The Burgeoning Union Of Sports And Social Media

The role of social media in the sports world is evolving. How the teams themselves act and react to this new public profile of their players is interesting to watch.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or hiding out on Ft. DeSoto Beach, if you’re a Tampa Bay sports fan, you’ve at least heard about the recent comments made by Evan Longoria in an interview, and by David Price on Twitter regarding the Rays’ attendance issues.

As might be expected, the remarks weren’t well received here locally. After a day of speculation, condemnation, frustration and national attention, the problem was assuaged with the team announcing a giveaway of 20,000 first-come-first-served tickets to Wednesday’s final regular season home game.

The attendance issue has been a hot button all season, with constant commentary coming from both local and national media about the lack of fans coming to see the team play in person.  Longoria and Price’s comments weren’t malicious  -- they stemmed more out of frustration with what they see as a lack of support from fans. Sometimes in the heat of the moment, we all say impassioned things without considering the big picture. Or how remarks will be perceived and received.

What they said wasn’t exactly news. But the fact that they said it in public was. And while Longoria’s remarks came via a traditional form – the post-game interview – Price’s comment on Twitter is an example of a growing trend – athletes engaging with fans via social media.

This is not the first time a Tampa Bay athlete has been caught recently in a social media firestorm. Lightning goalie Dan Ellis engaged in a Twitter kerfluffle with some followers in late summer.

But the Price situation had more resonance because unlike Ellis, who made his comments in an off-season situation, Price’s 140 characters came during a critical time in the season – the last week of regular play, with jockeying for playoff positions and the AL East title going at full tilt. Ellis wasn’t commenting on a company/team issue. Price was.

I personally appreciate the candor and the accessibility to the athletes Twitter can provide. Tampa Bay Buccaneer Stylez G. White (twitter.com/stylezwhite) responded to a recent comment I made about one of his tweets and it made my whole day. The Tweets made by the Rays Reid Brignac (twitter.com/reidbrignac) following the team’s playoff celebration were full of joy and excitement.

That immediate connection is Twitter’s hallmark. And that immediacy can be both blessing and curse, especially for unguarded comments.

This incident raises – again—a question: what is the responsibility of a sports franchise to monitor what its players say in public forums? Does it have the right to do so? Should it?

Jen Straw, Founder and Owner of Last Straw Media, a Tampa Bay-based social media marketing company, doesn’t think a sports organization should dictate what players should or shouldn’t say on Twitter.

“What would have been the difference if Price told TV reporters he was embarrassed?” she said.  “Any difference? Not really. The days of traditional media have changed and the fans want to feel like they can connect.”

Some sports management already has taken an active role with controlling the social media activity of its players. Both the US and European Ryder Cup captains have banned their golfers from using Twitter and other social media during the competition, saying it can be distracting and take away from the matter at hand.

Athletes represent not only themselves when they speak publically, but also the teams for which they play. Those with whom they interact in social media settings are invested not only with the players, but with the players’ employers as well. And in these instances, lines can get blurred and personal opinion is carefully observed, especially when players make comments about their team. Straw points out that in such cases, “common sense is common sense. The average person shouldn't be saying bad things about their place of employment, but some do.”

The role of social media in the sports world is evolving, almost on a daily basis. Athletes are becoming more savvy in this area and are spreading the word to their teammates – I’m adding new players to my Twitter feed regularly as more and more are getting on the social media train. How the teams themselves act and react to this new public profile of their players is interesting to watch.

Especially when the action comes to us instantly.

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