Long-term Impacts of Social Media on the World of Sports: Homerun or Flyout?

The Pitch

The expansion of social media has had a massive impact on the world of sports. Instead of relying on national news websites to obtain information regarding sports teams and athletes, people are now able to login to their respective Facebook and Twitter accounts to get updates ranging from real-time game progress, to an athlete’s favorite movie. Social media has created a transparent system that allows fans to enjoy amplified engagement in the sports world; athletes to freely engage with their loyal fan-base; and athletic organizations to capitalize on essentially free marketing to reach a broader audience. But does all this have long-term potential?

The Swing

Fans are able to fully interact with the sports world through social media platforms by expressing their opinions directly to an athletic organization, or athlete, as the game happens in real time. Studies show that a majority of sports fans are on social networks while watching games, so they can weigh-in on the action. So if a fan likes or dislikes a certain play, he has the option to immediately inform the athlete or organization directly. This transparent interaction allows the fan to feel more connected to the athlete, the game, and the sport in general.

After a game, an athlete will be able to login to his Facebook or Twitter account to respond to fans, fostering a more “meaningful” athlete-fan relationship. Although some athletes might do this out of the “kindness of their hearts”, it seems more logical to assume that they do this for good PR. Whatever the incentive is, social media provides a channel for fans and athletes to share a deeper connection. In some cases, this could pay off for athletes: Tim Tebow gained popularity with the “Tebowing” meme; Jeremy Lin rode the “Linsanity” waive as long as he could; and Nick Swisher even earned a spot in an MLB All-Star Game due to support from his loyal fan base.

The Drive

Even entire athletic administrations are now capitalizing on an avenue of free marketing by using social media platforms to disseminate athletic progress. Fans simply follow the organization’s respective Twitter account to receive real-time information on individual athletes, and the team as a whole. The popularity of social media has encroached so deeply into the sports world that we are now seeing professional lacrosse players sporting their Twitter usernames on the backs of their jerseys, instead of their last names. Mississippi State even decided to repaint their football end zone to #HAILSTATE. Given that social media platforms create an avenue for free marketing, good PR, and facilitate deep connections between fans, organizations, and athletes, it might seem as if social media hit a homerun in the sports world – what more could you ask for?

The Catch

Although it might seem that the impact of social media on sports seems to only yield positive externalities, it does have vital downfalls that could cause the system to collapse. If used ignorantly, social media could be detrimental to some athletes. Social media platforms give athletes the ability to disseminate uncensored information directly to the public by allowing them to express any opinion, at any given point in time, on any subject – as an athlete myself, it is not hard to imagine that other athletes might say dumb sh*t from time to time. In fact, it actually happens a lot, to the point where athletic administrations incur costs so they can monitor their athletes’ social media use to ensure that athletes do not post anything that could potentially tarnish the athlete’s, or entire organization’s, reputation. Larry Johnson (running back for the Kansas City Chiefs) was released from his NFL contract after publically insulting his coach on Twitter after a game. Rashard Mendenhall (running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers) controversially tweeted about Osama Bin Laden’s death and 9/11, and consequently lost an endorsement deal from Champion. Chad Johnson (wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals) was fined $25,000 for merely using Twitter during a preseason game. The negativity even extends to potential college recruits losing scholarship opportunities due to inappropriate content they post on social media.

It might seem that the only downfall of social media’s impact on the sports world lies within the athletes’ ability to express their uncensored thoughts. Sure, athletic organizations are able to pay thousands of dollars to a company that could provide some censorship, but does that really solve the problem? There has been a recent drop-off in athletes using Twitter because of the negative light associated with posting something controversial – “if something has the potential to end your career, you might as well not use it at all”. It is starting to seem that the deeply driven, homerun-like baseball of social media could turn into a routine fly-out. Given the many benefits of social media on the sports world, it is hard to imagine that athletic engagement with social networks will stop completely. This then begs the question: how do you allow athletes to share a deep connection with fans on social networks, while fully restricting them from saying anything controversial? I believe solving this problem will add enough juice to turn social media’s fly-out into a homerun, and ultimately show long-term potential.







  1. This is a very interesting topic for sports fan. You touch on very relevant points. I agree that as a fan, it is amazing to be able to get information in real time, connect directly with a team or player through social media, and have access to content that we never dreamt before as fans. I believe that the problem associated with censoring athletes will not be solved easily. On the one hand, unless teams or leagues prohibit or punish certain types of behaviors explicitly through contracts, it seems unlikely that athletes will have incentives to censor themselves. But on the other hand, this would imply that the leagues and the teams are intervening directly in the private life of the players. Arguments for both sides can be made: For example a team could say that the player is representing the team he plays for and pays for his salary, therefore he should comply with certain norms. On the other hand a player could argue these are his private, social media accounts, and that we have freedom of speech.

    This is similar to what has happened with the Beats headphones in the NFL. The NFL signed a sponsorship deal with Bose, which prohibits NFL players to use other brands of headphones during the pre-game, game, and post-game among other restrictions. Beats has become so popular (becoming a brand that is much more than headphones, but also represents an identity) that the NFL players sponsored by Beats are still using them, and the brand is paying for the fines happily. By prohibiting the other brands, probably Bose hurt themselves more than what it hurt Beats. In this case the collateral damage for the NFL could be on the image of the league. It seems prohibiting things like headphones (which is very different from sanctioning against illegal drugs, violence, etc.) or social media is not going to stop players, unless the sanction is so severe that they see their careers, image, and income really affected.

    Another interesting, and shorter thing, is that many athletes are also using their social media accounts to do more sponsorship for the brands they represent. One is left wandering if at some point the authenticity of the interactions will be called into question, considering that many of the athletes are using the accounts not only to connect, but also to promote products/services.