How Social Media is Changing the Athlete's Experience

How Social Media is Changing the Athlete's Experience
Jim Harshaw

Guest Post by Jim Harshaw

As debate of Title IX reaches from the world of collegiate athletics into the realm of scholastic athletics, it is only fitting to address the similar evolution of social media, and its accompanying debates, benefits, and drawbacks, into the world of high school sports.

For decades, our lives have been increasingly invaded by the media. For this reason, it’s easy to be a fan of professional sports. The names and stories remain top-of-mind because we are inundated with media about the NFL, NBA, NASCAR, and NHL whether we want it or not. For example, I don’t follow professional sports all that closely but I can name the top athletes and stories in each sport. (I have 3 young kids so I can also name every character in Thomas the Train, which goes to show you the power of simply being exposed to media is enough to make you aware). The point is, until recently, it was relatively hard to be a fan of high school athletics in the same way. We might have read in the paper about the football team’s performance or even the superstar wrestler from time-to-time. But now, through social media, we can get to know the athletes just as well as any professional athlete.

Amateur teams, including collegiate, scholastic and otherwise, can host their own Sportscenter, so to speak, with a Facebook page, Twitter account, email newsletter and Youtube Channel. A team can insert itself into our lives like never before due to the nature of these media coming to us, rather than us having to seek them out. The impact that this has on individual athletes is changing the athletes experience and pulling back the curtain on the lives of our amateur athletes in unique ways.

First, both fans and opponents can now see these athletes as people and not just competitors. Before, an athlete was a number, position, weight class or event. Now, these athletes about whom we only knew what we read in the papers, are now much more accessible. Even if a team does not readily share video interviews or insider news via social media, we can look up an athlete on Facebook and, depending on their privacy settings, can see who their friends are, what pictures they have uploaded and otherwise get a glimpse into the lives of our young athletes like never before. Same with Twitter. If nothing else, Google will dig up every scrap of information on a person that’s on the internet. For better or for worse, this
is the reality of our world as opposed to the world of just six years ago.

Second, high school athletes that are prospective college recruits provide a wealth of information to their recruiters through Facebook, Twitter, forums and other online communications. College coaches now not only talk to the high school coach, parents and teachers but also scour the internet for information about an athlete’s life off of the field.

So what does all of this mean for the athlete and the team? If you Google “social media and athletes”, the first several results are negative. But social media is an agent of change that can help increase awareness, grow attendance, maximize participation and be a powerful fundraising strategy for sports teams and booster clubs. It means that social media is changing the ability of teams to create a community of supporters. Money is the source of opportunity for our athletes (travel, equipment, facilities, coaching salaries). And fans (and supporters) are the source of funding. When teams cultivate, educate and engage a community of supporters, a team is more likely to increase revenue through ticket, concession and merchandise sales. They can educate and engage donors who support because they learn the stories of the individuals and the mission, vision and values of the team. And funding comes from businesses who want to be associated with local teams through sponsorships and partnerships (·77% of people would be more likely to purchase from and support a company if it sponsored the local high school*).

In short, social media is still the wild west. And social media as it relates to sports is Dodge. The athlete’s experience as it relates to social media should be guided by the coach. S/he can take the stance that several NCAA schools have taken (and subsequently rescinded), and forbid athletes to use Facebook and Twitter completely. Alternately, they can take the stance of Dana White, president of Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), and incentivize athletes to tweet to build awareness and generate buzz. Or somewhere in-between.

Simply put, coaches need to talk with athletes about social media regularly and address the topic as it arises in the public eye . The team website should be the hub of communication with fans, athletes, parents, alumni and community supporters. Athletes can play a supporting role to the degree that the coach or athletic director is comfortable. And athletes must be aware that they are being watched by adoring (or crazy) fans, by opponents, by college coaches and, eventually, prospective employers.

There has been an evolution of social media in sports over the past several years. One thing is for certain. The evolution has just begun.

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