You wouldn't think there'd be a lot of overlap between cage fighting fans and patrons of Pinkberry, the international low-fat frozen yogurt chain. Especially not a Pinkberry in Midtown Manhattan, late on a weeknight. But there they were, hundreds of members of UFC Nation, squeezed into the shop, a crowd so large it required intervention from the New York City Police Department.
The cause of this near-riot in front of the fruit parfait dispenser? Dana White, the UFC's colorful president, had fired up his Twitter account (@danawhite) and announced that he would appearing at Pinkberry and handing out a few tickets to an upcoming fight.
"That's when the power of this thing really hit home," said White. And that was in 2009, when White had only 900,000 or so followers. Today he's closing in on 1.5 million. "It's not even about 'I like it, or I don't like it.'" White said of Twitter. "As a way to connect with fans, announce s---, figure out what customers are talking about, what they're pissed off about, you NEED it."
In keeping with Twitter, long story short: this is not the digital version of Thunderstix or The Wave, a fad sure to pass. Every NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL franchise has a Twitter presence. So do roughly half of all professional athletes. Retired NBA star Shaquille O'Neal (The Big Tweet?) has more than four million followers @SHAQ. (For perspective, that's more than the daily readership of the New York Times and the viewership of the 11 p.m. SportsCenter COMBINED.) As we mark the fifth anniversary (July 15) of the company's official launch this week, it's as good a time as any to acknowledge that Twitter is a permanent part of the sports firmament.
To be sure, there are still holdouts, a diminishing demographic of sports fans who don't get Twitter, and most of them echo Katie Couric's line about microblogging: "No one gives a rat's ass whether I'm about to eat a tuna sandwich." They hear the near-daily drumbeat of athletes making ill-advised tweets and have decided this is nothing more than a bunch of guys with a shiny, new toy, using it to pop off about something better left unexpressed.
Take Milwaukee Bucks forward Charlie Villanueva @cv31), who might be the Christopher Columbus of the sports Twitter faux pas. Way back in early 2009, he tweeted during halftime of a game: "In da locker room, snuck to post my twitt. We're playing the Celtics, tie ball game at da half. Coach wants more toughness. I gotta step up." It resulted in both a fine and a league-wide ban on mid-game tweets.
Since then, Saints running back Reggie Bush @reggie_bush), White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen @ozzieguillen) and many others have been forced to apologize for 140-character musings. Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall not only drew universal condemnation but lost endorsement deals when he took to @rmendenhall to air his skepticism about 9/11, tweeting: "I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition style." Less publicized but similarly problematic: earlier this year, Tony Wroten, a Washington basketball recruit, tweeted: "just me and my 2 bros. we got a 3 person Spanish class. #Niccceeee." The tweet led to an investigation that ended with the firing of the high school's athletic director.
But we've entered a new phase, Twitter 2.0 as it were. We've moved well beyond 140-character bites and into more content-rich experiences and more practical uses. When the Chargers faced a possible television blackout last season, the team took to Twitter and sold the seats. Other teams use Twitter for everything from letting fans vote on the music played during games to holding draft parties.
During a recent game, the White Sox and Indians hosted a #hashtag battle, donating $1 for cancer research each time a fan used either #GoTribe or #GoWhiteSox. The UFC has even offered a Twitter bounty, rewarding fighters in cash for amassing the most followers. White is now using Tout, a service that enables him to send short videos, shot from his mobile, to his Twitter and Facebook masses.
This should not be a surprise. If you think about it, sports -- real-time events with undetermined outcomes and passionate followers -- is a space singularly well-suited for social media. During Super Bowl XLV there were as many as 4,064 tweets per second, a record until last month's Champions League final topped out at more than 6,000 per second.
Innumerable fans have become conditioned to the "second screen" experience, checking out their mobile feed while watching the game on television. But note how many fans at the games are on Twitter as well. Suns forward Jared Dudley @jareddudley619) foresees a day when an injured athlete will walk off the court and, via Twitter, fans will get a steaming video feed of him being treated in the locker room.
Plus, at its best, Twitter gives fans the ultimate peek behind the curtain. When golfer Rory McIlroy @mcilroyrory) chokes at the Masters, flies to Malaysia with the winner, Charl Schwartzel, and then tweets a fun photo of Schwartzel wearing the green jacket, it speaks volumes to his coolness. Buffalo receiver Stevie Johnson @steviejohnson13) could do innumerable sideline interviews and never produce a line as revealing as -- and for our money, this one after he dropped a critical touchdown pass is the all-time great sports tweet to date: "I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO..."
Likewise. when during the height of the NFL labor dispute, Colts owner Jim Irsay @JIMIRSAY) was tweeting random rock lyrics: "If I had a million dollars..I'd buy u pre-wrapped sausage, but they don't have pre-wrapped bacon! Why? I don't know! Or a green dress..." it said plenty.
For their part, athletes -- a famously gadget-happy species to begin with -- may have started by using Twitter as a toy, but now often use it as business equipment, a device for connecting with consumers, branding themselves, moving product. (Interestingly, African-Americans, disproportionately represented in pro sports, comprise twice as many Twitter users as their share of the population at large.) "It's a way of getting your voice out there, your personality across, where in the past you had other people speaking for you," said Cleveland point guard Baron Davis @barondavis), who has designs of producing a reality show over social media. "It's all you, so there's no manipulating the message."
It is also changing the athlete-sponsor relationship. Consider Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald @LarryFitzgerald, a first-team All-Twitter. When he embeds a sponsor and tweets "My Giveaway will b in about an hour. The HINTS: U might need my jersey & u might need 2 be at coldstone! Goodluck!" It's somehow more authentic than a 30-second spot.
It's was via Twitter that Tiger Woods apologized for spitting on a golf course. The UFL held its draft last May over Twitter. And, fittingly, O'Neal announced his retirement via @SHAQ, the most retweeted sports-themed tweet ever. Presaging Twitter's evolution, he embedded a video, sent photos and held a hashtag contest to come up with his next nickname, a bit of interaction that drew more than 50,000 responses within a day. Even in repose, "The Big 401(K)" will whip out his mobile device and make sure his tribe of followers is growing.