Social Media a Fact of Life in Pro Sports

Walk into the Jaguars locker room during the “media availability” time on any given day and there will be a smattering of players arrayed in front of their lockers in various positions of repose with one thing in common: They’re all on their phones. Not talking on their phones, not texting, but looking at their phones, perusing social media.

“Media availability” happens four times a week for about an hour in the middle of the day, between meetings and around lunch. So it might be the only time the players have to check their phones.

While social media has given fans perceived access to their sports heroes, it’s also given players some ownership over a part of their public image and branding.

“My social media is about who I am not about what I have,” said Defensive Lineman Malik Jackson. “I’m fashion forward, so I post some fashion, some things about the team and some stuff about my family. That’s about it. Instagram is visual and written, that’s why I’m on it.”
We used to joke in the sports department about what goes happens on social media. “I woke up this morning thinking maybe Twitter would be nice today,” my colleague Matt used to say. “But then I got on it and.. . . Nope!”
Since becoming the NBA commissioner in 2014, Adam Silver has encouraged the use of social media league wide. So much so that it’s become an indelible part of the league’s culture.

“Those guys in the NBA, they’ve got a lot of time on their hands,” Jaguars Defensive Lineman Abry Jones said regarding what seems like the constant stream of tweets and post coming from NBA players. “Two hours here, two more there. We don’t have that.”

In 2018, the NBA has already been tweeted about more than any other sports league. The league’s official Twitter account has 27 million followers, 3 million more than the NFL’s. On Instagram, the NBA has 31 million followers, more than the NFL, MLB and the NHL combined. In the NBA, there are 33 players with at least 2 million followers on Instagram. In the NFL, there are nine.

But NFL teams are using social media platforms to expand their reach. The Green Bay Packers have more Twitter followers than the entire population of the Green Bay metropolitan area.

Jalen Ramsey is the most active and followed player on the Jaguars roster. Ramsey has nearly a million social media followers, three-quarters of those on Instagram. He’s created some controversy and has experienced plenty of blowback on social media. So much so that he recently tweeted, “I’m gone from here, y’all gone miss me. I ain’t even trippin lol.”

When asked who that was directed at, Ramsey said, ““Whomever. You have something to say, you have some negativity, I guess the fake fans, the fake … Whoever. Whoever.”

While the Lakers’ LeBron James has 44.5 million followers on Instagram, more than the top 12 NFL players on that platform combined, Sixers Guard J.J. Reddick has none. He deleted all of his accounts recently. He believes he was an addict and it was taking away from his real life.

“It’s a dark place,” he told Bleacher Report. “It’s not a healthy place. It’s not real. It’s not a healthy place for ego. It’s just this cycle of anger and validation and tribalism. It’s scary, man.”

“I encourage players to use social to interact with fans and the community,” said Tad Dickman, the Jaguars Director of Public Relations. “If they’re looking for a restaurant, I’d rather them ask fans on Twitter than just go to Yelp looking for a place to eat.”

At the beginning of the season, Dickman, a 29-year old a social media participant himself, conducts a seminar on social media use, gives the players a handbook outlining the do’s and don’ts and how players can use it to their benefit. While the NFL has a broad social media policy, most of the specifics are set team by team.

No game footage can be used and live streaming is prohibited according to NFL policy. For the Jaguars the rules are pretty basic: No pictures or videos that could harm the team. No pictures from the training room or the locker room.

“Just like missing a meeting or being late, violating the rules could involve discipline,” Dickman responded without elaborating when asked if the players could find themselves in trouble posting on social media.

Like any organization with young employees, the Jaguars warn their players about putting out too much information.

“I don’t want people all up in my business,” Jones said, explaining why he limits his social media use to Instagram and even there, not much. “I like to stay in touch with some friends.”

Most Jaguars players have limited their social media to the Instagram platform. And as Jackson alluded to, it seems that everybody on there owns everything and has a fabulous life going on.

“It’s all fake,” fullback Tommy Bohanon, an Instagram participant said with a laugh. “I like to keep up with some friends. I don’t post much, but I scan through it to see what’s going on.”

Bohanon said the negativity on his accounts isn’t an issue. “I don’t care what anybody outside this (locker) room says. They don’t know what’s going on anyway.”

“I’m just on Instagram, I got rid of the rest,” Offensive Lineman Josh Wells explained.

Any trolls?

“Me, no, not me. But I know guys on the team who really get it all over social (media).”

Which is why some players have self-imposed rules.

Famously, James halted his social media posts during the 2015 NBA Playoffs calling it, “Zero Dark Thirty-23” mode.
“No phones, no social media, I don’t have anything,” James said at the time. “There’s too much nonsense out there. Not during this time. This is when I lock in right now, and I don’t need nothing creeping into my mind that don’t need to be there.”
Golden State’s Steph Curry recently stopped his usual ritual of looking at social media at halftime.

“When everybody is watching your game every night, if you let one ounce of negativity or one terrible comment creep in, especially right before a game or at halftime or something, it’s probably not the best bet,” Curry told the Mercury News.
I asked Head Coach Doug Marrone if he’d ever been on social media, he laughed as he headed to practice.
“Never. No Twitter, no Instagram, no Facebook, nothing. When I’m gone from here nobody will know how to find me!”
Probably a generational thing, but for sure, social media is a fact of life sports teams will have to continue to deal with in the future.

Shorter SpeedWeeks, Better Racing?

From a 21-day stretch known as “SpeedWeeks” the racing at Daytona International Speedway has been condensed down to a few days. NASCAR fans still plan their February vacation around the 500, but the days of comping out in the infield for weeks or parking your multi-million-dollar RV and making new friends around the nightly bonfire are gone. There’s still camping in the infield, and the RV’s are still lined up, but a four-day stretch encompassing the qualifying races on Thursday through the Great American Race on Sunday is about the extent of racing now to kick off the season in Daytona.

“I learned I didn’t have enough race car,” Dale Earnhardt Sr. told me once walking through the garage after a practice 10 days before the 500. “We’ll get it right though. There’s speed out there,” he explained. He and the rest of the NASCAR drivers as well as the truck racers (when that became a thing), the ARCA drivers and the guys in the Busch series spent hours on the track testing and in practice, looking for the right setup.

No more.

Trying to even out the field, NASCAR has limited the amount of time on the track, keeping the big teams from spending time and money to gain an advantage over the field. Most drivers don’t like it.

“We don’t have enough time on the track,” Dale Jr. has said in the past. The two -time Daytona 500 winner is happy to just be driving in 2017, back from missing half of last season with concussion symptoms.

“I’m happy, I’m smiling, I’m back,” he said on media day this week. The newly married driver didn’t rule out a shorter than expected career.

“If I were to win the championship this year, I would consider it,” he said when asked about retirement. That, I’m sure, sent shivers through the NASCAR brass who are presiding over a fragile time in the sport, looking for star power.

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is closer to the end of his career than the beginning. Carl Edwards left the sport abruptly to perhaps pursue a political career and young drivers like Ty Dillon and Chase Elliott are just now finding their footing among the loyal fan base.

Without emerging stars in a personality-driven sport, changes to the race formats are what they hope is the first step toward re-capturing some of the magic.

“We’re doing things to make the sport better on television,” Johnson said this week. “If we can get people to watch on TV, they’ll like it and they’ll want to come see us race live.”

The 500 will have two stops this year, one after 60 and another after 120 laps. Points will be awarded for position in the race and they’ll restart.

“Just enough to let fans go to the bathroom and get a commercial break in,” one driver quipped.

FOX and NBC split the season for broadcasts and are counting on increased ratings and fan engagement on other media platforms to re-energize advertisers. If not, fewer races will be on TV, fewer dollars will be flowing into the sport and they’ll have to adapt. From a regional southeastern sport until the ’90’s, NASCAR races now in non-traditional places like New Hampshire and Las Vegas. If they don’t turn the fan decline around, Rockingham and Darlington will be back with prominent spots on the schedule.