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Athletes open up in Twitter arena
Shaquille O’Neal is experiencing his first hailstorm, and he’s not enjoying it one bit.
“Sounds like a bunch of rocks coming out of the sky,” he says.
And then: “Run aaaaaaaaghgn run aaaaaaaagh I’m scared.”
The alarm in O’Neal’s words was only in jest - the real purpose of his message was to provide another update for fans on the activities of the Phoenix Suns’ superstar center.
O’Neal is among the scores of sports personalities now active on Twitter, the fast-growing social networking Web site that allows users to instantly provide short messages - 140 characters maximum - to anyone who cares to log on and follow along.
And follow they do.
O’Neal - he goes by the name “The_Real_Shaq” - is one of the most popular and active Twitter users. He has provided more than 1,400 updates - or “tweets,” as the site calls them - in the six months since he joined and built a following of more than 1 million fans who read along as he quotes Benjamin Franklin, laughs at Charles Barkley, reveals his favorite breakfast cereal and makes playoff predictions (Orlando over Boston in Game 7 - by 30).
Hundreds of athletes have discovered Twitter this year alone, often with the blessing of leagues and teams that adopted the service as a marketing and promotion tool. The tweets range from inane commentary to observations on the playoffs to complaints about a flat tire.
NBA Commissioner David Stern, for instance, gave Twitter a try during the league’s All-Star weekend. The NFL had several employees, including Commissioner Roger Goodell, tweet on developments at the draft last month. The NFL’s Twitter feeds generated tens of thousands of followers, suggesting its potential popularity for the upcoming season.
“It’s an opportunity to talk to and with fans,” said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, himself an active tweeter (NFLprguy). “It’s really a sports bar and focus group where we’re able to see what’s on the minds of fans, media and players.”
Twitter represents the latest phase in a push for more interaction between fans and sports figures, industry analysts say. Twitter is similar to blogging but offers a less time-consuming and more informal alternative.
“There’s that certain style that bloggers write in, and that’s really difficult for an athlete to do when they’re trying to focus on their primary jobs,” said Jim DeLorenzo, vice president of the digital division at sports agency Octagon. “They are always going to be at a disadvantage to the professional blogger. With Twitter, because you can use it from your cell phone, it takes two minutes. The fact that Shaq has spelling mistakes in his tweets is fine because most people do when they write text messages. It’s really a lot more convenient for athletes. It fits into their lifestyle more.”
Mr. DeLorenzo helped develop Twackle.com, a Web site that collects and displays sports-related tweets on a single platform. The Washington Capitals and Orlando Magic were among the first teams to consolidate all of the tweets about their organizations by using Twackle.
“It’s so hard to find everything that’s out there,” Mr. DeLorenzo said. “We’re basically giving people the tools to come together around these virtual flash mobs around different sports content and topics.”
Other prominent sports figures with active Twitter accounts range from O’Neal teammate Steve Nash to New York Jets defensive back Kerry Rhodes, sports agent Drew Rosenhaus, Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams and Southern Cal football coach Pete Carroll. Washington Redskins tight end Chris Cooley, who recently tweeted about his appearance on the NFL Network, is perhaps the most active local athlete.
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