Our world is rapidly approaching the point where it exists primarily online. On average, Americans spend 35% of their time consuming media, with 58 million using social media sites several times a day. While social media has its positive uses, it is starting to be seen as a problem for some, with "Social Media Addiction" recently being named an official condition in the UK. Of course, anything in excess isn't healthy, but staying constantly connected and continually online has become a natural state of being.
For the sport world, social media is a vital and significant medium for fans, teams, leagues and athletes. In everything from Facebook to Twitter to blogs, the online world has become a powerful shaping influence in terms of our society's expectations for and relationships with players and teams.
Athletes are viewed as living on a different level than the normal person, residing in the fishbowl of our society. Social media magnifies the fishbowl, allowing us to see every move they make (whether the athletes like it or not) while allowing us a friend's-eye-view of their lives and struggles. In a way, social media humanizes those in the public eye.
Twitter, specifically, is a very efficient tool for teams and athletes to communicate with and educate fans. As research has pointed out, and perfectly explained in this Sports Illustrated article, social media has narrowed the gap between athlete and fan, allowing for a mediated relationship to develop:
... Twitter satisfies fans' thirst for a closer connection to big-time athletes, many of whom are overpackaged and overmanaged in their quest for marketing cash. There's also the way Twitter, which has become the fastest-growing major Web site in the U.S., peels back the curtain on an athlete's existence, showcasing personality layers never seen at press conferences. When athletes share details of their most mundane tasks, joys and frustrations, fans are fascinated. Hey, look, that guy on TV is just like me!
This idea of a mediated relationship with specific sport figures is known as para-social interaction. This theory suggests that a mediated relationship between fan and celebrity figure is created through media consumption, and this "intimacy at a distance" leads to varying levels of fandom/worship. The relationships are viewed as similar to a real-life friendship or relationship, and are integrated into the daily routine of the individual. However, this presumed relationship is one-way in that it is not shared by the celebrity.
In other words, there is a reason why you get so absorbed with teams or athletes, why you know stats and facts for specific players, and why your world revolves around sports - because it gives you a sense of belonging. Furthermore, when you identify with a team, you watch the games, hope for something good to happen and create shared experiences with other fans.
And with social media giving our society so much information about athletes, it's as if we know everything about them - what they ate for breakfast, if their flight is delayed, what shoes they are wearing for a game, what they are doing on their vacation. Sometimes this information is provided directly from the athlete, and other times it's leaked from someone else. Either way, frequent consumers of social media increase their mediated relationship and levels of fandom - the more we know about an athlete, the more we can identify with that athlete.
A few Spurs players, Patty Mills, DeJuan Blair, Manu Ginobili and Stephen Jackson, are very active on Twitter. Their tweets range from discussions of mini-van purchases from Manu to excitement from Patty Mills about returning home from the Rodeo Roadtrip and finally sleeping in his own bed. These types of discussions allow a fan to peek into the life of the players, look behind the curtain and see a slice of their reality. Yes, it's a bit creepy and intrusive, but the players choose to give us this information via social media. The more we know, the more we can relate, and the more we feel a connection with the player or team. These connections are the driving force behind being a fan, which ultimately supports the existence of sports.
Two great examples of this revolve around Matt Bonner; the Red Rocket, the Red Mamba.
As a member of a mostly media-ignored team, Bonner has never been the focus of the San Antonio Spurs. But when he became "The Sandwich Hunter" on a "Quest for the Hoagie Grail," we began to take notice of him on a different level. When the team goes on the road, we think: Where will Bonner eat? When it's time to interview players, we ask: "What did you have for lunch?" That online web series was genius because it humanized a professional athlete in a very concrete and specific way. Reports began to not only write about Bonner's sandwich finds, but began incorporating sandwich lingo into their articles when discussing him.
Then, taking that support from an active and involved online community, Matt Bonner was asked to participate in NBA All-Star Weekend's Three Point Shootout. All thanks to the #LetBonnerShoot Twitter crusade. This event allowed Bonner to showcase his talents, as well as place him in the spotlight for all to notice, all thanks to Twitter. As PtR writer Matthew Tynan described:
The #LetBonnerShoot campaign was as successful a Twitter movement as we've seen, especially in the Spurs' world. For a guy who's put up incredible percentages from deep for his entire career, it was a well-deserved opportunity to showcase his picture-perfect shot-put basketball form. It was his first chance at the age of 32, and hopefully not his last.
Sports and sport networks are beginning to understand the value of social media in the creation and development of the sport community. Such connections allow fans to gain information about their favorite teams and players, which utilizes the media as an outlet to fortify that sense of belonging to a group. And as the case of Bonner's inclusion in the Shootout showed, social media gives fans the another voice they can use to not only support, but affect the lives of the players they support.
While worshiping sport figures may not be the smartest thing these days, having the ability to view them so intimately brings them down to our level, in a way. And it's pretty cool knowing that when I visit Chicago or Memphis or Boston, Matt Bonner's journalistic bread crumbs can lead me to a wicked amazing sandwich experience, and for at least that meal, I can be just like him.