Sir Alex thinks it's a waste of time but Rio disagrees… how Twitter conquered sport
21:32 GMT, 1 July 2012
We have tweeted our way through a World Cup and Euro 2012 and, in 25 days’ time, we will experience the inaugural ‘Twitter Olympics’.
At a time when some athletes operate on a financial plane so alien to most, their stream of 140-character messages make them seem more accessible than ever.
Like it or not, Twitter has taken a powerful hold on sport: it’s the way many of us watch, listen, cover, read about and debate it. Sir Alex Ferguson may consider it a ‘waste of time’, but its influence has become impossible to ignore.
Main men: Lewis Hamilton and Rio Ferdinand are both avid tweeters
Fernando Torres’ goal for Chelsea at the Nou Camp last season prompted a record 13,684 tweets per second as millions of people all over the world discussed Barcelona’s exit from the Champions League. Manchester City connected fans using the hashtag ‘#together’ as they won the Premier League title.
It feels very different to having a chat with your mates in the pub but the network is just another platform for people with similar interests. National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern calls Twitter the ‘digital water cooler’ but its novelty is that you will probably never meet most of the people with whom you are exchanging views. Some would argue this is a little bit sad — a social network that requires no social skills — but others revel in Twitter’s power to connect.
This is why England players were not banned from tweeting during Euro 2012 and the British Olympic Association have told athletes to let their ‘personality shine through’ in a set of social media guidelines for the Games. The BOA have also advised that ‘correct spelling and grammar where possible’ may not be the worst idea.
Stuart Mawhinney, senior communications manager at the FA, said: ‘Other nations were saying no social networking (during the Euros) but we wanted our players to be open, positive and engage. It might only take 10 minutes but it can touch millions of people.’
This is my life: Lance Armstrong (left) reveals all about his lunch
When the first tweet was posted in March 2006, little did we think that, six years later, we would have a former England captain giving us his instant reaction to ITV’s This Morning. But Rio Ferdinand did just that a few weeks ago.
The Manchester United defender, 33, is as likely to share his love of crunchy apples or EastEnders as his thoughts on the FA’s new blueprint for coaching with his near three million followers. Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong once tweeted about having lentil soup and salad Nicoise for his evening meal.
‘Why should we care’ is the obvious response. It plays to these high-profile athletes’ egos but their willingness to share the mundane, everyday details of their lives seems to narrow the gap between them and us. They are normal, after all. You might have been on the sofa watching the Eurovision Song Contest but so was Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer.
Lewis Wiltshire, Twitter’s head of sport for the UK, said: ‘Never before have fans had such direct access to their sporting heroes. Athletes answer questions, respond to “good luck” wishes, talk to fellow players and share behind-the-scenes perspectives. Twitter helps fans get to know athletes.’
Nothing to say David Beckham has yet to take to the world of Twitter
Some, however, would prefer to keep their sporting heroes on their pedestals. Jack Wilshere had a whinge about the cost of nappies, milk and food for his son, Archie, and was immediately harangued for being ‘out of touch’. The Arsenal midfielder has since closed his account and called in police after accusations he had taken cocaine.
‘It’s a nightmare,’ said one communications expert. ‘Your clients need to have a presence on social media but you have to be very careful. Do we really want to spoil the illusion by telling people this famous sports star is popping out for a pint of milk You need to strike a balance.’
The most notable Twitter absentee is David Beckham. He has a Facebook page, which has attracted 19.4million ‘likes’, but leaves his wife, Victoria, to engage with her 3.9million Twitter followers.
Beckham has thought about joining, but lacks the time and inclination to commit to it properly. His four children and age — Victoria tweeted a picture of his cake for his 37th birthday in May — also mean he is less likely to join than, for example, Lewis Hamilton or Andy Murray, who are not fathers of four and have grown up with social media.
Yet Hamilton and Murray have ensured rocky relationships with Twitter. It can be time-consuming and distracting. Both have also encountered abuse, ranging from people accusing Murray of not ‘being British’ to sick messages about the tragedy in Dunblane, from where he hails. Murray was eight when Thomas Hamilton burst into his primary school and killed 16 children and a teacher.
Dark side: Andy Murray has suffered abuse over the Dunblane shootings
The Scot told ShortList magazine: ‘There’s a lot of negativity and people can say anything. But if they saw you the next day they wouldn’t walk up and say what they said online. I don’t understand people going on there just to slam others.’
This slamming, though, is impossible to ignore if you look at your ‘mentions’ to respond to fans’ questions. Stan Collymore regularly flags up racist abuse he receives, Everton midfielder Darron Gibson closed his account after two hours and Sportsmail’s David Lloyd had a prolonged sabbatical after getting fed up with all the expletives.
After England’s Euro 2012 exit, the FA criticised the ‘appalling and unacceptable’ abuse directed at Ashley Young and Ashley Cole. Double Olympic gold medallist Rebecca Adlington spoke of her anger and frustration at internet trolls making hurtful comments about her appearance. You can understand Beckham thinking: ‘Why should I bother’
One source said: ‘They will get heightened praise and there’s a heightened level of vitriol, neither of which are healthy. Twitter needs to do more to moderate abuse and find a way to block users permanently.’
Yet athletes continue to set up accounts. So is it just another tool to line their pockets It is not uncommon to see a wily PR girl’s enthusiastic endorsement on a client’s Twitter page. Liverpool’s feed featured birthday wishes for captain Steven Gerrard in French and Thai ‘to communicate with #LFC fans across the world’. Andrew Flintoff often uses Twitter to promote his latest TV venture.
Free speech: Mark Cavendish (right) will not be told what to tweet about
Phil Hall, chairman of PR agency PHA Media, said: ‘I think Twitter has huge commercial benefit. Look at the following some of the guys have: there’s a great opportunity for products and sponsors.’
But it’s a fine line. Plug too many products and you lose what is behind Twitter’s success: the feeling that two people, probably strangers, are speaking directly to each other. This is why 2011 BBC Sports Personality of the Year Mark Cavendish has vowed never to ‘commercialise’ his site.
‘I won’t ever let anyone tell me what to write,’ said Cavendish. ‘Everything is just me. The accessibility appealed to me. Cycling is a sport where you can touch the athletes. You’re not in an arena watching these gladiators. I got benefit from it because, with the trappings and success when you’re young, you can get a bad reputation. But Twitter takes out any middle ground. You can say what you want, when you want.’
This, however, can get you into trouble. Sponsorship deals have been lost and hundreds of thousands of pounds paid in fines as athletes have tweeted ill-advised messages in the heat of the moment. American National Football League players are banned from using social media from 90 minutes before a game until post-match interviews are complete. The instant, unfiltered nature of Twitter is an integral part of its success but could also be its downfall.
Abuse: Rebecca Adlington
One FA employee described Twitter as ‘a growing headache’. The organisation are responsible for educating the players in the national sides, particularly the youth teams, and for disciplining those who step out of line. The FA also have their own feed, which has 190,000 followers.
Mawhinney said: ‘There are a growing number of young players who are joining without really understanding its reach. Some have had to learn the hard way but there’s now a sense among players Twitter is something you need to be aware of in the same way as giving a press conference.’
Yet football managers, mindful of the risk of players revealing injuries or discussing team selection or transfers, remain resistant to its charms. ‘Twitter is dangerous,’ said Newcastle United boss Alan Pardew.
Few managers have accounts. They do not have the time, while the potential to misinterpret a view written in 140 characters is huge. There is also a generational gap — in terms of technology and the usefulness of social media — between player and coach. One footballer mentioned the freedom Twitter gives: it feels like the one area the boss cannot control.
Perhaps the test of Twitter’s power in sport will be shown if prolific contributors like Ferdinand step into management themselves. Will they still be as keen to engage Or will we have become saturated with these details of daily life, longing for the days when sportsmen and women smiled for the cameras and concentrated on what they do best: winning matches and medals #weshallsee
FIVE GREAT TWITTER STORMS
In March 2010 the West Ham striker joked that the England v Ghana friendly at Wembley was a trap set up by the Government to catch illegal immigrants. When his tweets received a furious backlash he wondered why people were being so sensitive — but later deleted them and was handed a 20,000 fine by the FA.
WHEN the striker’s move from Tottenham to Sunderland was stalling he took it upon himself to speed things along by posting a rant aimed at Spurs chairman Daniel Levy. He wrote: ‘Do I wanna go Hull City NO. Do I wanna go Stoke NO. Do I wanna go Sunderland YES. So stop ******* around Levy.’ He later apologised but got the move he wanted.
The golfer defended caddie JP Fitzgerald after he was criticised by commentator Jay Townsend, who had mocked McIlroy’s course management since taking on the bagman in 2008. McIlroy tweeted: ‘Shut up. You’re a commentator and a failed golfer, your opinion means nothing!’
Outspoken: Rory McIlroy hit out at commentator Jay Townsend
NOT one for holding his tongue, the England batsman has put out his fair share of Twitter rants. In 2010 he reacted to being dropped from the one-day squad by branding the decision a ‘**** up’. And this May the 32-year-old laid into Sky Sports pundit Nick Knight, who had questioned why KP was in the one-day side.
He wrote: ‘Can somebody please tell me how Knight has worked his way into the commentary box for Tests Ridiculous.’ The ECB fined him around 5,000 and said the comments were ‘not helpful’. Sky had just paid the ECB 260million for a four-year TV deal.
The Australia swimmer paid the price for posting a homophobic slur after Australia’s rugby union team beat South Africa in September 2010. The triple Olympic gold medallist lost her lucrative sponsorship deal with Jaguar — including a car worth 59,255 — and after severe criticism issued a tearful apology in a press conference.