- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 26, 2009

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.

Most leagues don’t have policies that govern the use of Twitter, though the NCAA last week announced that coaches are forbidden from replying to other users or accepting replies. And the Milwaukee Bucks scolded forward Charlie Villanueva for tweeting from the locker room during halftime of a game in March.

Mr. McCarthy said the NFL reminds players to follow the league’s existing guidelines on public comments and expects to reiterate those at this summer’s rookie symposium. One of the attendees will be a quarterback fighting for a job with the Redskins, Chase Daniel - an active tweeter (ChaseDaniel) with more than 2,500 followers. Daniel recently tweeted about his first trip to Five Guys, where he chowed down on bacon cheeseburgers with first-round draft pick Brian Orakpo.

David Silver, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco, said athletes should be reminded that Twitter, unlike text messaging that is widely used in athletic circles, is a very public activity.

“I anticipate a couple of athletes, celebrities or known people getting in a little bit of trouble in thinking that their Twitter feed is a text message and it’s not,” Mr. Silver said.

He was, however, quick to add: “They’re grown adults. They should kind of know what they are saying.”

There is some question about whether Twitter’s content is too trivial to sustain interest. A recent study from Nielsen Online revealed that only 40 percent of Twitter users in a given month return as active users a month later.

But Mr. DeLorenzo said tweets from sports figures are often compelling by nature simply because of their source.

“In my mind, most of what an athlete writes on Twitter ends up being compelling because of the immediacy and the intimacy involved with it,” Mr. DeLorenzo said. “If Shaq were to write a blog post saying, ‘I tweaked my ankle, it’s not that big a deal,’ it’s not that compelling. But if he does that when he’s in the locker room after the game, the immediacy and the timing of that can’t be matched by bloggers.”

Tennis pro Jim Courier (JimCourier), one of the most active tweeters in the sport, broke ground earlier this month by using Twitter during changeovers in a mixed doubles exhibition match against John McEnroe.

“I hit a rick-donk-u-lous slice angle pass to go up 2 minibreaks off of a sick mac approach. Yee haw,” he tweeted toward the end of the match.

Profound? No. Rewarding for fans? It can be. Courier, for example, offered free tickets to sporting events for fans who answer trivia questions through Twitter. O’Neal announced his whereabouts via Twitter and offered free basketball tickets to the first fan to approach him.

“What a fan is going to want is going to vary from fan to fan, and what strikes one person as useless might strike another person as being really cool,” said Nancy Baym, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, who has studied the issue of Twitter and fan culture. “It can be a very powerful and rewarding thing for the athlete and the fan to have that kind of personal connection.”

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