News Column

Twitter Gives Fans a Glimpse Into Athletes' Personalities

Oct. 24, 2012

Mark Emmons

twitter

Mike McKenna thought one of his favorite players might want to know just how hard his 5-year-old son was pulling for the Giants. So earlier this week, before Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, he sent a tweet to relief pitcher Sergio Romo.

"@SergioRomo54 Little guy wore his #SFGiants shirt to school today. Told him it was dirty. He said 'not dirty, LUCKY'"

Romo promptly re-tweeted the cute story to his 50,000 followers on Twitter.

"It's just really cool when you can tweet an athlete to give him a little boost and he acknowledges you," said McKenna, of Santa Rosa. "It's like we're all in this together."

The Bay Area has come down with a bad case of Giants Fever with the boys in orange-and-black once again in the World Series, and nowhere is the temperature higher than on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. But as the social media phenomenon continues to evolve, it's also changing the way fans and athletes interact.

Athletes aren't just yapping from a distance at news conferences and after-the-game interviews, they're talking directly to the fans and even encouraging fans to speak up. And when they retweet the fans, as Romo did for McKenna, it's the modern-day equivalent of an autograph.

"Fans feel like they're right there in the middle of the conversation," said Harry Edwards, a Cal professor emeritus of sociology who consults with the NFL and NBA. "It's great because it brings more people into the

arena. People who never have been in the locker room or on the field now feel like they are right there standing in the tunnel with the players."

Social media and sports were made for each other because die-hard fans tend to be obsessive and want to know every scrap of information about their stars. By "following" athletes on Twitter, fans are getting a glimpse into their personalities.

Or put another way, it's like sitting at a restaurant and overhearing a discussion at the next table.

"Only your favorite cornerback is sitting at that table," said Jonathan Taplin, director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at USC.

Now, Joe Fan can lean over to chime in with his own two cents.

"These are new kinds of relationships that never existed before," Taplin said. "It used to be that you would go to the ballpark and if you were close enough to the dugout, you might get a ball signed. Now with social media, you have these rare kinds of personal interactions."

Twitter -- with its real-time messages of 140 characters or less -- is popular among athletes because they can communicate directly to the public without that pesky media filter.

Chris Wondolowski, the Earthquakes soccer standout who grew up in Danville, has used Twitter to converse with fans about his support of the Raiders, Giants and A's.

"The technology gives fans a look at what we're thinking," he said. ". . . People really are learning about you and different aspects to your life."

Brian Solis, a principal at the San Mateo-based research advisory firm Altimeter Group, has studied how the explosion of social media has altered the dynamics between celebrities and the public.

"It really has equalized the relationship between sports star and fandom," said Solis, author of the book "The End of Business as Usual." "Fans really have come to expect this kind of contact with their idols."

Of course, fans don't always really know who is tapping out those tweets. It could be an athlete's publicist. But Giants catcher Buster Posey, who doesn't tweet very often, appears to make a pretty clear distinction between when someone else on "Team Buster" is tweeting and when it's a message from him -- end with the tag line "Buster."

But like any form of communication, there also can be a downside.

A's pitcher Brandon McCarthy is an immensely entertaining tweeter who likes to engage his 92,000-plus followers. But this week he sent out a tweet that he was unhappy to find himself on fund-raising mailing list for President Obama -- seemingly a comment about the money involved in campaigns, not a political statement -- and it set off a brief food fight between the player and a couple of followers.

"You were much more interesting to follow when I didn't know your politics," one tweeted.

"You still don't," McCarthy responded.

You could feel the chill in the Twitter-verse.

That's why Edwards, who works closely with the 49ers, says many professional teams don't want their athletes involved with social media. It can be a minefield and you never know when a tweet might go "boom!" His advice to athletes: Think before tapping "send."

"The 49ers want guys to interact with fans," he said. "But they want them to be smart because when you put something out there, it's out there forever. It could end up in your obituary. But it's important that fans can feel like they can talk to an athlete and say, 'Maybe it was a tough day at the office for you guys Sunday, but you'll get 'em next week.'"

And maybe have them respond: Thanks.

Giants fan McKenna believes Twitter gives him a better understanding of the players. It's why, he said, he's come to like Romo and pitcher Jeremy Affeldt even more.

"They seem like real good people who don't just care about baseball," he said.



Source: (c)2012 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.


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