Irish sports stars enjoy the 'tweeter' side of life
Social media has changed the way we communicate in a very profound manner. The growth of Facebook, Bebo, YouTube and latterly, Twitter, has changed how we consume and pass on information in a way that challenges more traditional methods of communication.
Twitter is what's called a micro-blogging service, which enables its users to send and read other users' messages called 'tweets'. These tweets are text-based posts of up to 140 characters displayed on the user's profile page or account. It is like issuing a text message meant for the eyes of the world.
In Ireland, statistics show we have 185,000 Twitter users and it is a growing medium. What may have been deemed a fad is now very much part of the media landscape. Twitter is quick, easy to use, instantaneous and relatively non-commercial. Above all, it is actually interesting and engaging.
Inevitably, Twitter has become a favoured medium of communication by fans, sports journalists, sports associations, bloggers and most interestingly, sports stars themselves. So, which sports stars are on Twitter? What exactly are they saying, or in this instance, tweeting? Well, quite a lot actually.
Ian Poulter's (@IanJamesPoulter) Ryder Cup commentary, pictures and jokes through his Twitter account provided some of the more entertaining aspects of the tournament.
His picture of Padraig Harrington asleep on his golf bag while rain poured down over Celtic Manor was one of the images of the Ryder Cup. His behind-the-scenes description of team bonding and jokes that the players played on each other gave a real insight into the team spirit of the European side.
Holywood golfing sensation Rory McIlroy is also a Twitter sensation. McIlroy actively engages with his followers on Twitter and fellow sports stars, which goes a long way to explaining his popularity online. A recent example was when he called on his followers to ask him questions with "OK guys, gonna try and answer as many questions as possible in the next hour. Fire away!"
He then answered or 'retweeted' his answers to all. Kimi Raikkonen, Rickie Fowler and Bubba Watson were some of the stars to ask him questions, but the general public also got their chance to put a question to a sporting superstar.
Sports stars in the UK have long been fond of tweeting. On the current Ashes tour, English cricketer Kevin Pietersen -- or @kevinpp24 as he is known on Twitter -- hit the back pages when blasting ground staff at Australia's Adelaide Oval as "pathetic" in an irate tweet after England's practice session was forced indoors due to rain two days before the start of the second Ashes Test.
Pietersen's outburst was not his first as he also hit out after being dropped in September for the Twenty20 and 50-over series against Pakistan, which got him into the bad books of the cricket authorities.
This can also happen in the unpredictable world of the Premier League, as Sunderland striker Darren Bent found out. In one of the first major Twitter controversies, Bent criticised Spurs chairman Daniel Levy while trying to exit the club during the transfer window in 2009. As Bent eloquently put it when tweeting: "Do I wanna go Hull City NO. Do I wanna go Stoke NO do I wanna go sunderland YES, so stop f***ing around Levy." Bent later moved to Sunderland.
Twitter can be a minefield for sports stars tweeting the first thing that pops into their heads. Australian swimmer and gold medalist Stephanie Rice caused a major stir Down Under and had her sponsorship with Jaguar terminated this year after tweeting "Suck on that f**gots" after Australia's late win over South Africa during the Tri Nations.
Recently, Rio Ferdinand fell foul of his sponsor NIKE after tweeting about the "chavness" of a NIKE tattoo while the controversial Robbie Savage showed his lack of affection for X-Factor star Cheryl Cole by tweeting that she was "only famous because she married a footballer."
Twitter's beauty lies in the fact that it can be free and loose. It is everything which the sports star is guarded against in the controlled environment of a press conference or a pre-match interview. Throw in a paranoid manager watching over the shoulder and the chances of a meaningful interview decrease dramatically. Twitter has none of those constraints -- for now.
In Ireland, sport is often one of the top trending topics and Irish sports stars are flocking to the micro-blogging phenomenon with gusto. Sports fans and journalists in Ireland have been tweeting about GAA matches, rugby games and general controversy for a long time.
So, who in Irish sports is tweeting and what are they saying? The professional and amateur sports stars in Ulster were quickest out of the traps and it is no surprise they dominate the 'who's who' of Irish sport on Twitter.
Top of the leaderboard is the curly-haired sensation Rory Milroy (@McIlroyRory) with over 66,000 followers and growing rapidly, with his buddy Graeme McDowell (@Graeme_McDowell) closely behind with over 48,000 followers.
Others who have taken to Twitter include rugby star Brian O'Driscoll with over 21,000 followers and growing. Paul O'Connell and Tommy Bowe have a huge following with recent Twitter recruits Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy already attracting a large fan base. Ulster's Stephen Ferris, Paddy Wallace and Andrew Trimble also score very highly. What can be most interesting is the mention of their lives outside of sport, which gives a flicker of an insight into their personalities.
Outside of rugby and golf, there are slim enough Irish pickings, but cyclist Nicolas Roche has a popular and informative Twitter account with 9,000+ followers while Reading's Noel Hunt (@boyhunt) is the most prolific tweeter of the Irish soccer internationals.
Interestingly, @stephenireland, an unverified account, has become quite active of late and is attracting interest -- the nature of Twitter means it can be difficult to identify legitimate accounts which has led to the blue verified tick beside those celebrity accounts which have been officially verified by Twitter themselves -- and former international Tony Cascarino is similarly very active.
One of the most interesting trends has been the lack of uptake amongst the famously media-shy GAA stars. Some footballers and hurlers may well be on Twitter, but they are not saying a huge amount if they are. While a number of Mayo stars are bucking this trend, not one GAA star is even among the top 30 Irish sport stars on Twitter.
So, why the reluctance from GAA stars? Hurlers and footballers are quite media shy, but many will surely see the commercial benefit of embracing Twitter and with a new generation of youngsters coming through, it won't be long before footballers and hurlers are giving us a glimpse of what they are really like in 140 characters.
It will probably only take one rugby star and a controversial tweet to make headlines to ruin it and push Declan Kidney to enforce a ban. It's hard to see Brian Cody being a fan of Kilkenny players tweeting their innermost thoughts on the team bus on the way to Croker, but we will wait and see.
You can expect sponsors to try to manipulate and take control of the various client Twitter accounts. Brian O'Driscoll has a relatively big captive audience and he regularly tweets about his sponsors, but thankfully still provides some fresh and real content as well.
With London 2012 looming and athletes looking at their commercial potential it will be no surprise to see the likes of Derval O'Rourke, David Gillick, Alistair Cragg and Jamie Smyth develop a following. Similarly, the more high profile jockeys will start developing their online presence and some are already doing so.
In the US, sporting and brand ambassadors and endorsers now must place a notification in the form of a hash tag (#spons) to declare when a tweet relates to a sponsor where a relationship exists to avoid controversial backlash in what is preferred as a sponsor-free zone. Irish athletes may have to do the same.
If you want to see what Irish and international sports stars are tweeting about, go online and have a look yourself. It's free.
A former Dublin footballer, Mick O'Keeffe is Pembroke Communications MD, who specialise in sports pr and social media (twitter @okmick, and @irishmediawatch)