they never miss a viral moment. Yes they do. And if they don’t put up a certain clip, we can request it, but I don’t have that time. During the game, I’m doing a million things, I can’t send an email request with the description and the exact time in the game that a moment happened. It’s all very insulting.”

Part of this fight is about access. At primetime games, the league typically sends a social media person (who works for the league, not a team) to shoot footage for Snapchat and other platforms. Social media managers for the teams say that the situation forces them to clash with these people. (They emphasize that they don’t blame the people.) “I don’t want to view the league as our rivals, I really don’t,” says one of the sources. “But truthfully, when their people come to our game, it is competitive and I view them as an antagonist, and that’s because of the league’s approach.”

This fight is also about creative decisions over what type of content is worthy of sharing. It goes beyond the action that happen on the field. “There’s so many moments I capture that the league never captures and has no interest in capturing, because it’s very specific to [our team],” says one social media manager. “I can shoot something in the crowd that the cameras wouldn’t be fixated on. I can be behind the bench in a place the cameras aren’t, because I have team access. I’m in the locker room and the gym with the players, because they trust me. When they come to my camera, I can get something different than the league camera gets. And I’ve always provided that to fans right away. Now I can’t.”

Critics say that what it all comes down to is a tug-of-war between the NFL and the NFL’s 32 teams over the nature of a fan.

Fans of an NFL team, or fans of the NFL?

Teams, understandably, want to grow the social media following of their team, and cater to fans of their team. The league, and commissioner Roger Goodell, wants the public attention to be on the league, and wants viewers to be fans of the whole NFL. (The rise of fantasy football has helped with that, leading many to watch games that they otherwise might not care about.)

The teams cannot post footage to their own web site until four hours after a game. “They’ve cannibalized the team sites in favor of the league site,” says one social media manager. “The NFL wants fans to go to NFL.com.”

Comments to Yahoo Finance from a source at the NFL league offices confirm this view. “I can relate to the criticisms that the teams have of the league,” says the source. “But I think what the teams have a hard time recognizing is that it’s bigger than them. Last season, the limits didn’t exist, but there was still a policy, and there were six to eight teams that broke the rule all the time, and of course those teams got the biggest on social. From a business perspective, that cheapens the value of our digital rights.”

ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt saw some hypocrisy in this, saying in a recent television segment: “You’re watching the game, you’re on your phone, something happens and you want to see the Vine or whatever, and they ban teams from doing it. And it’s preposterous and people have called them out on it… I don’t know who they listen to about this policy. I think they just sit around amongst themselves and go, ‘Ah, we should just—don’t let them do it—yeah.’”

Whack-a-mole with sports blogs

There’s another, separate group that the NFL’s social media policy affects: outside media. While the league can crack down on what its teams can do, media outlets that cover football continue to post video content to their social media feeds, though they do it in varying volumes. When a media outlet shares a GIF or video clip during a game, they are taking a risk: they may receive a takedown notice from Twitter on behalf of the NFL. But the NFL cannot and does not try to catch all of these offenders. It can only play what copyright law professor Ann Bartow describes as a game of whack-a-mole.

The result: teams are frustrated that sports blogs get to share clips they cannot, and reap the viral benefit. “It comes up on every single call,” says one team’s social media manager. “People ask, ‘How will you enforce this,’ and they say, ‘Oh, our legal team pays close attention.’ Well, it never happens, they don’t really enforce. We’re going to be minutes behind, and on social media that kills you.”

The conflict over social media policing is an internal fight that most football fans may not have even noticed. But it is heating up, approaching a boil, and it might soon become an external, public problem for the NFL, which has seen a significant drop in its television ratings this year.

The league did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But don’t be surprised if the policy changes yet again: the NFL reevaluates its social media rules every six months.

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite. Sportsbook is our recurring sports business video series.

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