Social Media and Sports: A Winning Combination?

Don’t look now, but Facebook and the playbook, and Twitter and the designated hitter, may have more in common than you think. In other words, social media is affecting the business of sports and sports journalism. To what degree is sports impacted by the emergence of social media? This question is difficult to answer completely because the concept of social media in sports is evolving and there has not yet been time devoted to conduct comprehensive research with definitive results. This theme was mentioned in several of the articles I researched and reaffirmed in an email I received from Jimmy Sanderson, a professor at Clemson University and author of Its’ a Whole New Ballgame: How Social Media is Changing Sports.

This post briefly covers social media’s role by stakeholder: Teams, Fans, Media, and Athletes and Coaches.

One thing that is clear is that social media has a large presence. Anyone involved in any kind of communication, media, public relations, or broadcasting activities related to sports has to be at a minimum, a consumer or follower of social media. In relation to sports, while social media does not totally level the playing field (pun intended) for all participants in sports culture (athletes, coaches, team or club owners, sponsors, reporters, and fans), it does provide a platform for more communication, casting a much wider net than what has been heretofore very segmented. Historically, the press has been the vehicle the teams, athletes and owners used to communicate with fans and others. Now, teams can communicate directly to fans through their websites, blogs, and social media platforms. The postings both on Twitter and Facebook generally are in the form of in-game updates, player transactions, and press release summaries. Some teams have set up Twitter sites for their mascots. Bernie Brewer and the Phillie Phanatic of Major League Baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers and Philadelphia Phillies respectively, have their own Twitter sites.

Cubs v Brewers, June 29, 2007Sanderson writes “People are highly invested in sports and as a result, fandom is an important social identity component. Additionally, children are socialized into sports at very young ages, and sports media has exponentially multiplied and is now available on demand from numerous outlets.” Before social media, fans of teams could only express themselves positively via applauding, cheering, purchasing merchandise, or perhaps by displaying banners with positive messages. Their only recourse for negative expression was public booing or jeering of athletes during a sporting event or writing negative letters to the editor. Social media provides more platforms for fans to interact and get involved in more intimate ways. Martin Renzhofer of The Salt Lake Tribune believes that baseball and social media are a natural mix because the pace of a baseball game engenders conversation among fans. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter provide new ways to conduct these conversations.

Sports Media
Major sports media (the press) still exist and actually are thriving due in part to social media. The major journalistic institutions publish blogs, post to Facebook, tweet on Twitter, etc. Newspaper reporters and radio and television sportscasters routinely use social media tools to augment their output and engage with their readers, listeners and viewers and occasionally with athletes. A recent look at the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday Sports section caught my attention – displayed as a byline for each of the paper’s reporters and columnists was his or her email address and Twitter handle. Fans are being encouraged to contribute and interact. Posts from traditional newspaper organizations generally are teases to get the reader to link to the full story. They also retweet posts from their own columnists and reporters who have separate Twiiter sites. Broadcast networks like ESPN routinely cite tweets and Facebook posts as sources for their stories.

A trend in sports media is to participate in multi-platforms. Radio and television professionals maintain online presence as well via social media. Like print journalists, Twitter seems to be the preferred platform. One such individual in this category is Mike Greenberg, half of the popular Mike and Mike duo who broadcast weekday mornings on ESPN Radio to a national audience. On the air, Greenberg constantly mentions his Twitter site and activity. He is a prolific tweeter and his material is generally light-hearted (his Twitter page description is “The world’s foremost authority on all matters…”). He tweets about upcoming sporting events or popular sports stories. He also uses the platform for self-promotion. He announces his public appearances, book signings, etc. This is the point where those who cover sports enhance their celebrity, a trend that I find off-putting. Also, like most “celebrities,” he has many more followers (nearly 400,000) than those he chooses to follow (less than 100).

Athletes and Coaches
Professional athletes who historically have relied on the traditional press channels to get their messages published or broadcast, often filtered by agents or PR staff, currently can interact and engage with sports writers and fans via social media. Whether Facebook messages or tweets are actually being posted by the athletes themselves may be debatable as some certainly have staff that perform these tasks for them, fans believe they play a larger role in the consumption of sporting events. The simple act of an average fan “liking” a post from an athlete may give the fan a sense of familiarity.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANot surprisingly, social media use is very popular among the younger generation of athletes. Over the past decade or so, major college sports has become big business and social media has and will continue to increase its popularity. A convention of college sports information directors in June 2012 conducted sessions on social media topics including:

  • What is – and is not – working today in athletic social media
  • Making sure stakeholders are getting content from you that they cannot get elsewhere
  • How to best engage and listen to your audience
  • The best use of your athletic staff manpower to manage social media
  • Writing sports stories in the digital age
  • Privacy, transparency, fake accounts, and other issues for students and coaches

Coaches and players at some schools use social media to recruit other student-athletes. Other schools forbid their players from using social media during the season. Dr. Kevin White, the athletic director at Duke University, believes that social media can play a role in getting some coaches fired. Whether this is true or not, one can not deny that powerful fan online campaigns can put unwanted pressure on university officials, should the situation dictate it.

I believe social media can be generally good for sports. I think when the divide between sports stories and news stories disappears, e.g., the Boston Marathon tragedy, Jason Collins’ coming out, the Oscar Pistorius pending murder trial, the Manti Te’o hoax, and the Penn State University pedophile scandal, the information communicated via social media needs to be more closely scrutinized for veracity and accuracy. I plan for my next blog post to explore this angle further.


One thought on “Social Media and Sports: A Winning Combination?

  1. Pingback: How Do the Top Nonprofits Use Social Media? | WRD 525

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