Two weeks ago in this very space, I wrote some predictions for what 2010's sports social media landscape may bring. Today, we'll look back on some of the winners and losers of 2009, why some things succeeded during the Twitter boom of this year, and why others fell flat.
Does it make sense to look behind after one looks ahead? Isn't it supposed to be the other way around? Yeah, I think I messed this one up. Whoops.
Sports fans won in two ways this year. First, for those who seek a closer connection to athletes, Twitter's rise put them in direct contact with numerous sports figures. Sure, Twitter's setup doesn't exactly lend itself to personal, strong-tie relationships with one's idols. But an athlete directly corresponding with random fans from all over the world on a daily basis was unheard of before Twitter's explosion this year, and it's more than enough for most fans to get even a one- or two-word reply from an athlete.
And oftentimes, we saw social media lead to athletes relating to fans in a more personal manner. Ustream.tv made it possible for athletes to show their face on a live video feed in a hotel room on the road, or in the privacy of their own bedroom, and take questions from fans in real time. That's intimate exposure. Add in former Suns center Shaquille O'Neal broadcasting on his Twitter account that he's at a restaurant in Phoenix and fans popping by to see him or Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade calling your phone number directly for a chat, and the weak-tie relationships forged online suddenly become a bit stronger.
Second, fans were able to connect with each other in real time, and for some, it's revolutionized how they watch televised sports. No longer do you have to sit and watch a game by yourself and be void of an outlet for all the things you're thinking, you can drop them on Twitter with ease, and interact with countless fans watching the same game and reacting along with you. Where once it was just the fan and TV, it's now the fan, the TV and a phone or laptop.
Yes, the first-person voice of the Web often leads to too many opinions and too much noise and leads to thousands of people complaining in the public realm.
Is a mountain of complaints about Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler throwing yet another pick really adding anything to the conversation? No. But there's nothing like connecting with like-minded -- or, I suppose, opposite-minded individuals -- as action is unfolding before your eyes. Twitter has given an outlet to the instant, quick, gut reaction thought. Comment sections in niche blogs covering specific teams are still a place to find game chatter, and ESPN.com, for example, offers the opportunity to comment and converse fan-to-fan or fan-to-analyst on a daily basis. But Twitter has opened up conversation in a new way.
Plenty of athletes have elevated their profile in both positive and negative ways through social media this year, but it's hard to top Shaq. He's been more quiet in the latter half of the year, but Shaq reached out his hand to fans via Twitter by giving out free tickets to a Suns game if you came up and touched him at a mall, and a move like this made him one of the first -- if not the first -- athlete to take Twitter and make it a far more personal, interesting experience. And it led to at least another endorsement for him, one added benefit athletes could stand to gain from putting out their voice in the social media landscape.
Shaq's Twitter exploits expanded our perception of him: that he's funny, he's cool, he's personable. He still leads all athletes in followers, with a whopping 2,704,795 as of early Wednesday, and is the 11th-most followed account on all of Twitter, according to Twitterholic.com. He's the big man with an even bigger heart, even if there's been evidence to lead us in the opposite direction, what with his feuding with Kobe Bryant in L.A., and him stealing Steve Nash's TV idea out from under him.
Leagues and teams
Not only have leagues and teams been able to expand their brands and reach through social media, but the likes of the NBA and NFL have also created policies to control their athletes' use of social media in and around game time. This serves two purposes: It makes sure players aren't messing around on their cell phones in the locker room at halftime anymore or on the bench, when they should be focusing on the task at hand: the game. The NFL and NBA were wise to jump on a policy before things really got out of hand, and Chad Ochocinco was tweeting from the huddle. (Though, it should be noted no electronic communication devices were allowed on the sidelines previous to the NFL's further refined social media policy.)
Second, it controls the message, and allows traditional news gathering sources and TV networks to do their job during games, instead of potentially handing news items and quick injury updates over to players' Twitter accounts, which keeps everyone happy.
Honorable mentions: College coaches using social media as a recruiting tool. Players and coaches controlling the message about rumors and breaking news surrounding them. Sports consumers finding out about things instantly, and information coming to them, instead of having to seek it out themselves.
As newspapers around the country continue to fold and cut staff, and some once-proud magazines have crumbled in this weak economy, traditional, mainstream media is hurting in part because of the Web and social media.
Print circulation numbers are sinking, and online advertising rates for some local sites simply aren't high enough to justify the same payrolls and expenses. And with countless blogs repackaging newspaper reporting, putting their own spin on it and linking it out to the masses with social media, the originating sources might be undercut in the process. Add in the citizen journalism aspect of social media and blogs, and traditional media is now, in many ways, competing with the very people who are also its consumers.
We're in the midst of an adjustment period for how news is disseminated and consumed, and no one is quite sure where everything is headed. But one thing is for sure: The Web has affected usage of traditional print media.
Over the summer, Stephon Marbury took to his Ustream account, and documented his every move. It succeeded in bringing us into his world, but it was also a world we could have done without. As Marbury continued to broadcast himself to the world and continued the same racket for days on end, it evolved into a sad, peculiar social experiment. And it likely didn't help him gain favor from any teams that were entertaining the idea of signing him before this NBA season. He's currently out of the league.
I applaud Marbury for being one of the few athletes to have the camera on him for an extended period of time and for more than just a question and answer session. But where Wade gave us some structure and entertainment in his Ustream marathon, Marbury gave us long lulls where he threw his cousins or friends in front of the camera, or disappeared with nothing but an empty room on the screen.
There's a threshold here, and Marbury clearly crossed it.
Athletes who ran afoul
For all the praise Twitter and social media garnered for giving athletes their own platform to speak on their own terms, there was also a bit of danger in that. Because there's not a microphone stuck in a guy's face, or he didn't have a PR team work on a statement before it was sent out to the media, and because it's easy to forget when you're responding to one person on Twitter, your public account can be read by anyone, some athletes were a bit more loose-lipped than they'd otherwise be in a more traditional setting.
And that oftentimes got them into a teensy bit of trouble. Heck, Larry Johnson's Twitter account essentially got him cut from the Kansas City Chiefs.
And even if athletes' tweets were on the level, if they came during the wrong time frame, no matter if a friend or automated service was doing the updating on the account, a fine could happen if a league's social media policy was broken, as we've seen in the NBA so far this season.
There's plenty of good, but say the wrong thing, or say something at the wrong time, and it's yet another arena where an athlete can run into some trouble and be scrutinized.
Honorable mentions: Coaches who picked up a secondary recruiting violation on Twitter. Athletes who claimed their Twitter accounts were hacked.
Ryan Corazza is a freelance writer and Web designer based in Chicago.