As we celebrate ten years of Twitter, we thought we’d take a look back at some of the sporting highlights of the past decade and how they unfurled over social media. Still in its infancy, the impact of social media and technology on centuries-old sports and athletes is incredibly noticeable. Let’s take a look at the relationship between sport and Twitter.
The most tweeted about sporting events
Social media very much reflects real life and traditional media in that something that’s big news in real life receives a lot of attention over social media – just more quickly. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that football (soccer) and American football dominate Twitter in terms of volume of tweets purely because of their popularity in the biggest Twitter-using countries.
Ordinarily, the most tweeted about sporting event during any given year is the Superbowl and it takes something pretty special to top it. Other major sporting events like the Olympic games draw vast amounts of Twitter activity although it is often tricky from a big data perspective to determine exactly what is relating to the event and not. This gives rise to some different conclusions as to which single events have actually generated the most tweets.
It is widely reported that the most tweeted about sporting moment occurred during the 2014 FIFA World Cup and, thinking logically about it, there’s one match that stands out. One match in particular that had the world talking and, therefore, tweeting about it: Germany’s 7-1 thrashing of Brazil was a once in a lifetime event, that shook the footballing world.
Can you believe this…I cant . 1…2…3…..4….5….6…..7…⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️ pic.twitter.com/sacRPiQG41
— Heidi Klum (@heidiklum) July 8, 2014
London 2012 was dubbed the first “Twitter Olympics” since it was the first games where hundreds of millions of viewers and a significant proportion of the athletes were using the platform.
Thank you for an unforgettable summer! #ClosingCeremony
— London 2012 (@London2012) 9 September 2012
In 2011, what would arguably have been the first ‘Twitter Rugby World Cup’, tournament favourites, the All Blacks, were banned from using social media for the entire tournament. It was strongly felt that the embargo would help the team focus on the task in hand. Cory Jane famously reported he was suffering withdrawal symptoms before sending the tweet “I’m back” within ten minutes of the final whistle of the final (which the All Blacks won!). Interestingly, there was no such ban reported for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, which the All Blacks won too!
Some England rugby players have mentioned how they would have appreciated Twitter when they won the world cup back in 2003, suggesting that having thousands of congratulatory messages would have been great.
Unlike football, rugby and American football, some sports give athletes the chance to tweet whilst they’re competing. Field athletics and sports like weightlifting provide athletes several minutes between jumps, throws and lifts – plenty of time to put finger to phone and update fans. Olympic weightlifter Zoe Smith has mentioned how she is known as the “athlete that tweets between her snatch and jerk” although most professional athletes do not tweet mid-competition.
Greg Rutherford is not shy of sharing his opinions on social media, even if it means straining his relationship with British Athletics, the body governing his sport in the UK. Before winning the world championships in it, Rutherford had been very vocal on Twitter about what he deemed a ‘ridiculous’ kit not featuring the union flag.
— Greg Rutherford (@GregJRutherford) August 13, 2015
Twitter has also been used as a political platform by numerous professional sportspeople. A memorable tweet came from Scottish Brit Andy Murray just prior to the Scottish independence referendum. Most of Murray’s followers on Twitter will admire him for his performances on the court and commitment to his sport, not for his political views.
Huge day for Scotland today! no campaign negativity last few days totally swayed my view on it. excited to see the outcome. lets do this!
— Andy Murray (@andy_murray) 18 September 2014
Giving fans a voice
Not only does Twitter bring sportspeople closer to the fans, but it brings the fans closer to the athletes; something that has its pros and cons. Heading back to the London 2012 Olympics, an offensive tweet was sent to Tom Daley after his performance in the men’s diving. This type of ‘trolling’ is incredibly common amongst high-profile individuals, including sportspeople – some of whom are better at dealing with it than others.
Trolling aside, athletes must be prepared for other types of judgement made by the general public. An example is when Jessica Ennis-Hill posted that she was on an exercise bike whilst pregnant. Of course, women are encouraged to exercise well into their pregnancies and Ennis-Hill is no doubt supplied with advice from leading experts in that field. However, the post attracted hundreds of comments about her decision to take to the saddle. Some were well-meaning whilst others were very judgemental based on the somewhat archaic view that a pregnant woman shouldn’t be doing anything other than being pregnant.
A great example involving both a team, player and the fans over social media was the Fabian Delph debacle at the start of the 2015/16 football season. Delph released a video over social media categorically stating that he was remaining at Aston Villa football club before promptly signing for Manchester City. Whether Villa had put Delph up to the task of warding off interest from City and forced his hand in the matter of whether Delph, himself, had been the instigator, putting material in the public domain only to completely go back on it is damaging for all involved.
Winning and losing sponsorship
Due to the relationship a sportsperson has with their fans over social media; their influence is amplified. For sponsors, Twitter represents a huge opportunity to showcase their athletes and generate return on their sizeable investments. Of course, this can work to athletes’ and sponsors’ disadvantage.
The savvy sportsperson can build strong influence over fans but also with decision-makers within sponsoring companies. This is especially important for sportspeople who perhaps do not have full-time agency representation or are yet to become a household name.
The personality and ‘behind the scenes’ element that Twitter provides, gives an array of sponsors potential return but sponsoring athletes. A great example of this is Eddie Hall – Britain’s strongest man and one of the strongest men on the planet. As a fairly niche sport, strongman is not necessarily a ‘professional sport’ but Hall has accrued numerous sponsors that help him focus full time on becoming the world’s strongest man. These range from strength specific brands like kit, equipment and nutrition companies right through to grooming products since he sports a reasonable beard. If we only saw Hall on TV, much of this sponsorship would go unnoticed.
Spend £50 this weekend and use my code THEBEAST for 20% off and receive a free box of Dynabars… https://t.co/RZ6MGYvJbF
— Eddie Hall (@eddiehallWSM) 12 February 2016
The Advertising Standards Authority(ASA) is often brought into situations regarding content shared on Twitter. The laws governing advertising on what is a completely public yet personal forum are incomprehensive and ever-evolving and new rulings are made regularly as novel cases arise. This was seen when Rio Ferdinand was working for Snickers in their “you’re not you when you’re hungry” campaign. Fans were initially bemused at Ferdinand’s apparent desire to go home and knit a cardigan before many felt duped as they realised he was part of the campaign.
Can’t wait 2 get home from training and finish that cardigan
— Rio Ferdinand (@rioferdy5) 24 January 2012
Regulation on Twitter
Rules and regulations are still developing in the world of social media and the governance of players, teams and athletes is ever-changing. Governing bodies like the Players Football Association(PFA) already have pretty comprehensive guidelines on what player can and cannot say and most clubs across every sport have clauses specifically relating to social media use in players’ contracts.
As you would imagine, players must not bring a sport into disrepute or post anything defamatory or offensive whilst most clubs ensure players do not post about injuries, training or team selection which could be used against the team. Clubs heavily regulate players’ activity on fronts like their diets, bedtimes and training, social media is another element of life that could potentially be at the detriment of performance.
Individuals in most sports have been provided media training for decades, now social media forms a major element of this. In just 140 characters of text, it is very easy for tweets to be misinterpreted or taken out of context. The emotional roller-coaster that being a professional sportsperson can also create problems as individuals tweet emotionally and out of anger.
Believe it or not, social media (Twitter especially!) is being analysed by some tech companies in the sports gambling space. Why? Some clever people believe there is a relationship between Twitter sentiment, comments and predictions and the actual results of sports events like football matches. Remember, professional gamblers are only looking for that slight edge that gives them a winning margin over the bookies. You only have to see the rise in the free bets and boosted odds on offer at sites like BigFreeBet to see the value of that edge. It might be a few more years before we actually see sports bettors predicting the future using social media but it’s certainly a possibility.
But what else can we look out for?
The future of sport and social media
The ‘second Twitter Olympics’, Rio 2016 will give us a great insight into how the world of sport is changing in terms of the Twitter use of fans, athletes and other influencers. Twitter now has around double the monthly active users as it did in 2012 so we can guarantee there will be more content and controversy in Rio. The next athletics world championships will be held in London in 2017 and with more and more athletes competing who have never known adult life without social media and individuals like Rutherford vowing to remain outspoken, we can look forward to even greater insight.
If more studies are carried out on athletes’ performances when they have and haven’t been using social media, we could see a reduction in its use when nearing competition time.
Twitter generates a serious amount of data – millions of pieces of data from millions of sources, each day. There are hundreds of companies out there analysing and interpreting this data to find uses for it including efforts to predict the outcomes of events based on information shared (based on crowd theory) just as one example. Clubs may be able to better use this data to market to fans or improve their offering both online and offline.
Will clubs look at a player’s personal brand when making a buying decision? If a certain player has more followers on Twitter, are they likely to sell more shirts with that player’s name on them? Will they sell more tickets? Generate more TV revenue? Could we see agents convincing clubs to sign players based on their social clout? It almost undoubtedly is used to convince sponsors to hand over big money.
You’ve probably seen the 360degree videos over social media, I think we’re likely to see more of those being shared over social media but this is more of a technological advancement than anything else. This could, however, see a decline in match attendances if the virtual reality created improves. As more and more people seem to be videoing the action they’re watching, with a view to posting to social media, there could be a worsening of atmosphere and games and events. A great picture that shows this is from Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory. See how many spectators are just photographing him? Why aren’t they enjoying the moment, clapping or cheering? There are dozens of professional photographers there with perfectly capable cameras to take the pictures for them.
Of course, we’d be mad to put any of our predictions in stone as the world of social media moves so fast and sometimes very unpredictably! However, it’s great fun to speculate and we’d love to hear your thoughts too!