Social network Twitter ushers in new era for athletes
Social network Twitter ushers in new era for athletes

Andrea Adelson

From the Press Box

June 22, 2009

Shaquille O’Neal has 1.34 million followers on Twitter. That “Twitterville” would be the seventh-largest city in the United States, just ahead of San Antonio, where he played high school basketball.

If that isn’t an endorsement for every athlete out there to get on the social-messaging service, then what is? O’Neal has taken Twitter mainstream, but he has also started to revolutionize fan interaction, making his tweets must-reads for anyone interested in him.

Just in these playoffs, we got to watch the Finals with O’Neal. We learned through Twitter he was rooting for Kobe Bryant over the Magic. He put out an “if they mated” photo of a lovechild between Stan Van Gundy and Dwight Howard.

He continued to hit home his “Van Gundy is a Master of Panic” quote when he tweeted after the Lakers won the Finals: “When the general doesn’t panic, the troops don’t panic.”

Fans can go directly to the source to find out exactly what they want to know. But more importantly, they can actually interact with O’Neal, bringing the fan and athlete much closer together in an era when athletes live in McMansions, walled off from those who spend their hard-earned money to watch them play.

So who can we thank for this quasi-revolution?

“The Twitter Lady.”

Or Kathleen Hessert as she’s more formally known.

Hessert, president of the media consulting group Sports Media Challenge, introduced O’Neal to Twitter after someone posing as him set up an account and started tweeting away. Sensing this was an incredible opportunity for O’Neal, a gregarious and sometimes larger than life personality, she convinced him he needed to join Twitter himself to obliterate the impostor.

He began in November 2008, and since then he has posted 1,853 tweets. He responds to his fans, too, and is never shy about telling it how it is.

“I don’t think anybody could have envisioned that he would popularize Twitter the way he did,” Hessert said. “He took what was already a magnificent brand and he opened people’s eyes and created new fans worldwide because this medium and he meshed so well, and now he’s bringing his popularity to new heights I don’t think he ever imagined.”

Hessert and her crew checked 750 random profiles of O’Neal followers shortly after he joined Twitter. What they found was pretty interesting: there was a much larger contingent of women following him than they expected, and basketball fans were not the No. 1 demographic following him.

What can we take away from that: Anyone who wants access to O’Neal can have it.

“This has changed the way people communicate around the world,” Hessert said. “The athletes, the coach, the athletic director, people should try it even though they don’t think they might like it.

“When they understand the ability they have to show a multidimensional personality and to share what they think, what they feel, what they know, they can take charge.”

Hessert has introduced other athletes to Twitter: Danica Patrick (@danicapatrick, 17,570 followers), Pacers players Danny Granger (@dgranger33, 10,349) and Troy Murphy (@troy_murphy, 4,295) and Olympic gold medal decathlete Bryan Clay (@bryanclay, 1,883). She also has set up college coaches and athletic programs on Twitter.

Countless other athletes are on, from @DwightHoward (with 356,837 followers) to @lancearmstrong (1.12 million followers — that would rank him 10th among U.S. cities).

All these tweets are breaking down walls between the athlete and fan. It’s no secret the schism between the multimillion-dollar athlete and Joe Fan has grown, with grousing and resentment over such inflated contracts and unapproachable superstars.

But Twitter has helped give fans a sense of who athletes really are, and that is something we all want. Yes, these athletes want to brand and market themselves, and Twitter provides that avenue. But it also provides the athletes with a forum to tell the fans what they are thinking and who they are.

Athletes no longer need an intermediary.

That is something every fan should cheer.

Copyright © 2009, Orlando Sentinel