Pro athletes on Twitter: league execs say marketing outweighs gaffes

A series of blown calls in Sunday’s NFL matches led players to take to Twitter with some very off-message comments about the league’s officials. The episode, and a series of high profile gaffes by athletes on Twitter, raise the question of whether teams should encourage players to use a platform that can cause so much trouble. Former marketers for the NBA and the NHL say the answer is a definite yes.

Before looking at why pro sports should embrace athletes taking up Twitter, it’s worth recalling some of the downsides. Last night’s NFL game provided a good example. As critics grow louder about the league’s decision not to settle a strike by its referees, the NFL’s own players just provided those critics with further ammunition. Here’s what New England Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes had to say about the replacement refs:

Spikes is hardly the first athlete, of course, to make colorful use of Twitter. In London this summer, competitors from Greece and Switzerland were sent home from the Olympic for sending out racist tweets. And then there was this infamous tweet (since deleted) issued by Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashad Mendenhall after the killing on Bin Laden:

Given these obvious headaches, why actively encourage players to tweet? According to Mike DiLorenzo, former social media director for the NHL, the marketing boost from Twitter is worth it — even if some general managers and league PR people regard Twitter as a nuisance.

“It shortens the distance between the fan and the game,” said DiLorenzo in a phone interview. “20 NHL players [on Twitter] equals 20 of the highest profile brand advocates you can have.” To address misconduct, he notes that player behavior is already covered by public decorum clauses in contracts and that agents have an incentive to keep an eye on players’ social media activity.

A former NBA executive, who did not want to be named, likewise believes that teams should encourage players to use Twitter.

“It creates an amazing opportunity for the athlete to build a fan base, making them exponentially more marketable, and has a tremendous rub-off effect for their respect teams and leagues,” he said in an email statement.

The NBA executive added that more players on Twitter will mean more gaffes but that a younger generation is already showing more sophistication with their Twitter accounts.

“Unlike the athletes who took to these platforms two or three years ago, they are growing up with these technologies and they understand that their tweets could end up on SportsCenter faster than a post-game comment. Like any young person entering the workforce today, they are keenly aware of the impact their digital footprint can have on their ability to market themselves.”

Acceptance of Twitter is also likely to grow as more general managers come to use the micro-blog themselves. DiLorenzo said executives like Brian Burke of the Toronto Maple Leafs have come to recognize Twitter as a way to take a message directly to the fans without a media filter.

And for the fans, Twitter feeds can provide a welcome respite from tedious on-air interviews that make the players seem like dull, one-dimensional dimwits.

(Image by Julien Tromeur via Shutterstock)