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Posted: Friday June 5, 2009 11:23AM; Updated: Friday June 5, 2009 4:15PM
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Twitter craze is rapidly changing the face of sports

Story Highlights

From Shaq to Serena Williams to Stewart Cink, athletes are atwitter about Twitter

Twitter satisfies fans' thirst for a closer connection to some of sports' biggest stars

Sample Tweet from Shaq: "Dam manny ramirez, come on man Aggggggh, aggh."

By Sean Gregory, Special to SI.com

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stewart-cink.jpg
Stewart Cink has been known to tweet about everything from his allergy medication to his flight times.
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Stewart Cink is a nice golfer -- ranked 29th in the world, a member of the 2008 Ryder Cup-winning U.S. team -- and one of the most affable, accessible guys on the PGA Tour. But the 17th flagstick at Sawgrass has more star power than the laid-back Atlantan. So why does a digital version of Arnie's Army, 280,000 strong and surging, follow Cink's musings on Twitter? Perhaps they are riveted by the revelations that he recently forgot the departure time of a flight, got lost driving around Jacksonville Beach and -- brace yourself -- refilled his allergy medication. Even Cink is bemused. "I'm honored," he said of the size of his audience. "I respect and am grateful to everybody choosing to listen to the b.s. that I've put on Twitter."

Such b.s. is booming. From Serena Williams (recent tweet: "Don't forget I love The Little Mermaid") to Shawn Johnson ("Just finished up setting the record for the World's Largest Bed Jump hahaha"), Bruce Bowen ("Just met TD Jakes, I read many of his books") to Barry Zito ("I can't think of one good reason why the Denver airport's in friggin West Kansas"), jocks are atwitter about Twitter.

In fact, the entire sports world is obsessed with the microblogging tool, through which users update their web audience with frequent messages of 140 characters or less. For example college coaches, who can showcase their programs to web-savvy prospects and their parents, are copycatting each other onto Twitter. Pete Carroll, John Calipari, and Charlie Weis -- screen name "NDHFC" -- are among the big names with Twitter pages (somehow, it's hard to imagine Weis' former boss, Bill Belichick, huddled in his hoodie, tweeting away secrets from the film-room).

The tool is scoring for the pro leagues too. All the majors -- the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, NASCAR -- shoot their followers useful information like scores, schedules, and highlight clips, and inane chatter like this, from the NFL's Twitter page: "Boomer Esiason sighting here at NFL quarters." Whoopee. What's more relevant is that on draft day, the Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets both scooped Roger Goodell by announcing their first-round picks on Twitter before the commish called their names from the podium. According to trackingtwitter.com, the NBA, which claims more than 600,000 followers, has a greater Twitter audience than all brand accounts besides Whole Foods and online shoe retailer Zappos. "Our favorite feed," the site said of the NBA, which sits comfortably ahead of Starbucks in the Twitter top 25. "Great mix of content."

For niche leagues, Twitter provides a powerful marketing tool. Women's Professional Soccer, America's second stab at a female pro league, is counting on Twitter to build a base. The league even encourages players to tweet during games. "Beer garden lookin a little full tonight," Washington Freedom goalkeeper Kati Jo Spisak announced during an April game against the Boston Breakers (relax, soccer dads, she's the backup. Spisak wasn't scoping out the bar while shots sailed past her). At the WNBA draft in late April, players tweeted their reactions seconds after being selected. The league has also started a weekly series in which players answer real-time questions from fans on Twitter. Here, a cash-conscious league can engage its fans without paying a penny.

Why are all these fans flocking to Twitter for a sports fix? Sure, it's a useful app for absorbing information. But a million other sites also fill that need. The occasional prospect might follow a college coach for insight into his personality. Very few of us, however, are pushing 280 and mauling the quarterback for the State U. What's more pertinent, Twitter satisfies fans' thirst for a closer connection to big-time athletes, many of whom are overpackaged and overmanaged in their quest for marketing cash. There's also the way Twitter, which has become the fastest-growing major Web site in the U.S., peels back the curtain on an athlete's existence, showcasing personality layers never seen at press conferences. When athletes share details of their most mundane tasks, joys and frustrations, fans are fascinated. Hey, look, that guy on TV is just like me!

 
 

"I love getting my tweets from Dara Torres because they allow us to see that she's human, whether she's talking about the greasy onion rings she's eating or her butt-kicking workouts," said Jen King, a 45-year-old crisis-hotline worker from Pekin, Ill., who follows the ageless Olympic swimmer and tireless Twitterer. A sample tweet from Torres: "Guy just moved all my bags in overhead, just moved them back... WTF???"

Psychologists note that sports permit people to "bask in reflected glory." In other words, I associate with a winner, so I'm a winner. Twitter tightens this bond, even if it's imagined. "It's not really personal, but it feels kind of personal," said Indiana psychology professor Edward Hirt, who has studied fan behavior. "I'm part of a posse." Sure, I may be just one of Torres' 2,200 Twitter followers. She may never correspond with me directly. But I can at least tell my friends and acquaintances about Dara's zany experiences, since Twitter offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of her life. Knowing that some guy was a jerk to Torres on a plane might delight people, and in turn, make me feel a bit better about myself."

There are good reasons for athletes to love the Twitter connection as well, not the least of which is the opportunity for no-contact contact. Why get mobbed at the mall when you can charm thousands with a quick tweet from the comfort of your eighth bedroom? And, thanks to the 140-character limit, posts take much less energy-consuming thought than blogs, where readers expect a modicum of literacy. Misspellings and mysterious grammar are accepted tenets of Twitterese. Dwight Howard, suspended for Game 6 of the Orlando-Philadelphia series because he threw an elbow at Sixer Samuel Dalembert, tweeted during the Magic's series-clinching victory. Third-grade English teachers, avert your eyes. Here are two of his messages: "lets cheer my boys on goo magic" and "im soo proud man. yall have no clue."

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