Ward Andrews may walk unnoticed down the streets of Chandler, Ariz., his hometown, yet indirectly he's had a enormous impact on modern sports culture. We owe him a debt of thanks—or at least a follow on @wardandrews.
When Shaquille O'Neal was traded to the Suns in 2008, Andrews created the Twitter account @shaquilleoneal. A longtime fan, Andrews, a graphic designer by trade, had a talent for imitating Shaq's voice and sensibilities. As parody, he began "ventrilotweeting." (Sample: "I take it personal when people don't double me. It's against my religion not to double me.") Shaq was amused by his digital doppelg√§nger, but, reasonably, figured he might as well generate his own messages. So in November 2008, O'Neal inaugurated @The_Real_Shaq (since changed to @SHAQ) and, as he's put it, "got hooked bad." Noting the response to tweets from a real NBA star, team executives soon launched @PhoenixSuns and encouraged all the players to set up Twitter accounts. Other NBA teams followed.
In keeping with Twitter, a long story short: @SHAQ is now closing in on four million followers. The Suns are now hailed as one of the most social media-savvy team in sport. Every NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL franchise has a Twitter presence. So do roughly half of all pro athletes. On this, the fifth anniversary of the company, it's a good time to acknowledge that Twitter has become a permanent part of the sports firmament.
There are still, of course, Twitter holdouts, most echoing Katie Couric's line about microblogging: No one "gives a rat's ass whether I am about to eat a tuna sandwich." And, true, you could create a popular feed simply by aggregating ill-advised sports tweets that have engendered embarrassment, apologies, fines and sometimes all three. Reggie Bush (@reggie_bush) and Ozzie Guillen (@OzzieGuillen) would make regular appearances. So might Tony Wroten, a Washington basketball recruit who, earlier this year, tweeted: "just me and my 2 bros. we got a 3 person Spanish class. #Niccceeee." (An investigation ended with the firing of the high school's athletic director.) You could also include the antisocial media of Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall (@R_Mendenhall) who, skeptical of 9/11, tweeted: "I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition style."
But let's be clear. Twitter is not the digital version of Thunderstix or the Wave: a fad, annoying some and exhilarating others, sure to pass. Not only is it here to stay, but we've entered a new phase, Twitter 2.0 as it were, that's moved well beyond 140-character ruminations. When the Chargers faced a possible TV blackout last season, the team took to Twitter and sold the seats. Other teams use Twitter for everything from letting fans vote on the music played during games to holding draft parties. During a recent game, the White Sox and the Indians hosted a #hashtag battle, donating $1 to cancer research each time a fan used either #GoTribe or #GoWhiteSox.
If you think about it, sports—real-time events with undetermined outcomes and passionate followers—is singularly well-suited for social media. The barroom has moved to our pockets. During Super Bowl XLV there were as many as 4,064 tweets per second, a record until last month's Champions League final topped out at more than 6,300 per second. Innumerable fans have become conditioned to the "second screen" experience, checking out their mobile feed while watching the game. But note how many fans at the games are on Twitter as well. Suns swingman Jared Dudley (@JaredDudley619) foresees a day when an injured athlete will walk off the court and, via Twitter, fans will get a streaming video feed from the locker room.
Other athletes have noticed that, whereas they were once followed by fans on Twitter, they are now actively chased. Fans tweet athletes messages; when they get a response, it's the modern equivalent of an autograph. To hidebound types this will seem inexplicable; but is it any more ridiculous than athletes scribbling their names on scraps of paper?
For their part, athletes may have started by using Twitter as a toy, but now often use it as business equipment, a device for connecting with consumers, branding themselves, moving product. "It's a way of getting your voice out there, your personality across, where in the past, you had other people speaking for you," says Cleveland guard Baron Davis (@Baron_Davis), who hopes to produce a reality show over social media. "It's all you, so there's no manipulating the message."
It is also changing the athlete-sponsor relationship. Consider Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald (@LarryFitzgerald), a first-team All-tweeter. When he embeds a sponsor and tweets, "My Give away will b in about an hour. The HINTS: U might need my jersey & u might need 2 be at coldstone! Goodluck!" it's somehow more authentic than a 30-second spot.
It was over Twitter that Tiger Woods apologized for spitting on a golf course. The UFL held its last draft over Twitter. And, fittingly, Shaquille O'Neal announced his retirement via @SHAQ, the most retweeted sports-themed tweet ever. Presaging Twitter's evolution, he embedded a video, sent photos and held a hashtag contest to come up with his next nickname, a bit of interaction that drew more than 50,000 responses. Even in repose, the Big 401(K) will whip out his mobile device and make sure his tribe of followers is growing.
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O'Neal started tweeting in 2008; now @SHAQ has nearly FOUR MILLION FOLLOWERS.
ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF WONG