Earlier this week I was watching ESPN’s Sportcenter Live when producers of the show interrupted the program with a breaking news report. Minutes earlier, Tiger Woods, the world’s most famous athlete, used his website to post a public apology to his wife and kids and combat the rumors that were rapidly spreading about his private life. With the stroke of a keyboard Tiger used his website to, at least momentarily, reframe the press coverage about his recent troubles.
ESPN was not the only news outlet that immediately reported on the statement. Several other major news media organizations ran front page stories on their websites, too. What really caught my eye was the fact that each of the stories in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times used one source for their initial reporting–Tiger Woods.
After observing how Team Tiger was able to spin the news reporting I began to think about how social media is transforming the culture of sports. A few weeks ago I had an interesting conversation with Eddie Matz, senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Eddie’s writing a piece on professional athletes use of social media platforms like Twitter.
Shortly before my chat with Eddie former Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson found himself in serious trouble and, eventually (albeit briefly), out of a job after he used a gay slur in a Twitter post. The firestorm that confronted Johnson was yet another reminder of how the sportsworld, like virtually every other institution in America, has been forced to grapple with the spread of social media. As a generation of athletes accustomed to social media and the “always on” norms of digital media culture enter pro sports the executives of billion dollars sports franchises have been forced to upgrade their knowledge about social media. In many NFL training camps this summer several teams instituted a no-social media policy out of fear that team secrets, strategy, and practices could be openly shared. In September the NFL established a formal policy regarding the use social media by players.
Eddie asked me what I thought about the use of social media by pro athletes. We talked about several things but here are six ways in which social media is changing the business and culture of professional sports.
1. Personal branding. A number of athletes use social media as a self-promotional tool, a way to package themselves for fans. With social media platforms like blogs, microblogs, social network sites, photo sharing sites, and video streaming who needs a multi-million dollar marketing campaign from Nike or McDonald’s? Many athletes use social media to announce public appearances—a direct appeal to fans that is social, casual, and personal. In a rising number of instances players even use social media to ask fans to vote for them in all-star balloting campaigns. Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes is using Twitter and Facebook to ask fans to vote him into the Pro Bowl. Think of social media in this instance as “me media.”
2. Lifestreaming. One of the most revolutionary aspects of the digital media landscape is that we are no longer merely consumers of media content but producers of media content, too. Online destinations like YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook tap into the voyeur in all of us. This particular aspect of social media reflects a generational ethos that blurs the line between the private and the public self. Young people today have very different notions of privacy and it is clear that they like watching each other. This is as much environmental as it is cultural. The constant presence of cameras–the ones we own as well as surveillance devices—suggests that we are constantly being watched and constantly performing. This is part of the appeal of reality TV, a genre that has turned watching people in their homes, at work, and elsewhere into a spectator sport. The hour-by-hour status updates posted by some athletes resembles production of their very own celebreality show. On any given day you can follow Lance Armstrong as he bikes, eats, and makes public appearances. Who needs VH-1, MTV, or FOX when you can create and stream your own life through the explosion of social media channels?
3. Intimacy with fans. One of the reoccurring complaints about sports over the last ten to fifteen years is that the gentrification of the sports landscape—the luxurious facilities, food, services, and amenities has made it near impossible for the average family to attend games. As a result, the distance between pro sports and fans has grown wider. Likewise, as their salaries have scaled to unprecedented heights professional athletes have entered a whole new class that creates a great disconnect between them and the fans that cheer for them. Enter social media. A number of athletes are using social media as a way to connect with fans on a more personal level. Baltimore Ravens’ standout linebacker Ray Lewis invites fans to enter the “Meet Ray Lewis” contest via Twitter. Chad Ochocinco posts updates about arriving for the team plane or what its like to prepare for a tough rival. Much to the chagrin of coaches and team owners athletes are inviting fans into places like the locker room, team meetings, and on board chartered flights. Social media in instances like these takes the mantra made famous in the sports biz by legendary television producer Roone Arledge, “up close and personal,” to new heights.
4. Civic engagement. Athletes use social media to promote the various social causes and philanthropic efforts they join. Social media in this arena is a civic tool. Lance Armstrong uses Twitter to update his 2 million-plus followers about cancer related news and medical discoveries. In preparation for the launch of his annual Shaq-A-Clause “Toys-for-Tots “ drive Shaquille O’Neal invited his 2 million plus followers to make donations to their local toy store. We tend to think of social media strictly as “me media” but pro athletes, like many others, embrace these tools as “we media,” too. In efforts like these the power of celebrity and social media converge for some worthwhile results.
5. Empowerment. Throughout most of the 20th century management ruled pro athletes with an iron fist. The control of pro athlete’s—what they say, what they do, what they wear—is still a source of great tension. Starting with the social and political upheaval of the 1960s athletes grew more defiant, outspoken, and empowered as they waged war against a system that treated them like property rather than partners. Not surprisingly some athletes are using social media to express their dissatisfaction with the control culture of sports. This past summer the San Diego Chargers fined Antonio Cromartie $2,500 for a tweet that attributed part of the team’s poor performance to the bad food served at training camp. Cromartie explained later that he was speaking out about health and nutrition. After the fine Cromartie proclaimed that his right to free speech had been violated. Ochocinco is constantly defying NFL executives. After the league fined him a hefty $20,000 for pretending to bribe a game official with a $1 bill Ochocinco used Twitter to fight back. “Wait till you see what I do in Pittsburgh,” the receiver said in a Tweet. “Remember I set aside fine fund before the season started. I’m just starting!!!” For some athletes social media will certainly feel like a source of freedom and empowerment, a means to say what they want and not be muted.
6. Me-Journalism. Pro athletes commonly complain that sports reporters often bend their words, take comments out of context, and practice what they consider unfair press coverage. Today, social media gives them something that they have never had before—a tool to tell their own stories and directly challenge what they perceive as bias reporting. In his book The Breaks of the Game, the late David Halberstam discusses what he calls a cultural and generational clash between pro athletes and the reporters who write about them. Over the years this clash has intensified. Some athletes refuse to talk with reporters, a move that likely contributes to even more unfavorable coverage and animosity. I’ve never understood why athletes like Terrell Owens fight with reporters—the power of the pen is mighty. It was a battle that until now athletes were never fully equipped to fight. But social media gives them a platform to speak without fear of misquote and misrepresentation. When the BALCO scandal began to break Barry Bonds avoided reporters and chose, instead, to use his website for public comment. And though their public images and “Q-scores” (likability) can not be more opposite Tiger’s use of his website to offer a public comment about his personal transgressions parallels Bonds’ decision to avoid the press and make a statement through social media.
The digital world is a busy and constantly changing world. As a new generation of athletes outfitted with all the tech tools available step into the arena the sportsworld promises to be busy and constantly changing, too.