Was the World Wrestling Federation the first “sport” to embrace social media?   Were they the first sports organization to leverage social media in smart, strategic ways to grow the popularity of its’ brand and of its’ athletes?

I consider ’95 to be the first year of the Digital (internet) Sports Revolution.  That was the year that many of the sports internet sites and league sites launched.  So, as we approach the 20th anniversary next year, it made me think back to the early days of AOL Sports.  I started at AOL Sports in the Spring ’95 in a business development / account management role (thanks to Randy Dean and Anne Levy).

At that time, our business model was straightforward.  AOL members paid $9.95 a month for 10 hours of usage and then an additional $2.95 per hour of usage.  Our content partners, which were called “information providers,” were paid a revenue share, somewhere in the 10 – 20% range of the total monthly usage in their specific area.  So, our task was to create content that the members would like and would keep coming back to use on a regular basis.

Our Sports team had a number of other business development folks at AOL scoff at us for signing the WWF (before they changed to WWE) to a content deal.  But, in hindsight, it was a brilliant deal and partnership.  Why?  Because this was before the internet took off — at the time, WWE fans could not find their content in traditional media, re newspapers (NY Times, USA Today); radio; print (Sports Illustrated); broadcast TV (only found on cable), etc.   So, what we ended up doing is proving the WWE fans 24 x 7 access to their favorite stars — not just the wrestlers, but also the managers.

Our leaders at AOL, Steve Case and Ted Leonsis, used to stress to us the power of “community.”  And that’s what our AOL Sports did in helping create an enormously popular WWE content area on AOL Sports.   We used the community tools and integrated it with WWE content.   Our “Grandstand” message boards were in a fact a pre-cursor to the now popular Sports blog sites; AOL Instant Messenger was the pre-cursor to Twitter; fans loved to email and receive photos of their favorite wrestlers and managers (Instagram); we also created short videos of the wrestlers (Vine); we leveraged the NTN trivia machine to create a wildly popular WWE Trivia Game; we also instituted polling so members could vote on their favorites.

The other phenomenon were the chat rooms on AOL Sports — we would watch the chat rooms start to fill up and explode every day after 3pm.  Why?  Because kids were getting home from school and going to the chat rooms to talk about their favorite heroes.  And, across the whole service, we had “AOL Live,” where members could ask questions and interact with world-famous celebrities.  Trust me – we had many famous athletes from the glamour sports do AOL Live Chats but none of them came close the numbers generated when a WWE wrestler would do a live chat.  It was incredible to witness.

Btw, when I mention managers, the one that stands out is Sunny.  She quickly became very popular with AOL members – and her photos made her the most downloadable female celebrity on AOL in that first year.

This WWE on AOL was also a great example of how an online presence and its active community (now labeled social media) drove people to watch the WWE shows on the cable networks — helping them become the most popular and watched shows on basic cable in the mid to late 90’s.  That’s a powerful example of cross-promotion.

So, as we approach the 20th anniversary of Digital Sports – and as I think back to Year 1 of AOL Sports, the WWE on AOL Sports clearly stands out as a great success story — and the first sport to thoroughly embrace the popular community tools – which are now called Social Media.  So, perhaps the WWE was the first sport to fully embrace social media and help its grow immensely in popularity.  It will be interesting to follow how they continue to leverage social media – especially since they now have their own TV network.