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Twitter craze is rapidly changing the face of sports

Stewart Cink is a nice golfer -- ranked 29th in the world, a member of the 2008 Ryder Cup-winning U.S. team -- and one of the most affable, accessible guys on the PGA Tour. But the 17th flagstick at Sawgrass has more star power than the laid-back Atlantan. So why does a digital version of Arnie's Army, 280,000 strong and surging, follow Cink's musings on Twitter? Perhaps they are riveted by the revelations that he recently forgot the departure time of a flight, got lost driving around Jacksonville Beach and -- brace yourself -- refilled his allergy medication. Even Cink is bemused. "I'm honored," he said of the size of his audience. "I respect and am grateful to everybody choosing to listen to the b.s. that I've put on Twitter."

Such b.s. is booming. From Serena Williams (recent tweet: "Don't forget I love The Little Mermaid") to Shawn Johnson ("Just finished up setting the record for the World's Largest Bed Jump hahaha"), Bruce Bowen ("Just met TD Jakes, I read many of his books") to Barry Zito ("I can't think of one good reason why the Denver airport's in friggin West Kansas"), jocks are atwitter about Twitter.

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. Pete Carroll, John Calipari, and Charlie Weis -- screen name "NDHFC" -- are among the big names with Twitter pages (somehow, it's hard to imagine Weis' former boss, Bill Belichick, huddled in his hoodie, tweeting away secrets from the film-room).

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: "Boomer Esiason sighting here at NFL quarters." Whoopee. What's more relevant is that on draft day, the Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets both scooped Roger Goodell by announcing their first-round picks on Twitter before the commish called their names from the podium. According to trackingtwitter.com, the NBA, which claims more than 600,000 followers, has a greater Twitter audience than all brand accounts besides Whole Foods and online shoe retailer Zappos. "Our favorite feed," the site said of the NBA, which sits comfortably ahead of Starbucks in the Twitter top 25. "Great mix of content."

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 Kati Jo Spisak announced during an April game against the Boston Breakers (relax, soccer dads, she's the backup. Spisak wasn't scoping out the bar while shots sailed past her). At the WNBA draft in late April, players tweeted their reactions seconds after being selected. The league has also started a weekly series in which players answer real-time questions from fans on Twitter. Here, a cash-conscious league can engage its fans without paying a penny.

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 Dara Torres because they allow us to see that she's human, whether she's talking about the greasy onion rings she's eating or her butt-kicking workouts," said Jen King, a 45-year-old crisis-hotline worker from Pekin, Ill., who follows the ageless Olympic swimmer and tireless Twitterer. A sample tweet from Torres: "Guy just moved all my bags in overhead, just moved them back... WTF???"

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 Edward Hirt, who has studied fan behavior. "I'm part of a posse." Sure, I may be just one of Torres' 2,200 Twitter followers. She may never correspond with me directly. But I can at least tell my friends and acquaintances about Dara's zany experiences, since Twitter offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of her life. Knowing that some guy was a jerk to Torres on a plane might delight people, and in turn, make me feel a bit better about myself."

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. Dwight Howard, suspended for Game 6 of the Orlando-Philadelphia series because he threw an elbow at Sixer Samuel Dalembert, tweeted during the Magic's series-clinching victory. Third-grade English teachers, avert your eyes. Here are two of his messages: "lets cheer my boys on goo magic" and "im soo proud man. yall have no clue."

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 Steven Jackson, one of football's prolific tweeters. Talk to any athlete or coach about the benefits of Twitter, and they'll put message control at the top of the list. "In this world we live in now, everybody becomes media," said Shaquille O'Neal, whose enormous following of more than 1 million has fueled Twitter fever in sports. "If something is going to be said, hey, it's coming from me, it's coming from my phone." Journalists may lament athletes passing over the middle men. But honestly, what's more interesting, a "we gave 110 percent" from the postgame podium, or a tweet like this from Shaq: "Dam manny ramirez, come on man Agggggggggh, agggggggh, agggggh."

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 Charlie Villanueva, who almost sparked Armageddon by tweeting from the locker room at halftime earlier this year, asked followers for restaurant recommendations in Indianapolis. Responses flooded his phone. After agonizing deliberations, Villanueva chose ... Hooters. "The food was great," he says. The waitresses? "They were hot."

These tips don't always yield such bliss. Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love, after finishing a physical therapy session in Los Angeles, tweeted about spotting two NBA players in a nail salon. Respecting their right to pedicure privacy, Love hid the identities of the players. A few followers, however, encouraged him to touch up his cuticles. "People were like, 'you know, there's nothing wrong with a man taking care of himself,'" Love said. He decided to give the mani-pedi a shot, but when Love walked out of the salon after the softening, the cameras from TMZ, the celebrity gossip outfit, were waiting to give him hell. "Yeah, my followers basically got me busted," Love said.

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 Les Miles, who has more than 4,500 Twitter followers. "If we can reach some people who know the prospect or is across the street from a great fan, it creates a conversation that spills into their lives, and makes LSU closer to them." Also see:Andy Staples on how the Twitter craze is catching on among copycat college football coaches

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 Tom Crean, who insists he needs Twitter to create a buzz about his rebuilding efforts. "When you're dealing with this volume of technology, this volume of people, you're going to make a mistake now and then. I'm very cognizant of it, but that's not to say we're not going to make a mistake. I know it won't be willingly."

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 Tony La Russa filed suit against the social networking site claiming an unauthorized page using his name damaged his reputation and caused emotional distress. The lawsuit includes a screen shot of a tweet from April 19 that said, "Lost 2 out of 3, but we made it out of Chicago without one drunk driving incident or dead pitcher."

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 Lance Armstrong tweet, from early May: "Just landed in Venice. Never been here. Can't wait to experience it." Inspiring. Lance, we know you love three things in life: bikes, beers, and babes. Not one fan will think any less of Livestrong, or of your sicko work ethic, if you give us a real tweet: "Drinkin' a Peroni in Piazza San Marco, that brunette snapping pigeon pics ... BELLA!" (He may be catching on though: on Friday morning, Armstrong announced the birth of his son, Max, on Twitter.)

For an example of intriguing communication, Lance should check out the page Minnesota Lynx forward Candace Wiggins, who tweeted this: "Omg. Rodney King came over to my uncle's house again. He lives down the street. Wow." Omg indeed. Jackson is also a talented Tweeter. Here's an entry from one Saturday in May: "Movie day. .. just finished watching paid n full. Now I'm going to watch Rent." Really, Rent? An NFL star is into artsy musicals? That's a nice insight into Jackson's personality: No day like today, buddy. However, Timberwolves guard Rashad McCants, over Twitter, told Jackson that Rent was a song and dance act. Jackson followed up with: "@Rashadmccants7 what up homie? It's a musical? Awh man." Keep an open mind, Steven. Those tunes are quite catchy.

Many athletes don't see Twitter's appeal. "I'd rather be playing with my kids," said Baltimore Orioles infielder-DH Ty Wigginton, who proudly points out that he's never thumbed LOL. For other athletes, it's a privacy issue. "I don't think I want to tell people everything I do all day," said Philadelphia Eagles middle linebacker Omar Gaihter. "It's just invasive. It's like you're on a reality show, and you have a camera following you around all day, every day."

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 Pat Summit, a 1,000-game winner. "Talk. A big part of being a team is getting to know each other and tuned into each other instead of tuned out." And at the end of the day, shouldn't players be spending more time focused on their jobs and less tweeting about manicures? "One guy has told me less twittering, more jump shots," Love said. "Less getting your nails done, more jump shots."

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 David Stern, a surprising comment since he leads the most Twitter-happy league in sports. But Stern is betting sports will benefit from the inevitable pullback. The thought: right now, everyone is shadowing each other on Twitter. Friends, acquaintances, annoying co-workers and distant relatives all have access to each other's daily tasks. But you'll soon get sick of knowing breakfast habits of the high school classmate you last saw in 1993. You'll ignore the state of your neighbor's lawn. We'll soon remind ourselves that the every day tasks of average people are as compelling as a stale piece of carrot cake. Twitter's technology will stick, but the audience will be more selective. "At some point, you will see people going back to old reliable friends, the sports leagues and players that they know," Stern argued.

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 Steve Spagnolo, addressed Twitter in team meetings. They did not demand players stay off the site, or limit their tweets. The Rams just asked them to keep sensitive information off Twitter. Think about that for a second. A spitfire NFL coach had to lecture his players, among the most macho, muscular, and ferocious athletes on the planet, about something called "Twitter." Hear that thumping sound below you? That's Lombardi knocking his head against the grave.

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.

Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME magazine.

Also See:Best Tweeters by Sport:NBA | NFL | MLB | Olympics | Best of RestGallery:Greatest Moments in Sports Twitter historyTime.com Cover Story:How Twitter is changing our lives

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