How has social media changed the athlete-fan relationship?

The development of social media channels has no doubt enabled fans to be closer to their favourite team, athletes and personalities than ever before. However, just how much has social media changed altered the fan-athlete relationship and what are the positive or negative impacts as a result of this?

The development of social media has led to a number of athletes having accounts across platforms, such as Twitter, Instagram and more recently TikTok, that enable them to communicate with sports fans as well as foster brand awareness and engagement for their commercial opportunities, two key pillars of the brand equity model developed in 1996 by Aaker. Whereas before fans would write letters or pick up the phone they can now reach athletes, who previously were unreachable as a result of geographical location as well as physical access, they can now reach their favourite athletes and personalities through a simple ‘@’ sign followed by their username, as shown here. A recent survey suggested that the vast majority of the 1,557 NFL athletes are on Twitter and regularly interact with each other or other sports as shown below in Tom Brady’s tweet about former NBA player Charles Barkley. Whilst some players do not interact with their fans but the majority do and they are able to share content through their accounts and give fans the experience of their personal lives. With the development of Instagram stories often athletes now share short videos that act as updates throughout their day lasting for 24 hours before being automatically deleted as well as information about charity work that they carry out, such as Deshaun Watson who has used Instagram and Twitter to showcase his charity work in his hometown. On the other hand, Twitter enables athletes to converse and communicate with their fans in a more open styled environment. Often players are said to be brought down from their pedestal that fans place them on and are humanised as a result of social media usage.

Whilst the development of social media has enabled fans to get closer to players and feel like insiders there are also some negative aspects of the development of social media. Unlike with the majority of more traditional communication channels Twitter and Instagram accounts do not have the ability to have PR review functions which leave athletes wide open to making statements that fans could be offended by and therefore disagree with. A further negative product of social media is that we remove all vocal and visual cues of what is actually said therefore fans can often misinterpret the context of comments. As a result of this these comments can become a PR nightmare which can negatively impact the opinions fans have of personalities. Furthermore, with easy access to communicating with athletes there has been an increase in athlete abuse after a poor performance. Recently in the Premier League a number of players of a BAME background as well as referees have been on the receiving end of abuse as a result of poor performances on the field. This clearly represents a negative aspect of social media as nobody deserves to be abused let alone in their place of work.

Social media has been brilliant in providing athletes with the chance to showcase their personalities, connect and communicate with fans and also to help pursue opportunities outside of just their sport. Moreover, the chance to build a rapport with fans, present their opinions on matters outside of just their sport as well as show their experiences in their personal lives has helped fans to see that these athletes are more than just robots who play a sport, they are people who have opinions and want to help others achieve more. On one hand, it must be said that in the right hands with good intentions social media is an extremely powerful tool that does more good than bad but on the other hand if social media falls into the wrong hands then the potential consequences are grave. How can we do more to protect athletes, fans and teams in online spaces?

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