Social Media

Athletes keep in touch with Fans by Twittering

Danica Patrick got her hair done and had some yummy quinoa and shrimp for dinner on Tuesday. Shaquille O'Neal watched the Spike TV television show "Pros vs. Joes.'' And Indiana Pacer Troy Murphy signed up for summer school at NYU.

Though not everyone is convinced we need to know this, we can thank sports image consultant Kathleen Hessert for the fact that we do. Known in the social media world as the woman who taught Shaq how to tweet, Hessert quietly launched a sports marketing revolution on the morning of Nov. 18. That's when O'Neal tapped out his first Twitter: "This is the real SHAQUILLE O'NEAL.''

Six months later, O'Neal has more than a million followers on "The_Real_Shaq,'' and everyone else in the sporting world seems to be rushing to jump on the Twitterwagon. Dana Torres is on it. Lance Armstrong is on it. Terry Francona is on it. In New York, Nick Swisher is on it, Mark Sanchez is on it and Nate Robinson is on it, though he has never sent a tweet.

"Twitter is something you ignore at your own peril,'' said Hessert, the president of the Charlotte-based Sports Media Challenge. "Athletes, teams and leagues are nuts not to explore it. They risk becoming irrelevant, especially to young people.''

For the uninitiated, Twitter is simply a micro-blogging tool that asks users to answer the question: "What are you doing?'' in 140 characters or less. It then sends that post out to anyone who has signed up to follow you.

Though Twitter has been around since 2006, in the six months since O'Neal joined, Twitter use has exploded, going from something used mostly by techies to something that reaches the mainstream. had 17 million U.S. visitors in April, according to data collected by comScore. That's an 83 percent gain versus March and a 3,000 percent gain from a year ago.

Ben Malcolmson, who introduced Southern California football coach Pete Carroll to Twitter, said one of its main appeals is that it's something that can be tried with very little investment and no middle man.

"It's not like it costs anything or takes up a lot of time,'' said Malcolmson, who is the online media director for the school's athletic department. "It's really a great way to communicate directly with our fans and keep them a part of things.''

Carroll, who has tweeted live from a Bruce Springsteen concert and held a long campaign to get Will Ferrell on Twitter, is one of the most popular college coaches on Twitter, along with new Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari. In fact, college coaches - whose livelihood depends on reaching a young audience - seem to be joining in droves.

The NCAA, which incidentally has its own account on Twitter, has been taking notice. It has forbidden coaches to comment on recruits, though they are allowed to send a direct tweet like an e-mail. Last week, University of Tennessee self-reported a minor recruiting violation when football coach Lane Kiffin tweeted, "I was so excited to hear that J.C. Copeland committed to play for the Vols today!''

When it comes to professional sports, the NBA has the biggest presence on Twitter, though there is a varying degree of commitment depending on the team.

Shaq's Phoenix Suns have become the go-to team in professional sports when it comes to learning about tweeting. The Suns have 15 employees who tweet. Among the ranks are three players - O'Neal, Steve Nash and Jason Richardson - and coach Alvin Gentry, all of whom regularly tweet about regular things.

Gentry's most recent post dealt with getting his makeup put on at the NBA draft lottery show; Richardson tweeted that he was going to Las Vegas for Memorial Day Weekend.

O'Neal, however, is the gold standard when it comes to athletes who tweet. He regularly holds games of Twitter tag, in which he Twitters to let fans know where he is - whether it be the Ritz Carleton, a diner or a mall - and then offers a pair of tickets for the first one to touch him.

Like all technology, Twitter does have its glitches, the biggest being that it is possible for someone to pretend to be someone else. That happened recently when someone claiming to be DeMarcus Ware tweeted that he was "getting close'' on contract negotiations with the Dallas Cowboys. After that "news'' was reported on several media sites, the real Ware sent a text message to a reporter saying the tweeter was an imposter.

An imposter also was indirectly responsible for O'Neal becoming a tweeter. Someone pretending to be O'Neal was drawing a lot of attention on Twitter.

"Shaq's people wanted to get attorneys on it,'' Hessert said. "I thought a better idea was to just get Shaq on there and let him be his larger-than-life self, and the other Shaq would become inconsequential.''

So what's next with athletes who Twitter? Those who want to find out might want to follow Patrick today in the Indianapolis 500.

Two weeks ago, Patrick became the first athlete to launch a Twitter page with a sponsor, Tissot watches. Though Patrick has yet to mention her sponsor in a tweet, you can bet she will - in 140 words or less.

About The Author: Barbara Barker writes for Newsday, and she Twitters, too:

Source: Newsday * May 24, 2009  *

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