In 2008 when I started covering the New York Jets, I also joined Twitter. It was a great way to break news, see what your competition knew, and hear from regular fans.
That was before accounts were verified, so I actually went to players, like Jets DB Kerry Rhodes, to verify that they were actually the authors behind their tweets.
Since then, the way sports fans have used social media has definitely evolved. For millions, it’s the second screen on an NFL Sunday, with moments like Odell Beckham Jr’s one-handed catch in 2014 for the Giants followed by thousands of tweets, as if Twitter were the largest sports bar on the planet.
Teams have connected with their fans online, some fans have built tidy followings, and some of them have even used their Twitter platform to propel themselves into careers or sports-related enterprises. Twitter, Instagram, and other social media sites have proven to advertisers that women’s sports are a good investment, given that women who play have proven engagement with wide-ranging fanbases. Think of Oregon’s Sedona Prince at the start of the 2021 NCAA tournament.
What will sports fans do if it’s the second week of the World Cup, they open the app, and Twitter isn’t there?
First, how did we get here? Until 3 weeks ago, the site was running like a well-maintained engine. This week, the architecture that has supported a decade of sports moments is struggling. New owner and narcissistic billionaire Elon Musk is firing people with the same frequency he shit-posts (would that make it Shitter?), and the cracks in the infrastructure are starting to show.
At first, he had the brilliant* idea to charge $8 to anyone for a blue check, which formerly signified a verified account, but without actually vetting the customers. So, as Twitter’s own strategists predicted, plenty of pranksters chose names of public figures like Lebron James, and then tweeted fake news.
*It was not brilliant. And now droves of brands are taking their advertising dollars elsewhere.
“With the sackings and the resignations, in brand protection and moderation, it is just a little bit too toxic,” The Social Element chief executive Tamara Littleton said to the Telegraph in London.
Sports Twitter has been somewhat insulated from all these issues for a few reasons. Nights, college football Saturdays, and NFL Sundays are generally slower news times. Functionally, that means there will be less timeline interference from weekday political Twitter.
With the World Cup poised to begin, the site could attract stadiums of fans from all corners of the globe who want to watch the games in their own languages and in real time. The question is, whether it can still handle the traffic.
So let’s say the worst happens and there is some engineering failure with Twitter. This is hardly just speculation when a number of engineering types have been warning of this all week. There are already reported issues with two-factor authentication and other features like archive requests.
What makes Twitter such a great place for sports fans is its speed. The speed of conversations, the rapid turnaround time to watch video, and the ability to quickly locate like-minded users on the site. And it’s also where you will find athletes tweeting about projects, grudges, and advocacy. You can see them make mistakes in real-time, and be first to their apologies and their non-apology apologies.
This has been a huge boon to sports leagues and teams, because it allows fans to be well more engaged than they were in the era of newspapers and season tickets. You can still do that, but you can also hear how every practice of training camp went in real-time without having to show up to a facility.
It’s not clear where fans could go if this all falls apart. Mastodon, a more sedate social media alternative that has attracted academics and scientists, has a similar timeline and allows for conversation, but it isn’t as easy to find your fellow travelers or upload media. Instagram is more one-way communication. Discord has esports and sports communities, but the single subject channels would be an adjustment.
There isn’t a natural second site for fans because there hasn’t had to be. Twitter nurtured sports communities by creating event emojis and stories that made it easy to get up to speed on a conversation.
For sportswriters and broadcast outlets, Twitter was invaluable. ESPN and other outlets have had evolving social media policies that deal with things like verifying people are who they say they are, how news can be broken and by whom, and how much of your non-sports opinion should make it to your social media accounts.
Think however, of how many sports stories were generated by tweets? Who can forget when, via Twitter, Rob Lowe “reported” Peyton Manning’s retirement in 2012? Only four years before Manning actually retired. Thankfully the term “sliding into their DMs” has migrated to other social media or it could be lost forever.
Hopefully, Twitter remains for sports fans. Musk said, in a Delaware court to address a Tesla-related issue on Wednesday, that he expected to find a new CEO “over time.” Not too much time, if this magical sports space is going to continue being the sports fan’s favorite second screen.