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Coming to a Locker Room Near You: Athletes and Social Media

At Social Media Week in New York last week, I found myself returning to one thought: How will the growing use of social media by athletes change sportswriters’ roles?

Athletes are already breaking news via social media: Last fall Allen Iverson announced his signing with the Memphis Grizzlies on Twitter, and the Cincinnati Bengals’ Chad Ochocinco reported that first-round pick Andre Smith was close to ending his holdout, pre-empting Smith’s own agent. The always-entertaining Ochocinco even has his own NFL social-media news service, called OCNN. (That’s the Ocho Cinco News Network.)

OCNN may be a lark, featuring moonlighting NFL players and two guys from the CollegeHumor Web site. But athletes have more and more reasons to use social media. It’s a way for them to sidestep the traditional media and present stories on their own terms. It’s also a way for them to enhance their own personal brands, building a connection with fans that will be like catnip to sponsors. And it’s a relatively easy way to do those things. Twitter in particular is a natural fit for busy athletes: They can be followed by fans without having to reciprocate, and they can engage their followers by entering short messages from a smartphone.

But talking about how social media is useful to athletes makes it sound like using it is just a PR strategy. And OK, for some athletes it’s exactly that. Still, we shouldn’t miss a fundamental change that’s only just coming into view.

Twitter and Facebook have only been used by the general public since the middle of 2006. That means the athletes using such services today are overwhelmingly digital immigrants, who adopted social media after they were established public figures. Inevitably, such athletes use social media self-consciously – which means what we see today isn’t a good guide to how athletes will use social media in the future.

As my fellow Mets blogger Matthew Cerrone noted at one panel last week, in the next few years new star athletes will emerge who used social media not as celebrities but as anonymous teenagers. (Here are roundups of the panel by David Cohen andAmanda Rykoff.) These athletes won’t be digital immigrants but digital natives, and the fact that they use social media will be about as remarkable as today’s athletes using cellphones.

I guarantee those new stars will use social media very differently. But how? That’s the question I kept turning over in my head last week, and that I’m still wondering about.

I do know that things won’t change overnight. Those digital natives will interact with athletic directors, agents, coaches, league officials, PR people and reporters who are part of the old system and will naturally try to perpetuate it. And like many of today’s athletes, the digital natives will be tempted to seek safety in being professionally bland.

But over time, I suspect things will change – and quite a bit. I can’t stop thinking about the fact that for athletes who are digital natives, social media will be old but dealing with reporters will be new. The former will shape the latter, where today it’s the other way around. Now throw in the fact that sports’ biggest stars have always made their own rules. And remember that in time, our new waves of athletes will be joined by agents, league officials and others who are themselves digital natives.

I also think those athletes will engage with fans far more than today’s athletes do. In last week’s panel, entrepreneur and social-media guru Gary Varynerchuk noted that social media is already changing fans’ expectations about how leagues, teams and players will interact with them. As Vaynerchuk said, today a Bengals fan using Twitter actually can hope Chad Ochocinco might say something to him. Tomorrow, perhaps that’s not a hope but an expectation.

But can sports celebrities interact with all those wanting their attention? Vaynerchuk notes that a lot of interaction can take place if athletes opt for “one less strip club, one less Madden game.” And, he adds, an athlete doesn’t need to respond to everybody to keep his or her fans’ good will and build engagement – just enough people. “We value effort,” he says.

So where will that leave sportswriters?

For one thing, they will have to accept that they are no longer gatekeepers through which information must pass – reporting on a team will require not just time in the locker room, but also hours following athletes on Twitter, checking in on their fan pages, and watching their latest Ustream videos.

But that’s already happening – many sportswriters are on Twitter in part because the athletes and agents they cover are on it. As things evolve, I think sportswriters will be more free to let what athletes say through social media stand for itself. Pretty soon specifying that someone said something on Twitter will be as odd as specifying that it was said using a telephone. Sportswriters will increasingly be not just reporters but curators (to use the awful but useful digital-age term) of information from numerous sources, including athletes themselves. And perhaps this will be an improvement: Just as sportswriters could write more interesting things if freed from the outdated tyrannies of game stories, they may be able to conduct more interesting interviews if run-of-the-mill post-game comments can be linked to instead of extracted in clubhouse scrums.

Of course, having sources speak for themselves isn’t the same as telling a story. There will always be stories that fans need to hear but athletes, teams and leagues don’t want told. Athletes’ stories will always be more interesting if they’re answering questions posed by a skilled interviewer. And games and events will always touch us more deeply if recounted by talented storytellers. Our duties as sportswriters will change, but there will still be a place for us.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing (www.faithandfearinflushing.com), and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom (www.reinventingthenewsroom.com). Write to him at jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jason.fry, or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jasoncfry.
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