The Age of Selfies and Likes. Is Social Media Good or Bad for Sports?

In the digital age, we’re constantly taking stock of our habits. How much time online is too much time? How much should we be on social media? How does the use of social media impact us in real life? This line of queries reaches into sports as well. How does it impact the athletes, teams, and fans? Between Snap filters, Instagram hashtags, trending Tweets, and Facebook events, are there real benefits to sport? Or, do the risks of rivalries, bad PR, and distractions make social media a detriment to the game?

Social Media Builds a Tribe Mentality

If you have a team, this concept doesn’t need explaining. It’s your team. Those are your players on the pitch or court and each person who stands behind them is part of your tribe. Even strangers meeting at a pub to watch a game readily shake hands or do high-fives if they’re wearing the same colours. You don’t even need to know a thing about that person, so long as they’re there supporting the same team. Social media is like this, akin to a virtual pub where fans meet up and cheer on their teams and favourite athletes, fans now like and share posts when they're team has just won a game. The use of social media makes it possible for fans to feel like they’re part of the action, even if they’re not physically at stadium or even watching it on the telly.

Fans Crave the Connection

Research shows that sports fans are more likely than anybody else to take to social media; they’re 67% more likely to use Twitter to enhance their gaming experience and routinely keep a device in hand while watching a game. The use of social media makes it possible for fans to feel like they’re part of the action, even if they’re not physically at stadium or even watching it on the telly. Fans link up with other fans through social media, further growing the sense of connectedness. They also follow their favourite athletes and interact with them online, opening communication channels in a way that was never possible before.

Athletes Appreciate the Attention

This also feeds the athletes; they’re well aware of their fans around the globe. They hear the cheers coming through as a series of hashtags and many swear it inspires them to perform better. Social media also enables even lesser-known athletes to score influencer and sponsorship contracts, which not only allows them to gain greater recognition, but enhances awareness of sport.

Yet, Social Media has a Dark Side Too

Those who are against social media use in sport worry that the added pressure from online chatter can be too much for athletes. “No league has embraced Twitter, Instagram and Facebook like the NBA which has been great for business,” says ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh. “But the obsessive posting and commenting may not be so healthy for the players,” he adds. This recently drove Philadelphia 76ers player JJ Redick to leave social media entirely. “It's a dark place,” Redick says of social media. “It's not a healthy place. It's not real. It's not a healthy place for ego… If we're talking about some Freudian s**t. It's just this cycle of anger and validation and tribalism. It's scary, man.”

Redick isn’t alone in this. Many athletes from around the globe are feeling the strain and pressure. Addiction to their phones—to social media—keeps them checking online reflexively throughout the day, often ignoring what’s happening around them in real life. Lesley Paterson (aka the Scottish Rocket), three-time XTERRA Triathlon World Champion and ITU Cross Triathlon World Champion, shares similar sentiments. In her piece, “5 Tips for Surviving Social Media as a Female Athlete” warns of the dangers of social media addiction for athletes and even goes so far as to suggest people take a time-out when they start to feel bogged down comparing themselves to other athletes online.

Good PR Can Turn Bad Quickly Online

There’s always the potential for PR disasters too. Stephanie Rice let a homophobic slur loose while congratulating the rugby team on a win. It created a major frenzy and resulted in her losing endorsements, plus created bad PR for the team. Lakers player D’Angelo Russel was taped as he was asked about extramarital affairs. Needless to say, he found himself single shortly thereafter and was traded to the worst team in the league. Cricket Australia also missed the mark by throwing racism into the mix in a pre-game photographic taunt aimed at Monty Panesar. They later apologised and removed the post, but the damage was done, and the image still circulates on the net today. There are countless stories like these, which simply goes to show that, if you make a PR blunder online, it will spread like wildfire and can damage reputations.

If Used Mindfully, Social Media is a Benefit to Sport

Despite the potential for backfires, it’s not all bad. Even Lesley Peterson, advocator for social media time-outs, doesn’t think the platforms should be ditched entirely. “If you rarely contribute to social media, start doing so but with more transparency,” she says. “It’s terrifying at first, but it’s strangely liberating. After all, people bond on weaknesses and limitations, not strengths and awesomeness.” In this sense, athletes can use social media to lift each other up, improving the lives of others. With mindful usage, reputation for athletes and organisations skyrockets. Fans benefit from the connections too. Moreover, because everyone already uses social media platforms, teams which leverage it correctly are essentially cashing in on free marketing. This makes it the perfect fit; a win-win for everyone involved.

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