Athletes Made Super Famous by Social Media

Laura Depta@lauradeptaFeatured ColumnistApril 16, 2015

Athletes Made Super Famous by Social Media

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Tim Tebow became a sports sensation thanks in large part to social media and the Internet in general. Social media has only really blown up in the last few years—Twitter wasn’t even founded until 2006. However, since that time, many athletes have benefited from the added exposure social media brings.

    Let’s take a look at a few athletes whose fame has been significantly enhanced by the Interwebs. This is not to say they wouldn't be famous without social media, but they would probably enjoy a lesser degree of overall notoriety. The Internet even made some of them into cult heroes.

    Whose fame has been the most inflated? Let’s find out.

Floyd Mayweather

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    Floyd Mayweather is a tough one here, because he has definitely earned accolades in the ring. He’s never lost a professional bout, but boxing has also seen a drastic decline in popularity over the last decade.

    Still, Mayweather’s social media presence has significantly increased the attention he gets. His Instagram is flooded with photos illustrating his lavish spending habits, and his friendships with celebrities generate significant buzz. Without the Internet and social media, it's hard to say how famous he would be outside niche boxing circles. 

Nick Young

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Nick Young isn’t exactly an NBA susperstar, despite what he might say. What he is, however, is more than a little cocky. Young is certainly a good basketball player, but he has become way more famous for his off-court antics and their infiltration of social media.

    Young is dating rapper Iggy Azalea, has a nickname of bizarre origins and may or may not have survived a dolphin attack. Young recently made headlines, not for basketball, but for defending his girlfriend on social media against an ESPN reporter.

Danica Patrick

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    Richard Drew/Associated Press

    Danica Patrick is famous for being a female in a male-dominated sport. She has five top-10 finishes in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and she has also built an impressive brand through her work as a spokesperson and model.

    Patrick has over 1 million Twitter followers, and her social media prowess has proven to be an effective marketing tool. In 2013, marketing company Synthesio listed her as the top celebrity endorser in terms of how her social media activity helps promote brands.

    Patrick is certainly a positive female role model in sports. However, without the age of the Internet, her celebrity status might not have attained such staggering heights.

Richard Sherman

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    OK—that one interview is what really made Richard Sherman famous to those unfamiliar with NFL goings-on. However, if it weren’t for the Internet, that interview would not have gone viral, and Sherman’s rising web star would’ve faded away.

    Instead, the interview spawned an interest in Sherman’s thoughts and opinions, which he regularly shares via social media. He also uses Twitter as a platform for his famous trash-talking and has engaged in such beef with Darrelle Revis and Patrick Peterson.

Kris Humphries

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    Evan Agostini/Associated Press

    The Kardashians are reality TV and Internet sensations. Kim alone has over 30 million Twitter followers. That’s probably why Kris Humphries' fame skyrocketed when he married her.

    The NBA forward's association with the Kardashian clan made him a household name, more so than his basketball career ever had (or has since). The duo’s marriage lasted for a hot second, but their drawn-out divorce proceedings were major pop culture juice for months.

    Before the dawn of social media, Kim Kardashian wouldn’t be nearly as famous as she is, and her husband-for-a-minute definitely wouldn’t be.

Chad Johnson

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    Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    Chad Johnson made plenty of headlines before social media was big, but he was also one of the first athletes to really take advantage of what that world has to offer. He’s super active on Twitter and has over 3.5 million followers. He was once named the most influential athlete on social media by, a company that measures such things.

    His social media activity allows Johnson to connect with fans and stay relevant even as his football career dwindles.

Lolo Jones

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    Jordan Strauss/Associated Press

    Lolo Jones is one of the more popular female athletes in America today despite the absence of a coveted Olympic medal. She was a standout hurdler in college and won back-to-back World Indoor titles in the 60-meter hurdles. However, she failed to medal at both the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics. Jones even tried her hand at bobsledding in 2014 but barely missed the podium yet again.

    Still, Jones has done a great job of building her image. She is active on social media, and recently her headlines have been more about Twitter than the track. For instance, she blasted Fifty Shades of Grey and managed to offend both Drake and Rihanna with one tweet.

    Without the Interwebs fueling her continued notoriety, Jones might be just another Olympic superstar who never was.

Brian Scalabrine

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Brian Scalabrine is a former NBA role player who had a solid career but never averaged more than 19 minutes per game. He’s now working for Comcast SportsNet in Boston, a move which he announced while light-heartedly mocking LeBron James.

    Scalabrine, aka the “White Mamba” is an Internet sensation—way more famous than his NBA career dictates he should be. He’s well-known for his hilarious sense of humor, and he’s been the subject of many an Internet meme. Without social media, Scalabrine’s gift of laughter may have reached far fewer people over the course of his NBA career.

Manti Te’o

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    Joe Raymond/Associated Press

    Manti Te'o gained recognition as a star linebacker at the University of Notre Dame, and he even finished second in the Heisman voting in 2012. That said, his biggest claim to fame won’t be his college prowess or his subsequent NFL career. No, it will be “The Hoax.”

    In January 2013, Deadspin published the complicated tale of Te’o’s fake girlfriend. Long story short, he had been "dating" a woman who didn’t actually exist for some time before she tragically "died" of leukemia. It was unclear what Te'o knew and when he knew it, and the whole thing was pretty much just a bizarre mess. 

    The Internet floodgates opened after the Deadspin story, and Te’o became a household name for all the wrong reasons.

Johnny Manziel

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Johnny Manziel is a Heisman Trophy winner, but he’s amounted to next to nothing in the NFL so far. He’s all over the Internet not because of his on-field success, but rather for his off-field antics.

    Whether he is partying, hanging out with celebrities or, more recently, doing a stint in rehab, Johnny Football has the attention of the masses. Anytime something happens in his world, large or small, football-related or not, people pay attention. A lot of the time, it has been Manziel himself putting the stories out there via his own social media. 

Tim Tebow

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Tim Tebow was an excellent college quarterback. He won a Heisman Trophy and two national championships at the University of Florida.

    That said, his fame blew up to an enormous degree while his professional career simultaneously floundered. Tebow only started 16 games from 2010-12, yet for some reason, the nation was enthralled with the polite and soft-spoken Florida native.

    Some wanted to see him succeed; others called him overrated and longed for the days when his face would no longer splash across sports media sites daily. His signature kneel became a pop-culture phenomenon known as "Tebowing," and his jersey actually led the NFL in sales at one point.

    Without the Internet, there's no way a mediocre NFL quarterback would've inspired his own "mania."

Jeremy Lin

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Jeremy Lin is definitely a good basketball player, but the insane Internet hype that was "Linsanity" in 2012 was way out of proportion.

    Lin signed with the New York Knicks in December 2011 and had an immediate and unexpected impact. A virtual unknown, Lin racked up at least 20 points and seven assists in each of his first five starts with the Knicks. Fans saw him as a possible savior in New York and a true underdog. Lin was undrafted out of Harvard, and his rags-to-riches tale even inspired its own documentary.

    The hype died down as Lin's impact fizzled, and he eventually signed with the Houston Rockets.


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