Twitter and Athletes: A Blissful Union

Think back to 10 years ago when the only way to connect with the athletes you idolized was via fan mail or maybe during a rushed autograph as you stood along the sidelines nagging them during warm up. We got to know them through focused press conferences, ESPN magazine, and episodes of MTV’s Cribs. There was nothing personal, or even all that interesting, about it.

But a little Twitter birdie came along and changed all of that, giving fans direct access to their favorite athletes’ funny, gracious, and at times downright ridiculous thoughts.  Now the only thing that stands between fans and their favorite athletes is the dreaded fail whale. Here’s a look at some athletes who have leveraged this opportunity to connect with their fan base and build their social media presence.

Tony Hawk. In his recently released book, How Did I Get Here? The Ascent of an Unlikely CEO, Hawk writes about what it’s like building a brand and how that has involved embracing technology and change. As one of the athletic world’s early Twitter adopters, he’s done a great job building and maintaining his personal brand online, and has acquired over 2 million followers. In early 2009, Hawk created a scavenger hunt for his loyal Twitter followers, giving them the opportunity to find hidden skateboards based on tweeted clues. Initiating creative ideas through social media is a smart way for athletes to stay in the spotlight and engage their fans.

Lance Armstrong. The famous cyclist was using Twitter before many brands had jumped on the bandwagon. When interviewed about his Twitter use, Armstrong claimed that “140 characters fits my personality well” and “brings a certain transparency to my life.” When he’s not cycling, Armstrong spends a great deal of time fighting cancer, and has been able to leverage Twitter’s ability to build grassroots movements, all while maintaining a sense a humor. And like most companies and people who are avid Tweeters, he’s experienced the downside of the social network, most notably in 2009 when he accidentally tweeted his personal email address.

Serena Williams. This tennis superstar  has the most followers of any female athlete. She tweets up to 20 times a day, something for which tennis friend Andy Roddick has made fun of her. Williams is very responsive to her fans, and a great number of tweets on her feed at any given time are @ replies. But in August she made headlines and enemies for using Twitter as a place to complain about and slam the Farmers Classic for allegedly not giving her free admission to the event after she plugged it and made an appearance for a photo op.

Chad Ochocinco Johnson. The bad boy of the tweeting athletes, Ochocinco showed his dedication to the social network by devising a clever plan to tweet from the field using hand signals to a fan, thus finding a loophole in the NFL’s ban on players tweeting before, during and after games. The NFL ultimately adjusted the language in its social media policy, but that still didn’t stop Ochocinco from tweeting during a pre-season game back in August, which cost him $25,000 in fines. When he’s not violating the NFL’s policy and participating in Twitter feuds with other players, Ochocinco engages his fans with contests and offers of free tickets to home games.

Shaquille O’Neal. My personal favorite athlete to follow on Twitter, Shaq blows all the other tweeting athletes out of the water with over 3 million followers. When he first started tweeting in 2008, fans didn’t believe it was him, but Shaq proved one lucky Twitter follower wrong by delivering a personal phone call. Shaq’s quirky sense of humor and charismatic personality is communicated nicely over Twitter. He’s called Oprah out for writing in all caps, solicited jokes from fans for a joke-off against Jimmy Kimmel, and most recently he used the social network to inform people that he would be posing as a statue in Harvard Square.

Who would you add to this list? Do you have a favorite athlete on Twitter?

Jessica Weil Social Media Analyst at advertising agency in Cambridge, MA. Loves: sharks, philosophy, horror movies. Fascinated by the quirky stuff that makes life so interesting.

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