Professor Erin Dietel-McLaughlin
WR13300 – Multimedia Writing and Rhetoric
April 3, 2015
How Social Media Has Changed Fandom in Sports
The impact of social media is especially evident in the world of sports, where according
to Nicholas Bowman and Gregory Cranmer, “Social media sites such as Facebook, Youtube,
Twitter, are all increasing in popularity amongst sports fans, with one in five fans using social
media in 2011 and one in four fans using as of 2012 (Laird (2012b).” (Bowman and Cranmer
214) Thus, there is a growing amount of scholarship around the subject of how this new
technology has effected fandom in sports. Moreover, the goal of this paper is to examine how the
new technology of social media has affected fandom in sports. Additionally, this paper will look
into how sports organizations should handle the emergence of social media. Thus, the intent of
this paper is too first examine how social media has effected fandom and then, unlike other
scholars, seek to provide a course of action for sports organizations.
Before beginning to examine the effect social media has had on fandom, it is important to
first take a look into fandom before the invention of social media. Just as today, athletes of old
were treated as superstar celebrities. Sports fans would go to great lengths to show support for
their favorite teams. For example, in the 1920’s, one out of every four newspapers was bought
for the sports section. (Laucella 91) Additionally, Pamela Laucella goes on to describes how
many sports fans would look up to these athletes and idolize them as heroes. (Laucella 91)
However, fandom of this sorts is not a modern invention, but a longstanding practice that dates
all the way back to the Ancient Greeks and romans. In the time of these two great civilizations,
athletes were looked up to almost as if they were some sort of Demi-god. These athletes would
participate in an event that would come to be known as one of the most famous in history
(ancientolympics.com). Thus, fandom in the past seems to be very similar to that on the present,
albeit on much smaller scale.
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, social media is made up of different forms
of electronic communication through which users create online communities to share
information, ideas, personal messages, and other content. (Merriam Webster) The most popular
social media sites in the United Sates are, but are not limited to, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram,
and YouTube. Each one of these sites provides a different medium for athletes and sports leagues
to communicate with their fans. For example, Twitter is a microblogging site that allows an
athlete or organization to create a “twitter handle” or username, which then allows them to share
“tweets” which are 140 character blog posts. Bowman and Cranmer describe the growth of
Twitter among athletes and sports organizations, when he says, “In the three years from 2009 to
2012, there was a ten-fold increase in the number of professional athletes using Twitter, growing
from 700 to nearly 7,000 (Tweeting Athletics, 2012)” (Bowman and Cranmer 215) On the other
hand, YouTube is a website that allows users to submit video content to their page. In the article,
Sport, Public Relations and Social Media, Raymond Boyle and Richard Hayes describe how
athletes and sports organizations use YouTube, when he says, “Many sports clubs and franchises
have developed YouTube Channels, tapping into a realization that fans are willing to download
both live and recorded streamed video to keep in touch with their favorite teams” (Boyle and
Hayes 137). Thus, we see that athletes and sports organizations are willing to access different
mediums of social media to connect with their fans.
Overall, social media has created a mostly positive fan experience by attracting more
fans, while also creating a more pleasurable experience by bringing fans closer to their favorite
athletes, helping athletes publicize their social causes, helping athletes build their brand, and
helping athletes promote their endorsements. However, social media can also have a negative
effect by showing the darker side of athletes and their sports. Thus, in order to create a
completely positive environment for fans, athletes and sports organizations should go through
education programs to learn how to maximize their social media potential.
One of the most positive effects that social media has had on fandom, has been its ability
to bring athletes closer to their fans. One of the most effective means through which social media
brings fans closer to athletes is the unprecedented access into the private lives of said athletes,
which is something sports fans never had previous access to. As a result of this access, fans are
now more likely to view the athletes as more regular people, as opposed to the godlike beings
they once were. This is not to say that fans will have less respect for famous athletes, but to the
contrary. Ann Pergoraro phrases it best, when she says, “Sports fans can get a real, unmediated
look into the lives of their sports heroes and, in the process, possibly develop a greater
appreciation for the talent, dedication to their sport, and day to day lives of these athletes.”
(Pergoraro 502) Thus, because fans have better insight into the everyday lives of their sports
heroes, they now have a greater respect for said athletes. Moreover, greater insight into the lives
of athletes creates a more pleasurable viewing experience for the fan, because they now can view
the game with a newfound respect.
In addition to see how their favorite players live, many fans can now find out what the
true opinions are of their favorite athletes. For example, after Kobe Bryant tore his achilles in
2013 he took to Twitter to vent his frustrations. In his Twitter “rant” he expressed his frustration
with the injury. (Pickering) Kobe’s as well as the star athletes, use of Twitter helps to create
conversation between athletes and fans. According to Pergoraro, “Twitter has brought fans closer
to their sport heroes, because it allows athletes to communicate as openly and honestly as they
wish without any third-party mediation.” (Pergoraro 501) Many athletes use Twitter to actively
connect to their fans in an effort to encourage this open conversation. For example, according to
Sanderson and Kassing, “In fact, for some high profile athletes (e.g. Kerry Rhodes, Larry
Fitzgerald, and Shaquille O’Neil) direct responses to fans accounted for three-quarters or more of
their tweets.” (Sanderson and Kassing 250) Here, Sanderson and Kassing show that many
athletes make active efforts to interact and create conversation with their fans. As a result of this
“conversation”, fans now feel closer to the athletes that they watch play. Fans benefit from this
conversation, because they now feel a connection to those who they are watching play. Athletes
are no longer these larger than life figures that you watch from afar, but almost more of a friend.
Thus, it is a more pleasurable experience for fans to watch someone they feel is like a friend to
them, then a distant superstar athlete.
Through social media, fans can not only act as friends of their favorite athletes, but they
can also act as personal advisors to athletes. Often, athletes will go to their social media accounts
and ask for advice, whether it be where to eat or what do in their free time. (Sanderson and
Kassing 251) However, sometimes some social media users give advice that is unwarranted. For
example, Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling received large amounts of criticism and advice
after his famous “bloody sock” game, which was a controversial game in which Mr. Schilling
pitched through an injury to his ankle. The injury had caused his sock to become bloodied and as
a result it is known as the “bloody sock” game. (Kassing and Sanderson 253) When fans give
advice to athletes, it makes them feel closer to the sport. This closeness makes the fan feel as
though he is a part of the game and it is an experience that fans would not have without social
media. Therefore,social media helps to bring fans closer to the game by making them feel as
though they are part of it.
Additionally, fans are now able to obtain information about athletes and sports
organizations directly from the source through social media. Social media allows for fans to
directly ask sports organizations and athletes any questions they may have. Going even further,
many athletes and sports organizations give specific times in which they will be around to
answer questions through social media. (Sanderson and Kassing 253) This mode of information
gathering again makes fans feel more connected to the athletes and sports organizations they
follow. Consequently, fans benefit from this practice, because as mentioned earlier, they have a
more pleasurable experience watching or rooting for a more personal relationship.
In addition to fostering internet relationships with fans, athletes can also use social media
to facilitate face to face interactions. As a result of athletes using social media to become more
connected to their fans, they are now able to reach out to said fans to meet in person. (Kassing
and Sanderson 253) A perfect example of an athlete reaching out to his fans for social occasions,
is NBA star Kevin Durant. During the NBA lockout, Durant Tweeted saying that he was looking
to play flag football and then asked if any of his fans had advice. Durant received a response and
then proceed to spend the rest of his evening playing flag football with a fan. (Kassing and
Sanderson 253) An encounter like this endears Durant to his fans. Additionally, a story like this is
bound to attract attention from the media, which subsequently attracts more fans to Durant’s
social media pages and the sport in general.
However, Kevin Durant is not the only athlete who uses social media to connect with his
fans in face to face encounters. For example, former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, uses his Twitter
to provide clues to his whereabouts so fans can try to catch an encounter with him. (Pickering)
Additionally, former NFL star receiver Chad Ochocinco uses his social media to organize
informal meet and greets (Bowman and Cranmer 216) These face to face encounter help to
endear players to fans, which create closer relationships with said fans, while also attracting fans
to their social media accounts and their sports as a whole. Moreover, meetings through social
media help to create a more pleasurable experience for fans, while also attracting more fans to
While social media is very effective at making fans more involved and bringing them
closer to the game, it is also a useful platform for athletes to promote their social works. By
promoting social works, athletes indirectly can attract positive attention to themselves and their
sports as a whole. this positive attention can attract now fans to specific players and even new
sports as a whole. For example, there are several professional athletes, such as Major League
Baseball player Nick Swisher and NFL quarterback Russell Wilson, who are famous for
promoting social works through their social media accounts. Through his social media accounts,
Nick Swisher has garnered immense attention for himself and his charities. (Pickering)
Additionally, Wilson uses his social media accounts to not only attract attention to himself, but
also his charities. (Kritsch) Overall, athletes using social media to attract attention to their
charities is a positive thing, because it not only shows fans that their favorite players are doing
good things, but it also attracts people, who otherwise may not be interested, to the sports as a
Athletes also use their social media clout to attract attention to social issues that other
wise may be ignored. For example, Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, and Derrick Rose all sought to
bring attention the perceived injustices in Ferguson and the Michael Garner case. All three wore
the “I can’t breathe” shirt during warmups before games. Pictures of this event circulated around
social media, with Lebron’s own post receiving over 291,000 likes, while being seen by over
eight million people. (Beahm) The widespread circulation of Lebron’s post shows the impact
that athletes can have on social causes. As mentioned before, athletes’ attention to social causes
helps them to attract people not only to their cause, but there sport as a whole. Furthermore, the
increasing prevalence of athletes using social media to further their social concerns attracts
people the game who otherwise would never have been fans.
While it does effectively attract fans to the game, supporting social causes through social
media only does so in an indirect manner. On the other hand, athletes can use social media in a
very direct manner in order to attract fans and build their or their sport’s brand. For many teams,
decreasing attendance and fandom has become a problem, so they have turned to social media to
help build their profile. (Dittmore and McCarthy 168) Additionally, according to Nicholas
Bowman and Gregory Cranmer, “In general a major usage of social media by athletes is for
promotional purposes- be it event-related, sports related or even personal promotion” (Bowman
and Cramer 216) Thus, it becomes apparent that a major usage of social media by athletes and
sports organization is to attract more fans. These assertions are supported by the incredible social
media followings that many star athletes have. For example, soccer player Ronaldo has amassed
over 63 million fans on Facebook and 21 million followers on twitter, while NBA star Kobe
Bryant has large followings on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and even Chinese social media site
Sina Weibo. (Kritsch) It is important to note that Kobe Bryant has a social media presence in
China, because Bryant can use the massive popularity of basketball in the country to build his
brand, in addition to attracting an entire nation of new fans. Moreover, athletes can use social
media to attract new attention to themselves, in addition, to their sport as a whole.
However, the attention that athletes garner is not always positive. Sometimes an athlete
can post things that harm their reputation on social media. The idea that one misstep on social
media can put everything an athlete has done into question worries many coaches. For example,
Nicole Auerbach quotes Virginia Common Wealth athletic director, Ed McLaughlin, saying, “We
try to stress the things that could be inappropriate, things that could be harmful or embarrassing
for you, your family or your team. We try to stress those things and teach them about them so
when they get in the working world – whether it's work as a professional athlete or work as a
doctor or whatever – they don't make a tragic mistake that's really, really going to hurt them.”
(Auerbach) Furthermore, Mr. McLaughlin’s worries are not unfounded.
In recent memory, there are many examples of professional athletes using social media to
unintentionally draw the ire of the public. For example, NFL running back Larry Johnson ended
up losing his job after posting a rant, which included homophobic slurs, about his coach to social
media. (Pegoraro) Sadly, incidents like these are quite common and according to Raymond
Boyle and Richard Hayes, incidents such as these can be devastating to an organization. They
say, “Episodes of this nature provide evidence of sports organizations struggling to maintain
control over networked media, which ultimately have the potential to damage relations with
sponsors and media partners.” (Boyle and Hayes 138) Thus, it becomes apparent that while social
media has great benefits to fans and fandom in general, it can also have negative effects.
In reaction to athletes misuse of social media, many sports organizations have decided to
either ignore the problem that social media posses or they even go as far to completely ban it.
Sanderson and Kassing describe the attitude of sports organizations towards social media, when
they say, “It appears sports organizations are taking a reactive, rather than proactive approach to
new media (Sanderson 2011b). For instance, many sports organizations prohibit their players
from using new media, in the misguided view that such action will prohibit incidents”
(Sanderson and Kassing 255). However, when sports organizations decide to ban social media,
they lose out on all the good that it provides. Thus, the solution is not to completely ban social
media from sports, but to educate athletes on how to properly use it and build their brand in a
While some organizations do already have education programs in place for their athletes,
it is apparent that said measures are not enough. If social media is to provide a completely
positive environment for fans, sports organizations must set up programs in which all of their
athletes are instructed on how to build their image in a positive manner. This could be done
through programs in which athletes would sit down in small groups or one on one with an
instructor or coach and be taught what they should and should not do on social media. In this
solution, it is key that the athletes be kept to small group or one on one settings, because this way
they feel more comfortable to ask questions. Additionally, in small group or one on one settings
the coaches or instructors who are running the sessions can touch on exactly what those specific
athletes are not clear about. Thus, just as coaches educate their athletes on matters regarding
sports, they should also strive to educate their athletes on social media matters.
If all athletes are given instruction on how to build their brand in a positive manner, fans
will greatly benefit.Fans will be able to reap all the benefits that have been described, without
any of the ill effects social media may currently have. Moreover, social media has had a mostly
positive influence on a fans sports experience, but with some tweaking and education, the effect
of social media can become something that is completely positive for fans.
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