What if every NFL team had a & social net & site?

There are niche social networking sites popping up everywhere. If you’re a dog lover, you can join Dogster. If you’re into saving money, you can join Deals. If you’re a football fanatic, you can join several sites out there trying to cater to the gigantic on-line universe of NFL fans. Before any one of these parasitic (sorry, opportunistic) sites gains critical mass, we believe the NFL ought to flex its muscle and get into the social networking game.

The NFL Internet Network is comprised of NFL, 32 franchise sites and a few other sites. These sites each attract significant traffic, and since they are linked together, they refer a lot of traffic back and forth as well. In fact, 40% of Colts referral traffic comes from NFL . Thanks to the NFL brand, the popularity of our teams and good URLs (like Colts), our fans know where to find us on-line. Less than 20% of our traffic comes from search engines.

While we’re working hard to be among the first in the league to offer a social networking site for our fans, we firmly believe that the Colts Social Networking site will have more value if other teams also have similar sites and if those sites are integrated in certain ways. With integration in mind we’re writing our code in such a way that other teams will be able to “copy and paste” and get their own social networks up and running relatively quickly. Eventually, we’d like to see the entire league (including NFL) running on the same social networking platform. It doesn’t have to be ours, but we’re making ours available just in case.

We’re confident that social networking will catch on partly because we already have traffic coming to our Website. We’re not building traffic from scratch. While the coming launch of My Colts Network has been the talk of the town around here lately, our current team Web site is the key to everything we’re trying to do. It aleady generates significant organic traffic (43% of all traffic to Colts comes directly from bookmarks or typing our address into address window), and it is this traffic that will give My Colts Network the chance to succeed. We’re not building on-line community from scratch, we’re adding social networking functionality to an existing critical mass of users.

All this being said, I was encouraged this morning when I read in Mashable the story of how Demand Media is approaching the social networking front.

Mashable – The short story is that DM has a radically different approach to this space than everyone else: rather than buying social startups, start off with domain names and content sites that already have significant amounts of traffic, then plug in social networking. You gotta give it to them: it’s a smart idea…

…social sites need a critical mass of users before they become useful: do people join MySpace because it’s the best social network, or because all their friends are on it already? What about YouTube, the video site that achieved critical mass through players on MySpace and blogs, among other factors? Facebook, too, built a user base around the top universities before those crucial network effects kicked in. With that in mind, what could be a better starting point than a domain that already attracts masses of traffic?

I’m getting pretty tired of talking about how great our social networking site is going to be. Ever since I opened my mouth in the media, it seems like our site development is going slower than ever. Still, we’re poised to launch the first version of My Colts Network before the end of the regular season, and have a whole slew of “snap on” applications planned for the days and weeks after Phase 1 launch. My hope is that other NFL teams will join us sooner rather than later.

If anyone out there is interested in discussing a broad, league-wide social networking strategy or “renting” our code, just drop me a line.