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Twitter and the changing character of sports media

By Brett Hutchins - posted Wednesday, 21 July 2010

“Morning, it amazes me what has happened in the last week of the ipl, some of the allegations flying around Wow.. They r outrageous !!!”

Posted on Twitter, this is the scattergun syntax of Australian cricket great and Rajasthan Royal captain, Shane Warne, in response to the financial corruption scandal presently engulfing the Twenty20 Indian Premier League (IPL). In an unprecedented chain of events for international cricket, this scandal was actually ignited by a tweet posted by Lalit Modi, former commissioner of the IPL and kingpin of Indian cricket, on April 11. Not surprisingly, the tweet has since been removed as the serious allegations raised by the scandal have spread to formal politics and major international news reporting.

The rapidly growing popularity and use of social networking media presents a new reality for professional athletes and sports administrators. Publicly available comments are no longer restricted to staged press conferences, media releases and formal interviews. The spontaneous thoughts and opinions of an array of global stars and personalities are available in real-time for anyone wanting to open a Twitter account. Famous tweeters include cyclist Lance Armstrong, basketball’s Shaquille O’Neal, sprinter Usain Bolt, slalom skier Lindsey Vonn, and tennis champion Serena Williams. In Australia, footballers, runners, netballers and cricketers tweet away merrily, as shown by the likes of Karmichael Hunt, Jobe Watson, Lote Tuqiri, Tamsyn Lewis, Susan Pratley and Damien Martyn.


The results are informative, engaging, tedious and occasionally bizarre. They tell us something about sport and its participants that cannot be found in newspapers and television bulletins. Tennis’ Andy Roddick told the world last month that he was, “walking around the mall with a friend and she looked at a betsey johnson store and said ..... ‘that place looks like a carnival threw up’”. Of course, the question of whether we need to know such things is an entirely different matter.

The hype surrounding innovative digital services like Twitter needs to be separated from their significance as modes of communication. Constant tweets and status updates sent from mobile phones and laptops reveal that 3G and broadband internet are now ubiquitous features of life in major cities, and that, for better or worse, always being online is changing the ways in which we communicate. Interacting with and reading the shorthand thoughts of an athlete are both novel and all too ordinary experiences, especially when a tweet reads, “Im bored” (sic). And herein lies part of the reason for the growing popularity of Twitter among athletes and followers. Observers are offered a glimpse of the person behind the public persona, while, when they choose to actually say something meaningful, athletes get to speak without their words being filtered by a journalist or having to go through a media minder.

Twitter’s curious combination of pseudo-intimacy and brevity is deceptively powerful, raising a series of challenges for sports administrators. There is an ineradicable tension between the right of athletes to express and promote themselves as individuals, and the requirement of governing bodies, leagues and clubs that their stars conform to common protocols of public comment in order to protect the integrity of their brands.

Dual rugby international and Gold Coast Titan, Mat Rogers, stumbled on this fact last year when he tweeted, “No no no no no no no. That is a #%^*+#* joke!!! If he wanted to bite him he wouldve bitten him. How about 2 weeks for a grapple!!” His refreshing honesty was in response to the suspension of a team mate by the player judiciary on the serious charge of biting an opponent. The message was subsequently deleted, but not before journalists had found it. Rogers’ outburst produced a warning from his sport’s governing body and a telling announcement that tweeting, rather than being a personal matter, is considered to “fall into the category of ‘public comment’ and can have the same consequences as comments in any other form of media”.

If you are interested in accessing a unique type of sports media communication, get a Twitter profile now. Over the next couple of years, altered player contracts, legal issues, scandals, and journalists hunting for easy stories will tame genuine self-expression on Twitter, and reduce it to yet another channel of mind numbing corporate speak and sports branding. (Indeed, this is already starting to happen.) The novelty of Twitter will wear off as a result of its regulation, reducing it to the ordinary and unexceptional. It is at this point that a new online service offering a greater sense of spontaneity and unpredictability will replace Twitter, just as Facebook overwhelmed the once dominant MySpace. Fashion is a cruel master online, mercilessly reducing the latest craze to a footnote in the accelerated history of the online world.

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First published in The Age on May 13, 2010.

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About the Author

Brett Hutchins is a lecturer in Commnications and Media Studies at Monash University. He has written extensively on sport and the media and is the author of Don Bradman: Challenging the Myth (Cambridge University Press).

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