Professional athletes like Shaquille O’Neal have long understood the positive externalities associated with developing a presence on social media as a direct means of interacting with fans.
Although no college player is likely to accrue the three million-plus fans of @THE_REAL_SHAQ, Twitter and social media as a whole have been a real boon to college athletics also — but they have brought up new concerns as well.
How much social media freedom should student-athletes possess?
Some schools like the University of North Carolina have instituted restrictive policies that require coaches or administrators to have access to and regularly monitor their players’ social media activities.
Meanwhile, the University of Miami (Fla.) ordered players to shut down their Twitter accounts after a tough loss because it had apparently become a distraction, and Texas Tech University did so as well last season after a player made an unsavory comment about the head coach in a tweet.
Although there have been more than a few incidences of pro players embarrassing their organizations with Twitter rants, most have their business managers in their ear ensuring they don’t screw up their personal brand too badly. The majority of college athletes are responsible in this realm as well, but at the same time they are just college kids, so an immature outburst once in a while is almost to be expected.
Although both college and professional athletes represent their teams through social media, their situations differ greatly.
Many football coaches – college and pro – treat every tidbit concerning their team as classified information from the Pentagon, but blanket policies like those previously instituted at Miami and Texas Tech punish the majority of the responsible student-athletes who deserve the opportunity to enhance their personal brands on Twitter.
“You have to talk with your student-athletes about it on a regular basis,” said University of Arizona athletics director Greg Byrne, an avid proponent of Twitter himself. “They have an opportunity to monitor their own activities and they know that they can lose their privilege if they are not responsible.”
Players also must be careful to stay away from doing anything on Twitter that could make them ineligible. Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ocho-Cinco has practically built his own empire of endorsements from his Twitter personality, but college athletes are not privy to those same opportunities if they want to retain their NCAA eligibility.
So long as players do act responsibly, Twitter only serves to drum up more interest in college athletics as well as the specific player tweeting, end results that are a win-win for both the player and institution.
A new recruiting tool
Coaches are famous for running full force through any loophole in the NCAA’s encyclopedic rule book.
Twitter and Facebook provide another prime way for coaches to directly or indirectly reach recruits without breaking any rules.
According to the NCAA rules:
“An athletics department staff member may take actions (e.g., “like,” “favorite,” republish, “tag,” etc.) on social media platforms that indicate approval of content on social media platforms that was generated by users of the platforms other than institutional staff members or representatives of an institution’s athletics interests.”
Coaches also are not allowed to @reply recruits, and direct messages are subjected to the same restrictions as a regular e-mail. Any direct message received on a mobile phone is essentially treated as a text.
But coaches can still enjoy a competitive advantage via social media by creating a robust Twitter account for themselves or their program. By building up an account and constantly playing up the positive aspects of their program without directly mentioning any recruits, they can make an NCAA-permissible impact on recruits using social media marketing services.
That’s not to mention all the positive externalities for the school, such as more regular students picking the college in part because of that coach’s interaction.
Furthermore, if social media is a major part of a top recruit’s life, he or she might favor attending a social-friendly school over a restrictive one.
Engaging with fans
Perhaps the most important way athletic departments can use social media is through engaging with fans, as after all those football season tickets are the reason schools can afford to foot the bill for a full complement of athletic teams in the first place.
Schools can use social media to connect with fans, give out prizes, provide inside team information and of course remind them of ticket specials.
Byrne, the new social-centric UA athletic director, does a little of all of that.
“It is an easy and inexpensive way to connect to your fan base, media and future fans on a regular basis,” Byrne told Vertical Measures. “We cover a wide variety of topics which helps keep people engaged.”
Fans are often encouraged to upload their game pictures to team Facebook pages, which also include video, daily insights and giveaways.
As athletic departments continue to tighten their collective belts (the University of California-Berkeley cut funding to five of its teams earlier this week), engagement on social media is an important way schools can stay high on the priority list of their season-ticket buying alumni.
Social media is here to stay, and the schools that embrace it for the way it can connect a fan base and promote a team or a player rather than shun it because of its potential embarrassing and distracting tendencies will have a leg up in the arms race of college athletics.
“I think that social media is only getting started,” Byrne said. “Look how much it has grown in only a small period of time. People use it in the middle of our events whether they are at the game or not.
“How do you tap into that to capture more interest and fans? We work on that every day.”