Twitter craze is rapidly changing the face of sports
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In fact, the entire sports world is obsessed with the microblogging tool, through which users update their web audience with frequent messages of 140 characters or less. For example college coaches, who can showcase their programs to web-savvy prospects and their parents, are copycatting each other onto Twitter.
The tool is scoring for the pro leagues too. All the majors -- the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, NASCAR -- shoot their followers useful information like scores, schedules, and highlight clips, and inane chatter like this, from the NFL's Twitter page: "
For niche leagues, Twitter provides a powerful marketing tool. Women's Professional Soccer, America's second stab at a female pro league, is counting on Twitter to build a base. The league even encourages players to tweet during games. "Beer garden lookin a little full tonight," Washington Freedom goalkeeper
Why are all these fans flocking to Twitter for a sports fix? Sure, it's a useful app for absorbing information. But a million other sites also fill that need. The occasional prospect might follow a college coach for insight into his personality. Very few of us, however, are pushing 280 and mauling the quarterback for the State U. What's more pertinent, Twitter satisfies fans' thirst for a closer connection to big-time athletes, many of whom are overpackaged and overmanaged in their quest for marketing cash. There's also the way Twitter, which has become the fastest-growing major Web site in the U.S., peels back the curtain on an athlete's existence, showcasing personality layers never seen at press conferences. When athletes share details of their most mundane tasks, joys and frustrations, fans are fascinated. Hey, look, that guy on TV is just like me!
"I love getting my tweets from
Psychologists note that sports permit people to "bask in reflected glory." In other words, I associate with a winner, so I'm a winner. Twitter tightens this bond, even if it's imagined. "It's not really personal, but it feels kind of personal," said Indiana psychology professor
There are good reasons for athletes to love the Twitter connection as well, not the least of which is the opportunity for no-contact contact. Why get mobbed at the mall when you can charm thousands with a quick tweet from the comfort of your eighth bedroom? And, thanks to the 140-character limit, posts take much less energy-consuming thought than blogs, where readers expect a modicum of literacy. Misspellings and mysterious grammar are accepted tenets of Twitterese.
Another attraction: Twitter lets athletes speak on their own terms. "It's going to be useful during the season, because after a game, I'll be able to say my piece instead of just allowing different media outlets to portray me how they want to portray me," said St. Louis Rams running back
Twitter is two-way talk, which has perks. No, Serena Williams probably won't read your stroke -- or conditioning -- tips. But when Cink mentioned that his iPod got soaked in a rainstorm, Twitter pals offered a remedy: Put the device in a bag of rice, which sucks the moisture out of the hard drive. iPod saved. Jackson solicited opinions about which suits to buy for the upcoming season, though in this case his followers weren't much help. "Hell, no," said the Rams running back, when asked if Twitter feedback impacted his sartorial selections. Torres exchanges parenting ideas with other moms. Milwaukee Bucks forward
These tips don't always yield such bliss. Minnesota Timberwolves forward
Twitter has the potential to cause more serious trouble in college sports. Coaches are creating accounts with an eye toward increasing a program's visibility, and ultimately connecting with prospects. "It's a recruiting tool, it's fan-base enhancement," said LSU football coach
Coaches must tiptoe through a minefield: the NCAA prohibits them from posting messages about a specific player, just like they can't woo a recruit through more traditional media outlets, like newspapers and television. "It's a lot of navigating," said Indiana basketball coach
Unlike his good friend Crean, who convinced him to tweet in the first place, new Kentucky coach John Calipari refuses to call Twitter a recruiting tool. "Would you stop," said Calipari, who has quickly amassed more than 140,000 Twitter followers. "Please. They did a study that said most people on Twitter are between 35 and 45. On my page, it may be a bit younger, but I'd still imagine it's in the 30s. I'm creating good will here, because people here are getting to know me, versus someone else telling them who I am."
Nielsen Online, in fact, did report that the majority of Twitter.com visitors fall into the 35-49 demographic, though the site appeals to the younger crowd, too. Still, Calipari said he'd be "stunned" if more than a miniscule number of his followers were teenage basketball players dreaming of a Kentucky scholarship. When he tweeted "I'm on the baseline front row" from Cleveland Cavaliers playoff game, and "talked to LeBron" after, it didn't cross his mind that a prospect would be dazzled? "No," he said.
Calipari is quite sensitive about the issue. "You can't equate everything I say to recruiting," he tweeted May 14. "Open up your minds a little bit and let's have some fun with this." Regardless of Calipari's motives for tweeting, the technology changes the recruiting game. How far will coaches push the Twitter rules, which the NCAA admits are still evolving? Sure, a coach can't tweet about a player, or even announce that he's driving to a specific high school to watch a game. But he may send coded messages to kids. For instance, Crean could tweet: "was in French Lick last night -- wow, that town has a shooter." Technically, such Twitter messages may be clean, though they clearly violate the spirit of the rules. How coy will certain coaches be? Also, a coach may send a harmless response to an anonymous Twitter follower. What if that person turns out to be a recruited athlete? Is the coach in hot water? Bottom line: NCAA officials better start monitoring Twitter, because that's where the next scandals are incubating.
Pro coaches are not immune to Twitter controversy, either. Last month, Cardinals manager
Whether you're a college coach pumping your program, or a player thumbing away just for fun, let Shaq offer a simple tip for making the All-Twitter team: "Never be boring," he said. Unfortunately, a simple sweep of athletetweets.com, a site that collects jock and coach missives from the Twittersphere, shows that some people defy the Big Tweeter's wisdom. Take a
For an example of intriguing communication, Lance should check out the page Minnesota Lynx forward
Many athletes don't see Twitter's appeal. "I'd rather be playing with my kids," said Baltimore Orioles infielder-DH
Coaches worry that manic 140-character conversation can numb team chemistry. "Our players will be texting each other, even though they're riding the same bus," said Tennessee women's basketball coach
Will we ever get Twittered-out? A warning sign is already out there: according to Nielsen Online, Twitter's audience retention rate, or the percentage of a given month's users who come back the following month, is just 40 percent. "I believe we will ultimately have Twitter fatigue," said
If Stern is right -- and history has shown he has a keen feel for tech trends -- Twitter will change athlete/fan interaction forever. Teams are already grappling with Twitter's momentum. For example, at their mini-camp a few weeks ago, the Rams media relations staff, and new head coach
Does Twitter distract jocks from their day jobs? Athletic Twitterers emphasize that posts take 30 seconds at most to write. "If someone wants to say I had a bad game because I use Twitter too much, that's a ridiculous reach," Jackson said. Cink has already heard such whispers, though he dismisses any suggestion Twitter is messing with his swing. "It's had no effect on golf at all," insists Cink, who, coming off a career year in '08, has struggled on the Tour while flourishing on Twitter. He missed the 54-hole cut at the Players Championship. "I stink. Literally and figuratively," he tweeted.
Even if he never gets his game back, Cink is one Twitter addict who has left a mark. There's a reason that, despite his test-pattern Q-rating, Cink has almost 300,000 followers. If anything, the web is a democracy, and savvy users vote for the best stuff out there. Cink's page provides an ideal mix of golf insight (strategies, swing tips, a view of the 17th hole of Sawgrass from the drop area), humor ("Too bad you weren't on the redeye with me back from Vegas. Guy puking in bag across isle."), and the banality that fascinates fans ("Waiting for the rain to clear out. Hoping to hit bike trail with dogs this afternoon").
Cink also converses with individual members of his Twitter crowd, which helps them feel like they are a part of his world. Hopefully, other athletes will follow Cink's example. "It's like the only legacy I have," he said. "One day, on my gravestone it's going to say, STEWART CINK, TWITTER PIONEER OF PGA TOUR. AND ALSO, PLAYER." As epithets go, it could be worse. It's under 140 characters, too.