Social media in sports means personal connections, and big business

By Molly Fletcher

For the AJC

To see the transformational change in our world due to social media, look no further than the impact of tweets and such on athletics and the power of the fan.

In the past, the fan’s interaction with an athlete was a one-way experience. The fan would visit the team website to view the latest news about the player, get to see the player at staged events, or hear about their favorite athletes from the perspective of a sports writer. The relationship could be described as “at arms length” and non-transparent.

Now due to social media, there is an instantaneous connection, one where the veil of secrecy has been lifted and the team, the inner workings of the locker room and the athletes life are transparent and more “real” to the fan.

This is creating a new paradigm of fan/celebrity relationships that make the fan feel more connected to the celebrity as if they are actual “friends” (even though only virtually). Athletes that have adopted this “transparent” relationship with their fan base through authentic posts make their brand more marketable to teams, sponsors, and potential endorsement opportunities. This has shifted an immense amount of power directly to the athlete as they become their own media property.

Personal brand building or brand damage?

Social media provides a powerful platform for connecting with fans, but reckless use can be damaging. Every tweet, post, photo and video makes a statement of personal views – which will be taken seriously if it jeopardizes the integrity of a team or sponsor. Take Michael Phelps for instance.

Stream of consciousness postings on social networks can – and often will – get athletes in trouble. So interactions have to contain some thought about consequences. Athletes not only have to think about what they say, they also have to think about where and when they say it.

Leagues like the NFL, the NBA and even the SEC are demanding it. A simple misstep can mean a hefty fine – ranging anywhere from $7,500 to $25,000. In the NFL, new rules prohibit tweeting 90 minutes before and after games, and applies to players, their representatives, coaches, team personnel, and officials.

It’s a fear of losing control that is driving organizations to restrict what gets said in a social media space. Media outlets are also clamping down.

ESPN contracts analysts and athletes as their on-air broadcast talent and prohibits them from discussing sports stories via social media. The celebrity needs to remain disciplined and have a plan and a few guidelines in place for how they will conduct their communications.

How savvy celebrities are using social media as a personal brand-building strategy

A fully integrated social media strategy by use of multiple platforms such as Facebook (official and unofficial fan pages), MySpace, Twitter, YouTube (where you have your own YouTube channel) is a rarity in the sports world, even if the benefits to that athlete’s brand are so obvious. However, this integrated message takes time, discipline and work on the part of the athlete (really minutes a day if they are savvy), so most shy away from it or hand it over to a PR firm to “handle” their social media. The fans see right through this.

Let’s use Lance Armstrong as an example.

He is one of the most dedicated social media users across multiple platforms. On any given day, he will post a tweet about his ride route, where fans show up and ride with him. From that event fans will post videos of the ride on his YouTube channel and comments on his Facebook page. The connection his fans feel with him due to such relatively simple yet authentic gestures makes him one of the most popular on Web 2.0.

Some athletes may ask how posting a tweet or a message on Facebook matters. Tweet Lance Armstrong that question and he’ll tell you it has landed him a number of new endorsements where he can pair hungry fans with hungry retailers. All due to social media. Savvy celebrities see socially connected fan bases as currency that pays dividends -- and will continue to do so long after they left the playing field.

Molly Fletcher is a longtime Atlanta-based sports agent and executive.