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Professional Athletes on Social Media: Why Some Get Fans and Others Fines

Professional athletes can use social media to connect with fans and share their personal lives in ways they never could before. An athlete used to be a number, position, weight class or title. Now, athletes, about whom fans only knew what they read in the papers, have become so much more accessible.

Today even the laggards acknowledge that ignoring social media is no longer an option. Virtually every professional athlete has some kind of social presence. They share who their friends are, their pictures and otherwise offer a view into their personal life like never before. These social media channels offer athletes the opportunity to significantly strengthen their marketability but at the same time – if not handled with care – have the potential to seriously damage their private life, career, athletic performance and ‘personal brand’.

Lessons learned

As many athletes have found out the hard way, the impact of one ill-considered tweet on an athlete’s career can be life-changing. It’s like Spiderman said: “With great power comes great responsibility”. Lack of consideration or an aggressive rant in a split second of poor judgment can easily result in a (minor or, … more often) major incident. It seems ironic that the only way to come to grips with these ‘modern state of the art communication tools’ apparently is through the age-old concept of trail and error.

With @BL00dline3, @mcuban, @ACromartie, @ItsStephRice, @RyanBabel, @CV31, @ochocinco, @brianching, @StevieJohnson13, @Cfortson4 and @R_Mendenhall being just a few examples of athletes facing some high-profiled ‘twitter trouble’.

Others, such as Ray Edwards, Brett Favre , Greg Oden, Tony Parker, Tiger Woods, Shane Warne or, most recently, Oscar De La Hoya somehow – naively – assumed their voicemails, pictures or direct ‘sexting’ messages would remain private. The selection above represents only a tiny fraction of the athletes who got themselves in trouble by using a cell phone, PDA or other electronic communications device. All of us know mobiles can – and are – being hacked. It’s not that complicated to do. Whether their personal information got hacked, leaked, shared or sold these athletes will most certainly not be the last to be embarrassed and / or fined because of their (ab)use or underestimation of their mobile device or channel. If you’re in the public eye, its simply better to be safe than sorry.

Freedom of speech

All athletes are – and should obviously be – free to share their personal ideas and opinions. They should feel encouraged to connect with their fans and establish a strong social media profile. Fans want their athletes to be real and “uncensored.” Moreover athletes themselves seem to really LOVE twitter. As pointed out in this post on Appinions many athletes spew cliché after cliché when doing a radio, newspaper or television interviews, but once they log onto Twitter it’s an opinion free for all.

However, as @melinda_travis points out in her recent post on the Sports PR Blog, many athletes lack the necessary knowledge to turn their social engagement into a success. Others simply tend to forget who their audience is, make spelling errors, use profanity or discuss r-rated subjects. Others allow themselves to be baited or provoked by annoying or opposing fans. Some athletes release their frustrations or anger online without giving ample consideration to the consequences. Frequently athletes lack discretion or assume that their direct messages will remain private. Some athletes still underestimate the importance of their social media channels to their sponsors or believe that because they are engaging their followers in social media this allows them to sidestep traditional media all together. Why would you want to repeat the (expensive) mistakes somebody has already made before you?

What’s wrong with common sense?

Many of these considerations apply to you and me, as much as they do to professional athletes. All of us should know what is right or wrong to say. Posting content that will get you in trouble with your boss, colleagues or friends is – generally – not a good way to go. This great post by @darrenrovell points out ‘The 100 Twitter Rules To Live By’ .  Darren’s post is a great place to start. From there @TomSatkowiak compiled his insightful and really helpful ‘50 Twitter Tips for NCAA Division I Student-Athletes’. Well worth a read for athletes at any level!

Many people consider athletes brands. As such athletes are not only representing themselves, but also their school, team, club, league or sponsor(s). While some of their income is generated by their athletic skills, a lot of their money comes from being a public figure.

Only a few people fake an interest in my tweets but an athlete’s words go far beyond the scope of their followers, colleagues, friends and family. It’s exactly this public impact that catapults the consequences of an unconsidered tweet into a scandal, potentially damaging the athletes, their organization and their sponsors.

No athlete starts his social media account with the intention of doing anything that could possibly affect his, or another athlete’s, performance, like creating the wrong sort of headlines for himself, their team or league. Nevertheless the social media guidelines of the NBANFL, MLBIOC and the English Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), focus stipulating everything that is NOT allowed. The Ultimate Fighting Championship has taken a completely different approach. This league is actively counseling and coaching  their fighters on the use of social media channels and encourage  them to tweet as much as possible. UFC president @danawhite (1.5 million twitter followers) announced that fighters will receive bonuses for adding followers and writing the most creative tweets.

Follow the leaders

Other athletes are leading by example. Here’s another recent Sportsnetworker-post by Thomas Stone on the 5 most followed athletes on twitter; @tonyhawk with 2,614,278 followers, @lancearmstrong (3,041,032 followers), @Cristiano (4,021,123 followers), @shaq (4,274,104 followers) and @KAKA (no less than 5,711,014 followers)! These athletes have many people looking at their posts, add enormous value for their fans, their organization, and their sponsors, and still manage to keep it professional.

More articles on this topic:

Here’s a great post by Kaila Strong (@cliquekaila) on social media rules for athletes. This is a post by @debbierosenbaum: the IOC issues guidelines for use of social media during the London 2012 Games. Here’s a recent Socialnomics article by Dave Thomas on “Athletes dropping the ball when using social media” and here’s Fieldoo post by @JureDoler on “Athletes and social networks”.

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