Sports Stars on Twitter: Marketing Geniuses or Massive Twits?

Rowanne Westhenry@@agirlintheshedFeatured ColumnistOctober 12, 2012

CHASKA, MN - AUGUST 11:  Ian Poulter of England uses his phone during the second preview day of the 91st PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club on August 11, 2009 in Chaska, Minnesota.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Sports stars have had some tricky times on social media sites recently.

The fluid and flexible nature of Facebook, Twitter and other such sites makes the task of governing these social media interactions very challenging.

Is it worth the effort?

Sporting clubs and stars from around the world use social media to connect with their global fan bases. FC Barcelona have over 35 million Facebook fans and over 12 million followers on Twitter across the three languages supported by the club (English, Spanish and Catalan). The club tweets information about its players, fixtures, results and statistics as well as real time game feeds, training session photographs and updates on the basketball team which is incorporated into the football club, all of which would otherwise involve a lot of Internet trawling to find.

Twitter and Facebook allow clubs to publish such information in an interactive and personal way, delivering it straight to the fans' news feeds with just the click of a "like" or "follow" button. The interactive element allows the fans to have their say on a public forum, whether it's about a match result, a potential signing or even uploading a picture of themselves doing something outrageous for their club.

One of the most important aspects of any sports team is that they have a loyal, growing fan base who feel that they are valued and will therefore stick by the club through success, failure and middling results. Social media provides the perfect opportunity for that and is being used ever more efficiently by teams around the world.

It was also used to great effect during the London 2012 Olympic Games. There was a Twitter feed started, then stopped, then restarted, to address the issue of the hundreds of empty seats within the venues. People from all around the world tweeted about the athletes' exploits and it gave competitors in the more obscure sports, such as handball and the canoe slalom, a platform to increase their followings. Team GB long jumper Greg Rutherford went from having around 5,000 Twitter followers before London 2012 to over 100,000 today.

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Twitter was instrumental in raising the profile of these sports and athletes throughout the games and allowed the sportsmen and women to give a personal perspective on all aspects of the competition, seemingly unhindered by various PR and marketing machines.

But is that always a good thing?

Ashley Cole is set to be disciplined by the FA after he took to Twitter to lambast their findings from the internal investigation into John Terry, branding them a "bunch of tw*ts."

Ryan Bertrand, Chelsea's young left back/winger has encountered a similar problem after using the f-word whilst denying that he had left the England squad because of a sore throat.

Rio Ferdinand was fined £45,000 after retweeting a comment containing a racially offensive slur, Arsenal's Jack Wilshire was given a stern warning by UEFA after joking about betting on one of his teammates, and Ryan Babel was fined £10,000 for posting a photoshopped picture of referee Howard Webb in a Manchester United shirt.

It's not just footballers either.

NFL star Rashard Mendenhall lost his sponsorship deal with Champion after tweeting a controversial theory about the 9/11 attacks, Snooker player Mark Allen was fined £1000 after ranting about the conditions in China on his Twitter feed, Welsh rugby star Jonathan Thomas was forced to apologise after making a homophobic comment, and Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks was fined $25000 by the league for using Twitter to criticise referees' performances.

These outbursts and controversies are part of the human aspect to social media that makes it such a great tool for fans to interact with their favourite sports club and athletes. Accepting that these people are human and will therefore inevitably make mistakes is not the issue; many stars have been forgiven despite their off-field misdeeds.

The problem is that the frequency of these incidents is increasing across the board and, if left unchecked, will start to damage the positive impact these communication platforms have had on clubs and sports stars around the world.

So how should these controversies be handled?

Deletion of the offending tweet after the fact makes no difference at all as it will have been seized upon and spread like a particularly nasty virus before you even begin to think that hitting the send button might not have been the brightest idea, and therein lies the big problem with social media.

It's one thing to slag off your boss/city/opponent/teammate or discuss conspiracy theories/betting odds in the pub; it's another thing entirely to do it in front of the whole Internet.

As social media platforms become part of daily life for millions of people around the globe, and people become more educated about how these sharing platforms work, these issues will gradually fade away. However, there is currently a lack of education around social media as it is constantly growing and evolving, and most sports are governed by people who grew up in an age before the Internet was available outside of the military. This presents us with a huge problem when we try to address the issues surrounding social media in sports today.

I feel that the best way to tackle this is to look at the conventional media code of conduct set either by the sports' regulatory bodies or the clubs themselves. Separate the social from the media and set the guidelines from there.

If players would be banned for swearing at a press conference, ban them for swearing on their public Twitter pages.

If a club would face sanctions for questioning refereeing decisions in an official interview, sanction them for doing it online.

Encourage players to interact with their fans, but also steer them towards having a private Twitter or Facebook account which is for them and their friends only. Most people have a work email address separate from their personal one, and are able to use them both appropriately.

There is no difference between that, and having a personal Facebook or Twitter account separate from your professional one.

That way they can get the release achieved by venting their grievances in a public forum without the whole world knowing about it, and the fans can get back to talking about what they love best: the sport.

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