Stars' tweets have sports bodies all in a Twitter
Microblog site gives fans a great insight, but the pitfalls for athletes are many, says Owen Gibson
Amir Khan uses it to trash potential opponents, Andy Murray to poke fun at his entourage, Kevin Pietersen to express his innermost thoughts on England's selectors, and Rio Ferdinand and Robbie Savage to wind each other up.
The number of sports stars addicted to Twitter, the social networking and microblogging site, is growing fast. It is rapidly changing the way they interact with the media and the public and for some it is already a costly pastime.
Tweet in haste, repent at leisure has become the mantra for those caught out in recent weeks. What was a minor irritant for some sports governing bodies has become a serious matter. The only issue that has diverted senior England and Wales Cricket Board executives from the match-fixing crisis in recent weeks has been dealing with a string of troublesome and foul-mouthed tweets.
The most high profile of a number of outbursts was when Pietersen railed against the decision to drop him from England's one-day squad as a "fuck-up". He was fined, apologised and claimed he had not meant to send his message for public consumption.
The ECB has claimed that talk of an outright ban being written into players' contracts is wide of the mark. But the England team's managing director, Hugh Morris, and the team director, Andy Flower, have found themselves spending too long debating the finer points of social networking etiquette.
The popularity of the service has grown exponentially in the past 18 months. Inspiring devotion among its fans and bafflement among its detractors, it allows users to update the rest of the world on their movements and thoughts in 140-character bulletins. Which, for a section of society with larger than average egos and often plenty of dead time, is too much of a temptation to resist. The more popular attract tens of thousands of followers. Popular figures on Twitter include the band Coldplay (more than three million followers), Lily Allen (2.3m) and Stephen Fry (1.7m).
In sport, basketball star Shaquille O'Neal leads the way (three million), Lance Armstrong has more than two million. Golfer Ian Poulter has more than one million and in tennis Andy Roddick has 360,000 and Andy Murray more than 200,000. Footballers have a bit of catching up to do.
But for all the pitfalls, there are positives. In an age where many fans feel increasingly disconnected from the sports stars they venerate, hidden from view behind the walls of their mock-Tudor piles, Twitter may represent an opportunity to close the chasm marginally.
Everyone is learning how to use it but also how to react to it. Half the shock is that we are surprised to hear the unfiltered thoughts of sports stars. We're not used to this being in the public domain.
Ferdinand is one of the most savvy in his Twitter use. In common with his portfolio of outside interests, including film production and a digital magazine, Ferdinand appears acutely aware of the value of using Twitter to give a limited window into his world. Because he is able to engage on his terms he is perhaps more honest than he might be in a TV or newspaper interview.
While he actually gives little away, by genuinely interacting with his so-called "Twitfam" he has altered perceptions. Murray, one of the earliest and most enthusiastic tweeters, achieved a similar feat. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the tennis player Laura Robson and the Olympic diver Tom Daley have also enthusiastically embraced it: for a teenage sports star trapped in an endless routine of training, hotels and departure lounges it must offer a tantalising glimpse of the real world.
Less well-known names have also garnered an impressive following on Twitter simply by having something to say. This week Rohan Ricketts, the former Spurs midfielder now plying his trade in Moldova with Dacia Chisinau, became popular when a link to an article he had written lifting the lid on footballers' sex lives was extensively circulated on Twitter.
Twitchy football clubs are nervous about Twitter, wary that their players will give something away or -- worse -- air their dirty linen in public. Many have imposed outright bans on their players tweeting, fearful of the consequences not only on the field of play but on their commercial value. Newspaper journalists arriving at Manchester United's Carrington training complex were informed on Friday that they were no longer allowed to tweet or text from press conferences.
The dangers of tweeting out of turn were highlighted by Darren Bent's tirade at Spurs during a fractious transfer window in July 2009, enraging his chairman, Daniel Levy, when he posted the message: "Do I wanna go Hull City NO. Do I wanna go Stoke NO do I wanna go sunderland YES so stop fucking around levy." But having got his wish, Bent is back tweeting as @DB11.
However, while they are fretting about the talent, governing bodies are also desperately searching for the best way to use Twitter to engage with their own fans.
Mark Whittle, head of media relations at the English FA said that South Africa 2010 was "the Twitter World Cup" despite the fact that Fabio Capello imposed an outright ban on his players, believing it is also fundamentally changing the relationship journalists have with players and each other.
The FA insists that its players engage in no external media during England duty and argues it should include social networking sites. "We embrace Twitter, we monitor it and we use it where appropriate. But ultimately we're not there to get fans closer to the players, we're there to win football matches. That's Capello's edict," he said.
In football in particular there is also a powerful sense of dressing-room omerta that prevents current players from speaking too openly. There are exceptions. Ryan Babel lives up to his name with a frequently unintelligible stream of consciousness. But those who have a media career to promote, among them Savage, tend to speak more freely. "I advise my sports clients not to have Twitter accounts," says the former News of the World editor turned PR Phil Hall, whose clients include John Terry and several big investors in football clubs. "In a team sport there is a real danger that you'll inadvertently give an advantage to the opposition. It's very easy to be indiscreet."
Yet Hall can see why it appeals to entrepreneurial sports stars looking to feed their ego and with an eye on their "brand". "The media is changing fast. Twitter turns you into a franchise. Instead of someone like Rio Ferdinand being part of the Manchester United franchise he is effectively creating his own," he said.