Are you ready for some … Tweeting?
It used to be enough to have a beer in hand and a bowl of chips in reach to watch a football game. Now it is a juggling act with drink, snacks and a smartphone.
A recent survey on sports and social media showed that 42 percent of NFL fans and more than half of college football fans (51.5 percent) are using Twitter during games. Twitter activity spikes higher after the game — 62.5 percent for the NFL, 53.1 percent for college football — as fans throw their two cents worth into the social media commentary about what they just watched.
Look for those numbers to increase. Twitter has been in operation for only five years. Facebook has been around longer and is by far the most popular social media for fans to follow and discuss their favorite teams, according to the study by Catalyst Public Relations. It is used for that purpose by 86 percent of NFL fans and 79 percent of college football fans.
It is all part of the social media revolution sweeping through football like wildfire, very rapidly changing the way the game is watched and communicated, for better or worse, by fans, players, teams, leagues and media.
All one big sports bar
Football fans gravitating to social media is in line with the trend throughout society. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed that social media is the most rapidly growing online activity, with 65 percent of Internet users interacting with sites such as Facebook and Twitter. That is up from 11 percent in 2005 and about 17 percent as recently as 2007.
Twitter, which debuted in 2006, has had a lot to do with that, and sports fans have contributed greatly to Twitter's meteoric rise. It has enabled fans to gather as if in a ubiquitous sports bar.
"[Fans] feel like they are all together. If they are tweeting with a particular hash tag for that game, they can all comment to each other. These are people who don't even know each other," said Dhiraj Murthy, assistant professor of sociology at Bowdoin College.
In an age when soaring salaries for athletes has driven a wedge between players and fans, social media has provided a counter balance. Many athletes offer glimpses of their lives and personalities through the medium, circumventing traditional media to communicate directly and interact with their fans.
"It's almost as if the athlete is in the sports bar or all the fans from the sports bar are in the locker room with that athlete. You actually feel you are in that space," said Murthy, who has a book coming out next year titled "Twitter: Social communication in the Twitter age."
Players find their voice
While social media gives players a direct voice, they can no longer hide behind the claim of being misquoted. Some have gotten themselves in more trouble with their own words on Twitter than when trusting quotes to reporters. Steelers running Rashard Mendenhall received a strong backlash with tweets critical of the killing of Osama bin Laden ("What kind of person celebrates death?") and ultimately lost a lucrative endorsement deal with Champion sports apparel because of the controversy.
In 2008, Texas center Buck Burnette was kicked off the Longhorns football team after he posted a racially charged comment about Barack Obama being elected president on his Facebook page. More recently, Auburn defensive back Jordan Spriggs got in hot water when he appeared to be soliciting impermissible help with his homework by tweeting: "man who is good at writing papers?????????????? i pay." Response included former Auburn player Antoine Carter's tweet: "u gotta be the dumbest person in the world lol." Spriggs shut down his account.
Zeke Pike, a high school quarterback who has committed to Auburn is already stirring controversy by trash tweeting Alabama followers with remarks such as, "I can tell you're an Alabama fan cause you have no educational skills. It's FAMILY not fambly . . . Something only AU knows about."
The forum does provide players with a chance to interact with fans and show the personality inside the helmet, and a lot of it is harmless. Florida defensive end Lyden Trail became a curiosity with quirky tweets and photos on Yfrog showing him engaged in the fad of planking – posting photographs of yourself lying facedown in unusual locations.
Football's most followed and prolific tweeter is wide receiver Chad Ochocinco (@Ochocinco), who was ranked as the second-most influential personality on Twitter earlier this year by the research firm Twitalizer, trailing Brazilian comedian Rafinha Bastos. Ochocinco, who has nearly 2.6 million followers, is a master of the medium with observations that run the gamut from mundane to humorous to controversial. It will be curious to see how his act plays in New England under coach Bill Belichick, who said recently: "I don't Twitter, I don't MyFace, I don't YearBook."
Dolphins running back Reggie Bush (@reggie_Bush) is second in the NFL with about 1.9 million followers, but a lot of that interest grew during his relationship with Kim Kardashian. More entertaining is Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (@larryfitzgerald). A team-by-team list of NFL players on Twitter, as well as former players, can be found at Tweeting-athletes.com, or visit Listorious.com/NFLplayersfans/nfl-players#
Mum's the word with some coaches
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier recently joined the ranks of social media scrooges when he banned his players from Twitter. "Well, we have some dumb, immature players that put crap on their Twitter, and we don't need that," Spurrier said when he made the announcement in an interview with ESPNU Campus Connection. He pointed out there had been posts containing racial, sexual and vulgar references.
Randy Shannon pulled the plug on the Miami Hurricanes last season following a tough loss against Ohio State "to limit distractions and help them focus." A few days later quarterback Jacory Harris revealed that he had been the target of some racially insensitive tweets after he threw four interceptions in that game. 'Canes players returned to Twitter after Shannon was fired in December, and new coach Al Golden hasn't interfered.
Putting a gag on social media use raises the issue of First Amendment rights, but that hasn't stopped coaches such as Spurrier, Boise State's Chris Peterson and New Mexico State's DeWayne Walker from muzzling their players. They consider it within their rights in light of the ages and often questionable judgment of college players.
Even teammates were aghast when Utah wide receiver DeVonte Christopher referred to Boise State as "Girlsie State" before the schools met in a bowl game. It showed that inflammatory bulletin board material can be produced in 140 characters.
Blowing whistle on in-game tweets
Chad Ochocinco was the primary inspiration for the NFL adopting a policy in 2009 prohibiting players from posting on social media sites during games (beginning 90 minutes before kickoff and extending until the end of the postgame interview period). Not surprisingly, the chatty receiver was the first to violate it, drawing a $25,000 fine during last year's preseason. Antonio Cromartie was the first player fined for speaking out on Twitter when the Chargers docked him $2,500 for complaining about the training camp food in 2009.
While always wary of controversy, the NFL recognizes the value of social media to its bottom line. The survey by Catalyst Public Relations showed that 40 percent of fans became more avid in support of their favorite team since they began following it via social media. And 43 percent said the advertising they see on social media affects them more than those on TV and radio.
Brian McCarthy, the NFL's vice president of corporate communications, said the league embraces social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
"It has had an effect on our entire business as it relates to driving fans to attend games, watching more games, interacting during games. ... It also helps drive their engagement with nfl.com, the NFL Network all of our different businesses," McCarthy said. "It is also a golden age for fans."
NFL all atwitter about social networking
When the NFL was considering moving the college draft to prime time and spreading it out over three days, it used Twitter to solicit input on the idea from fans. The response was immediate and positive, and provided verification to move ahead with the switch from the two-day weekend format in 2010, McCarthy said.
"It's an instant focus group in many ways where we can gather feedback from fans for some major initiatives," he said. "We see the opportunities, but we also have to be mindful of longstanding policies that serve to protect the NFL as it relates to our core values, the integrity of the game and long-term business interests."
That is why the NFL views YouTube differently than Facebook and Twitter, and draws the line at anyone posting footage of game action. That became an issue this preseason when footage of Dolphins practices apparently shot by fans showed up on YouTube, and the team took steps to prevent a recurrence.
The Dolphins do have a Facebook page with more than 800,000 followers that dispenses information about the team including Finsiders video interviews with players and coach Tony Sparano.
Tweet up some razzle dazzle — or not
Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll invited fans via Twitter to send suggestions for the first play of the exhibition season.
That it yielded a handoff that went nowhere was disappointing, but Carroll is the leading example of a coach hip to social media. He has nearly 500,000 Twitter followers @PeteCarroll. Much of that was built at USC where he was an early disciple of Facebook and Twitter. He even hired a former player and journalism student to manage the Trojans' social media sites.
Since moving to the Seahawks, Carroll has continued to use the medium to involve fans and drive interest in his team. Before the 2010 draft he invited them to engage in a guessing game about who the team would draft using song titles. It proved to be a clever smokescreen that revealed nothing, but it generated considerable playful interaction.
Recently, Carroll has been jousting on Twitter with University of Washington coach Steve Sarkisian (@CoachSark), and claimed to have hacked into the Washington athletics Twitter account. Hard to imagine such frivolous interplay when granite men like Lombadi and Shula prowled the sidelines.
NCAA puts onus on schools
The scandal that brought down coach Butch Davis at North Carolina sprang from comments and photos on Twitter that raised suspicions of players receiving improper benefits from an agent. Among the NCAA charges against the Tar Heels was the failure to "adequately and consistently monitor the social media activity" of its players.
The NCAA leaves it to schools to ensure their players avoid trouble on social media. A company called UDilligence has been assisting and capitalizing on that need since 2008. More than two dozen colleges subscribe to their service, which uses software to monitor players' posts and profiles on social media for matters pertaining to compliance (agents, boosters, etc.) as well as references to profanity, racial slurs, sexual connotations, and mentions of weapons, drugs and alcohol.
The software can detect more than 400 red-flag words. Schools pay up to $5,000 a year for the service, a bargain to avoid an NCAA investigation. The athletes must install the software, thereby agreeing to the intrusion.
With schools paying more attention to the dangers of social media in the wake of the scandals at UNC and Ohio State, another company has stepped in to assist. VarsityMonitor bills itself as full-service solution to ensure compliance with current and future NCAA expectations on social media monitoring.
New frontier for recruiting
The NCAA banned coaches from sending text messages to recruits in 2007. One reason was that unlimited texting plans were less common then, and all those coaches' texts were running up recruits' phone bills.
Since then, the NCAA has seemed like a sedan from the past century billowing a trail of blue smoke on the social media expressway. Its rules on recruiting and social media foster more confusion than clarity.
No texting? Yet, coaches can send private messages directly to recruits on Facebook and Twitter during permissible periods. They cannot, however, send public messages, or post on athletes' Facebook walls.
Last year the universities of Florida and Mississippi received slaps on the wrists with secondary NCAA violations for coaches posting on Facebook walls of recruits.
In addition, NCAA rules state: "If a coach becomes aware that a recruit has elected to receive direct messages as text messages on a mobile device, the coach must cease communicating with the recruit through the social networking site." Good luck enforcing that.
When Lane Kiffin was at Tennessee, he prematurely announced the commitment of defensive end J.C. Copeland on Twitter. That's another NCAA no-no.
A recent rule change allows coaches to double the number of telephone calls they can make to a recruit. The problem is, today's teens much prefer digital to voice communication. The Pew Internet and American Life Project determined that the average teenager sends 50 text messages a day
"One of the things I've found was basically that students don't really like using the phone in the traditional way," Bowdoin sociology professor Murthy said. "Students prefer sending an e-mail and getting a response by e-mail."
Jumping through loopholes
These days football recruiting has taken on a frontier feel, with coaches looking for fresh trails through the social media wilderness while trying to avoid running afoul of NCAA sheriffs.
They're all looking for shortcuts. An ESPN report last month said that coaches are using Skype as a loophole in the rules. It facilitates a face-to-face videoconference that counts the same as a phone call.
While the process may be confusing to coaches, it is easy to see why the NCAA may be overwhelmed trying to regulate it with countless zealous supporters of various schools using the medium to try to sway prized recruits to their favorite team. Who can really be sure of who is lurking behind all of those Facebook faces?
It all got to be too much for C.J. Johnson, a blue-chipo linebacker from Philadelphia, Miss., who announced he was shutting down his Facebook account and that he would not be attending Mississippi State because of all the comments that turned recruiting for him into "a living nightmare."
Clearly, social media is where you connect with young athletes. Among teens age 14-17, 82 percent use social networking sites, according to Pew.
One site that standout high school players are using to their advantage in shopping their talents to colleges is YouTube. There are recruiting web sites that post player highlight videos that can be viewed by recruiters, such as rivals.com, scout.com and newcomer Reelplaymakers.com.
But the advent of YouTube has in the past five years given athletes the opportunity to post their own highlight videos instantly and have them viewed by a wide audience. A dramatic example in South Florida, American Heritage-Plantation running back Sony Michel became a YouTube sensation as an eighth grader in 2009 because of a video showing him dominating varsity competition. That video has been viewed more than 60,000 times, and there are now numerous other videos of Michel showcasing his football and track skills.
Whipping up college spirit
The University of South Florida is an example of a school that has recognized the benefits of using social media to build fan support and involvement with its teams. USF launched the Horns Up! network this summer to engage fans and reward them for their support.
Devised by the social action platform Multiply, Horns Up! gives fans a chance to earn points, badges and compete for prizes. Extra credit is given to fans for connecting Horns Up! to Facebook and Twitter accounts. It will give USF a clear picture of its fan base to aid in fine-tuning marketing strategies.
Media accelerates the message
Many Gators fans learned of the hiring of Will Muschamp when Tim Tebow tweeted, "Welcome to the Gator family Coach Muschamp!" although it was preceded slightly by a report on SaturdayDownSouth.com.
When Muschamp kicked Janoris Jenkins off the team following the All-SEC cornerback's second marijuana arrest, he announced it on Twitter.
Gone are the days of reporters guarding scoops until the morning papers hit the streets. News travels like lightning now, and it can come from players, coaches or fans.
Social media has dramatically changed how the traditional media operates. At the first hint of news, it goes out on Twitter. Once the story is posted online, writers and editors promote it on Twitter and Facebook in the modern version of the newsboy screaming, "Extra, extra, read all about it."
"We are able to report with immediacy, and from the beginning of time, that's what journalism has always been about: Get out the news when it's news," said Michael Anastasi, president of the Associated Press Sports Editors. "Now it's instantaneous. It's changed the rules of the game for us, too, in terms of we have to think carefully about what we tweet. There are very few editors involved, so the responsibility has increased for reporters to make sure they are right, accurate and first."
As with athletes and coaches, the medium carries pitfalls for journalists who tweet before they think. Last year, Mike Wise of the Washington Post tweeted a bogus item about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger being suspended to make a point about how quickly an apparent news tip will be repeated without verification in the rabid social media age. It was, but the hoax cost Wise credibility and a month-long suspension.
The practice of re-tweeting can be problematic when something a journalist reposts for information value is interpreted as an endorsement of a viewpoint.
While social networking has made it possible for news to reach around the world in the click of a tweet, it has greatly complicated the business of disseminating news. It is no longer enough to report a story, it must be repackaged for various platforms, Anasatsi said.
Facebook is where young readers increasingly look for news. According to SocialMediaToday.com, Facebook now has 590 million unique visitors a month, while Twitter has 97 million. In reporting the survey, the social media authority offered this bit of perspective: "The combined daily circulation of the Wall Street Journal, USAToday, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, the New York Daily News, and the New York Post equals only 36 percent of the average daily unique visitors (19 million) of Facebook."
Another change social media has brought to sports reporting is evident in press boxes being much quieter since the Twitter craze began. No longer are writers shouting out pithy comments during games to one-up their peers. They're all too busy typing wisecracks and observations via Twitter.
Where does it go from here?
The only consensus is that social media's role in football will continue to change at the rate of a hurry-up offense. "It's this juggernaut that keeps growing and growing," Murthy said. "Just like any new communications technology — like with the telephone — uptake becomes quite rapid. And once it becomes pervasive, it's a bit of a snowball effect, so it takes over."
Already, smartphones and tablets such as iPad are pushing the personal computer in the direction of dinosaurs. According to comScore, 69.5 million people in the U.S. owned smartphones during the three months ending in February 2011, up 13 percent from the preceding three-month period. NPD Online Research found that 83 percent of smartphone owners use them to send e-mail and 76 percent for browsing online. About half are using them for social networking.
Anastasi sees opportunity there for news organizations to create apps around big games, such as Florida-Florida State, or each game of the NFL team they cover. For a small fee, football fans could upload the app to get all the stories, stats, photos and video reports about the game.
"I would think it would be something people would want and be willing to pay for. We live in a culture where people are more than willing to pay 99 cents for a single song," Anastasi said.
McCarthy said the NFL is exploring ways to use new technologies to enhance the game experience for fans. Last season Dolphins owner Stephen Ross introduced FanVision, enabling fans to watch the game they are attending and several others on a 4-inch high-definition screen. Initial success was modest as only 11 other teams agreed to make the gadgets available in their stadiums. The Patriots countered with Yinzcam, a smartphone app offered free to those in their club seats and suites for the same purpose as FanVision without having to carry an extra device.
"Anyone who tells you what is going to happen in the next few years [with social media technologies] is probably lying," McCarthy said. "It's more about trying to guess what is going to happen in the next few months."