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Five years later: sports coverage, the tweet, and related things

If the first half of the last decade saw the Internet alter the landscape of sports media, the last five years have seen the spread and increasing prevalence of social media platforms across most industry mediums. Twitter, Facebook, and even fantasy sports have transformed both the content and delivery format of sports coverage.

Twitter is the most obvious example. According to Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand, ESPN is now officially pursuing Twitter integration to its website and television broadcasts. If the sports media giant’s official gesture seems relatively late in coming, it is of course true that reporters and commentators have long used the platform independently to provide second-to-second coverage of live sporting events.

Gone are the days of refreshing’s front page during half time of the Super Bowl. Season-ending injury? Twitter has the answer. Twitter feeds can betray outcomes of games before the slightly delayed images have a chance to play out on our TV screens. Meanwhile, the broadcast’s commentator analysis is often reduced to mere summary of what consumers have already read on their phones.

In light of this fact, sports writers and reporters are quickly perfecting a new form: the 140-character tweet. The number of Twitter followers is increasingly an indicator of relevance and popularity, while promptness of delivering reaction to breaking stories is a sign of expertise. Ultimately, the tweet is becoming one of the sports writer’s most relevant products. Their engagement with social media platforms in general is, if not already required by their employers, essential.

Jason Fry, a blogger for the National Sports Journalism Center, described the special relationship between sports coverage and the Twitter platform: “Sports fans were some of the service’s early adopters … Twitter and sports make for a very good match. To adapt a line from bank robber Willie Sutton, you should be on Twitter because it’s where the readers are.”

Twitter’s impact on sports media reaches beyond how content is delivered; Tweets have become important sources of content themselves. Athletes’ unmediated, occasionally controversial opinions are giving sports writers plenty of new content. Unsurprisingly, Ourand reports that ESPN is “committing editorial staffers to follow 2,000 sports industry figures.”

In August, Washington Nationals ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg sent out a tweet about a player in the Little League World Series. By the end of the following day, the tweet had created content for outlets across various mediums. From talking points on daily sports television shows like ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” to debates on sports radio talk shows, analyzing athletes’ tweets has become routine.

Consequently, the content of sports media coverage itself has also shifted. Focus on sports stars’ tweets and other social media activities has expanded the industry’s focus to more than your typical “on-the-field” stories. Personal scandal and private follies are more visible, and even more sought by consumers. While it is true that sports stars have long enjoyed celebrity-like status, the addition of TMZ’s sports section is a telling sign of how closely related the sports and entertainment coverage industries actually are.

Faster. Shorter. To the point. These are the virtues of the tweet. And just as consumers are more likely turn to social media for their sports coverage, the industry’s other forms of delivery are also reflecting the trend.

For newspapers, the blog – nearly always supplemented by a Twitter and Facebook presence – is prevalent. Shorter, more time-sensitive posts are now preferred to the in-depth print articles of old. Online blogs can now comprise a majority of a sports section’s everyday content and, in some cases, all of it.

In 2009, the Washington Times’ entire sports section was discontinued, the sports tab on its website is now essentially a blogroll. The staff is listed each with two one-word links beneath their names: Blog. Twitter. Even when the section was restarted in 2011, its content evolved to reflect the new landscape. As previously reported by inVocus, people don’t read newspapers to learn game outcomes anymore. All that is left is to provide opinion and commentary. The print edition survives, but concedes much of its former territory.

And if consumers are finding daily newspapers too slow for their liking, monthly sports magazines seem positively irrelevant. One way that the industry is dealing with lagging magazine sales is to create special sections on their websites that can only be accessed through paid subscriptions. These sections often entice consumers with both “expert advice” on popular fantasy sports topics and extra analysis of favorite teams.

Furthermore, these deals often include subscriptions to accompanying print magazines. ESPN Insider, for example, includes a one-year subscription to ESPN The Magazine. Where before, a special online section might have been considered the supplement to the magazine subscription, now the print magazine has become an added benefit to subscribing to these VIP sections.

Social media, and Twitter in particular, has had an enormous impact on sports coverage over the past five years. It has brought sports figures, those who cover them, and consumers all closer together, and opened up new channels of communication between them. While it is true that print coverage of sports has continued to suffer, social media has allowed new business models to emerge. It will be interesting to see to what extent these trends continue, and how new platforms will affect sports coverage in the years to come.

–Brent Treworgy

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