The “success” of Twitter in promoting women’s sports: ‘Show me the money!’

5 05 2009

tweet-birdThere seems to be much discussion over Twitter and how it might be “the answer” to successfully marketing and promoting women’s sports. Jayda Evans (Seattle Times columnist & Twitter-er) wrote about it, the Women’s Professional Soccer League is using it, and Megan Hueter, Co-founder of Women Talk Sports, has two recent blogs about the importance of social media for women’s sport (A recent blog is about Twitter and an earlier blog was about Facebook). I responded to Megan’s blog, and she responded back (scroll down on her blog about Facebook to see our exchange). I enjoyed this dialogue and have been thinking about this issue ever since.

I get that social media is a platform to market women’s sports in a saturated market, and it is accessible, current, relevant, provides athlete-generated content etc…I got it. I love social media, really I do, so this is not a critique of social media or those that love it, promote it, and live for it. I have a Blog (obviously), a Facebook page, am connected to colleagues through LinkedIn, and recently conquered my Twitter fascination. However, even with my love for social media I’m reluctant to make claims about the effectiveness of it in promoting female athletes and women’s sports. It is the researcher in me—I’m critical and skeptical until I see the proof (i.e., empirical data).

I have seen ZERO research that demonstrates if, and how, social media tangibly and effectively promotes and markets women’s sports. I queried one of our very smart graduate students who is immersed in this research, and she didn’t know of any either. We will stand corrected if it exists. Just because everyone is all atwitter about Twitter doesn’t mean it “works” or will “save” women’s sports.
twitter-image1Here is what we generally DO know about Twitter and sport:
1. Twitter exists and is rapidly growing in popularity
2. Some people, but not many (~5% of the population), are currently using Twitter
3. Some professional athletes are included in that 5%
4. Many professional sport leagues have a Twitter presence

Here is the $1,000,000 question: Has Twitter lead to an increase in—attendance, ticket sales, merchandise sales, sponsorships, media coverage in mainstream sport media, number of teams in women’s professional leagues, or any measurable interest in or consumption of women’s sports? Right now, Twitter is a good listening tool and provides a way to listen to brand champions of women’s sport (i.e., the core, loyal consumer). But other than that, show me the data. It might be doing some good, but has anyone thought about the flip side?…. that social media might not be good for female athletes or women’s sports? So how might Twitter and other social media (including those not invented yet) be “bad” you ask? Well here are a few things to ponder.

It is a well known fact that female athletes receive only 6-8% of coverage in traditional sport media. This statistic has remained consistent over the last 20 years, despite increases in girls and women participation in sport. When female athletes are covered in traditional sport media, they are often portrayed in ways that marginalize or minimize athletic competence and highlight sexy, hetero, feminine aspects of the female body or identity.

A perfect example of this is the March 23, 2009 ESPN magazine cover of pregnant WNBA Rookie of the Year Candace Parker in which the opening sentence discusses that Parker “…is beautiful. Breathtaking, really, with flawless skin, endless legs and a C cup…” If you want a thorough, and I think well done, sociological critique of this article read this blog which appears in Contexts. I did a little mini investigation after I saw the Parker cover and found: In five years (2004- March 2009) females athletes have appeared on 5 of 168 ESPN covers (3.6%…less than the average) and when they do….well see for yourself.espn-mag-women-covers-5-yrs

While social media is changing the role of sport journalists, sport media scholar Marie Hardin argues this is both good an bad. I add it is good if it changes coverage patterns of female athletes, but I would add it is bad if it becomes expected that female athletes have to be partially or largely responsible for promoting themselves as well-rounded “girls next door” through social media as a way to “save” their leagues or bolster their own “brand”. Why isn’t it just enough for Candace Parker to play basketball to the best of her abilities? The NBA doesn’t ask Kobe Bryant to be more than a great basketball player do they?

Could it be possible that social media, including Twitter, is just another means to replicate the ways in which traditional sport media marginalizes and sexualizes female athletes? Twitter’s existence does nothing to challenge the status quo or existing structural inequalities between men’s and women’s sports…especially since it is an “opt in” platform.

Another point to ponder: How are female athletes and professional leagues presenting themselves on Twitter? Stay tuned for results on cutting edge research two of our graduate students are just completing on this very question—this is cool stuff! In the meantime, I’ll give you one example that occurred on the 2009 WNBA draft day which caught my eye and highlights my previous point. I saved three (of many) Tweets written by draftees, the WNBA, and other attendees who were collectively discussing “how we look and what to wear” rather than “how we play” on Draft Day 2009. 2wnbadraft-day

What everyone should do who cares about this issue and the cause of women’s sport, is think less about hyping social media and more about how social media can be used to create real social change and lead to sustainability (meaning…show me not only the data, but the $$$$) of women’s professional sport leagues…and more importantly, how can we prove and measure “success”?

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14 responses

6 05 2009
20tauri

I think Twitter, Facebook, and blogs have served to increase awareness about women in sports and the people who are interested in promoting women in sports. I have found it fascinating that there’s a whole crew of folks (mostly women, but some men, too) who are talking about these issues on a regular basis. I would not have guessed before the advent of social networking that so many people actually cared! If nothing else, I think that networking will actually promote both the spread of information and increased action to go out there and let your voices be heard about women in sports. Before social networking there wasn’t really a centralized place where people could come together and discuss issues related to female athletes, coaches, umpires, etc. (BBS systems of the early 90s came close, but they were largely run and used by young men who weren’t necessarily into sports, let alone women’s sports…) You’re right that the money aspect may not come directly from these outlets, but I’d be surprised if there weren’t eventually real, measurable benefits to be had, whether it’s in participation numbers or whatever the case may be.

6 05 2009
nmlavoi

Dear 20Tauri, I agree that social media is a great place for those who love women’s sports to voice their thoughts, and for female bloggers and sports journalists (male and female) to write about it. It is fun and exciting to see a consortium of people writing about women’s sports and have it centralized thanks to Women Talk Sports! It does provide a space, given the scarcity of coverage in traditional media outlets. I hope you’re right that “we” can someone leverage this groundswell to measurable benefits. It should give leagues notice that people do care, and they should pay attention…but I’m afraid the leagues won’t know how to use social media effectively past the “its new and shiny” phase. I guess we wait and see!
Thanks for your thoughts. -nml

6 05 2009
Austin

I can hardly go a day (or even an hour!) without someone forwarding me an article about social media or Twitter. A constant I’ve seen throughout these recent, and nascent, narratives regarding Twitter is a lack of empirical research – surely, we are seeing a phenomenon emerge and we know SOMETHING is happening — but that is where the certainties stop.

We still have no idea what that “something” is. In all honesty, it could be a very bad something for women’s sport … especially (like the linked post highlights) if social media only replicates and reinforces these dominant and emblematic representations of the hetero-, hyper-sexual female athlete. If that is the case than it’s extremely premature to call any kind of social/new media a savior or posit that it can only be a positive for women’s sport. Thus, this post resonated with me, because I’ve been feeling like there’s a disconnect for some time (and of course, am now attempting some research of my own).

Another disconnect that may need further fleshing out is the relationship between organization/league and the athlete. While the former may think social media is a “quick fix”, do the actors (i.e. athletes) know that they are pawns – Or are they just being “regular” people, connecting with friends and not realizing that they are being called upon to save the women’s sport in 140 characters or less?

It may be that leagues and teams may want to show female athletes as “regular” well-rounded people. This could be the subject of a whole other “blog” and could be someday … but if there is a conscious or unconscious attempt to promote an image of well-roundedness (i.e., mother-athlete, friend-athlete, and student-athlete); it’s borderline insulting to both the athletes and the fans. Many people, arguably most people, spend their entire lives TRYING to be exceptional at one thing. However, female athletes are truly exceptional and have spent their entire careers honing their talents. Why wouldn’t we want to showcase that kind of exceptional? Possibly in more than 140 characters?

6 05 2009
Austin

Additionally, I wonder if it plays into traditional gender roles to assume that “social” media is a good fit for the marketing of women (i.e., stereotypically the more “social” sex) …

6 05 2009
nmlavoi

Austin, I couldn’t agree most with your post. Thanks for commenting! You said “We still have no idea what that ‘something’ is” that works or doesn’t work and that really is the main point I’m trying to make.

But I think that your are onto something when you said that everyone seems to uncritically accept that social media is “good for” marketing women’s sports. Social media isn’t the primary way men’s sports are marketing and promoted but it is “ok” for the women. We are relegated to the space of social media, because we don’t have any place else to go.

We can read this two ways:
1. be glad social media does exist because traditional media has never given equal coverage of women’s sports, so at least something exists!
2. be mad that traditional media has never given equal coverage of women’s sports, so at least we have something (which can be read as a “less than” something)

Traditional media as we know it, is changing…so maybe having a stake in the social media space is good. But one thing that bothers me about the use of social media is that most of it is “opt in”..–Facebook, MySpace, Blogs, Twitter. For those who don’t care about women’s sport, they wouldn’t be following for example the WNBA or the Women’s Sport Foundation. They would have to search it out. So are new fans created by social media or are we just disseminating information to our brand champions in a different forum?

Pat Griffin had a good point about WNBA player Chantelle Anderson’s blog on YardBarker in that she is reaching fans on that site who don’t typically follow or care about women’s sport…because those fans ARE ALREADY THERE! That is my point.

Perhaps we are edifying and galvanzing our brand champions, but failing to rope in the coveted and elusive young male sport fan into women’s sport.

I also fear that because women’s sport and those who love it and write about ARE relegated to social media and websites, that this space becomes “feminized” and thus devalued. It is parallel to when females entered the workforce and a predominance of a certain job was filled by women, it became a less valued and marginalized job (i.e., administrative positions, nurses, teachers). I think this may be happening with women’s sport and social media….but this is more of a gut feeling than empirical.

The ultimate strategy then it to is push for more integration of women’s sports into mainstream media, while continuing to carve out a space in social media. That way we ensure women’s sports are not ghettoized in the “opt-in” exclusive space (not everyone has access to the WWW) of social media. Thoughts?

13 05 2009
DKish

First off, the whole Twitter idea can be summed up in a sentence. Just like advertisers know, all media is good media. If it creates a buzz around the nation, and a certain social group/business/person/etc. is involved with it, it will help them. More people will have heard of them with the help of the media. So even if people think Twitter is not the answer for women’s sports, it still cannot hurt them.
Another way to think about the scenario is this: researchers still cannot figure out whether Twitter is producing an increase in ticket sales, merchandise sales, media coverage…THE ECONOMY IS DOWN RIGHT NOW!!! It’s impossible for any company to see if a marketing plan is actually working. Say Twitter helps bring in 10% more fans to games. But the economy decreases the attendence by 10%, then your even. By the statistics, you don’t know whther Twitter or the economy is doing anything. As far as you know, the same amount of fans are coming to games just like the previous year.
Next, for the ESPN cover stories. Yes, the Candice Parker article was a bit sexist. ESPN Magazine produces more revenue from men than women (that would be my guess) In order for them to keep receiving that revenue from magazine sales, they will have to slant their stories in order for men to want to buy it. On the flip side, ESPN would probably want Men on all of their covers. There are probably agreements made between ESPN and the female athletes stating something along the lines of: “I will put you on the cover as long as you do a photoshoot wearing one of these outfits.” The options would be a skirt, low cut shirt, bikini, etc. If the female athlete refuses, then they will go with a male athlete. Also, by refusing, it takes away from potential money in the athlete’s pocket. I am sure a front cover on ESPN Magazine makes a large percent of money compared to the money female athletes make in their sport. According to Yahoo, the highest paid WNBA player makes less than $100K a year. That is nothing compared to the more than $20M a year male athletes get in MLB, NBA, and NFL. That is why female athletes are willing to do these types of photoshoots.

13 05 2009
Sarah S.

I too have been intrigued by all the discourse around Twitter these last few months, so intrigued that I signed up for an account myself. Interestingly enough, I joined because of the groundbreaking marketing I heard the Women’s Professional Soccer League was doing on there, not because I thought the population (~5% of them) should be exposed to mundane daily ‘tweets’ about my life.

Included in most of this discourse around Twitter is talk of the new twist it’s putting on social media, but also its perpetuation of neoliberal forms of governance (i.e. 24-hour lateral surveillance, peer monitoring) that MySpace and Facebook gained popularity for facilitating several years ago. I mean Twitter literally makes it possible for you to follow someone (as long as they ‘tweet’) all day long. In fact it’s even been credited with saving lives! (Google: “Did Demi Moore’s Twitter feed stop a suicide?”) However this blog is the first I’ve seen to address some of the negative consequences associated with the Twitter phenomenon in relation to the way professional sports teams are using it as a marketing and public relations tool.

Personally, I can’t say I have thought too critically about the use of Twitter in promoting women’s sports until now. My initial reactions as a fan and consumer of women’s athletics are of course to think that any exposure is good exposure. Thus I found it interesting that you raised the question of if Twitter will ultimately just become another means of replicating traditional sport media and its marginalization/sexualization of female athletes…Obviously, one would hope not. However, then again I feel like it would be ignorant to assume that many of the WNBA and WPS players tweeting during games, on the sidelines, or on their own time, haven’t been coached on what is and is not acceptable to bring up. Could you imagine if a female athlete ever tweeted, “Tired after a long game, watching a movie with my girlfriend.” I don’t think league administrators would ever let it happen, it would defy the representations of these women in heteronormative ways, and I am sure they would worry about it alienating the “family” consumer they are desperately trying to reach that buys tickets. Therefore in this sense, maybe your question about whether Twitter is reproducing dominant portrayals of female athletes can already be answered.

In regard to the comment about Twitter’s existence doing nothing to challenge the existing inequalities between men’s and women’s sports though, I think I would have to somewhat disagree. The unprecedented marketing campaign that the new Women’s Professional Soccer League has under way on Twitter far exceeds anything the men’s equivalent league, MLS, has out there. While, I concede that using soccer in the United States is not necessarily the best example of prevalent men’s and women’s professional sports, I still feel my argument is applicable. In terms of followers alone the WPS’ official site has over twice as many in comparison to the MLS’ (4,018 vs. 1,792 to be exact). They even out number our very own NBA team, the Minnesota Timberwolves’, page by more than 2 to 1. While these numbers don’t negate your acknowledgement that because this is an “opt in” form of media consumption they may not be reaching people outside of those already interested in the league, I guess I just like to think what if they are? What if people are opting in because of the access to information and the athletes that the WPS promotes through Twitter? What if this leads them to go see a game with some friends? Technically that would put money in the league’s pocket. And while of course there is no research currently available to prove either of our opinions right or wrong (because as you said only time will tell,) I suppose I just don’t want to jump to such a quick revocation of the potential positive implications Twitter might bring to the new women’s soccer league, or women’s sports in general.

14 05 2009
Adam Neuharth

While I don’t necessarily care for Twitter, I think its a great idea as another type of social media because it gives us access to athletes that we have never had before. It also gives athletes a way to convey their personal views, agendas, or side projects that we as the audience don’t get to see because of what the mass media chooses to cover.
I don’t think that Twitter will further sexualize or marginalize female athletes unless the athletes choose it to be that way because the Twitter accounts are operated by the athletes themselves. They are responsible and can completely control what their “followers” see. If female athletes don’t want to be marginalized further than the media already has done to them, they should make sure that they keep that in mind when posting to Twitter, Facebook, or Myspace.
The examples from the WNBA draft day twittering, while probably not detailing the best aspects of the draft, were posted by the athletes themselves. If Kristi Toliver did not want people looking at her for what she was wearing and how beautiful her and her fellow draftmates were, then I have to believe that she would have chosen not to post that to her Twitter account. Another thing to consider is that on Draft day, they aren’t playing basketball. They are all dressed up in suits, dresses, whatever. The NBA and NFL draft have been looked at the same way in the past. Leading up to the draft, there are always questions about ” What are you going to be wearing?” I can remember two instances in particular where two NBA athletes wear ridiculed for years about what they wore on Draft night. (See Karl Malone and Jalen Rose and you will know what I’m referring to.)

I have to disagree on the comment made about “The NBA doesn’t expect Kobe Bryant to be more than a great basketball player, do they?” The NBA certainly expects Kobe Bryant and all of their players to be more than just great players. They want them to be great role models for young children, as well as good citizens on and off the court. They have shown this by instituting a dress code on game days, starting the NBA Cares program, and penalizing players for off the field incidents that have nothing to do with Basketball. I think we expect this from all athletes as we have put them on an unreal pedestal because of their superstar status. Last year during the NBA finals, ABC/ESPN did a fairly long story on Kobe Bryant, the father. This had nothing to do with Kobe Bryant, the basketball player, but it was refreshing to see that these athletes really are human and go through the same things that we do everyday. I think that becoming pregnant and starting a family is a big moment in any woman’s life and I find no issue in the fact that ESPN was celebrating the fact that the best woman’s basketball player in the world would put her athletic career on a short term hold to start a family, something she is probably really looking forward to. (On a side note, I DO think that the actual story was badly written and the opening sentence was inexcusable.)

One last thing, I don’t think that Twittering can “save” woman’s sports, but as they say, any publicity is good publicity. Any extra exposure cannot hurt, and unlike most media exposure, this form is completely controlled by the league or player. The onus is on them to decide if they are going to contribute to gender stereotypes or not. It will be interesting to see what the research that the two graduate students are conducting shows as to how this is affect tickets sales, etc. I can’t imagine it will have had that much affect on those tangible things.

19 05 2009
nmlavoi

Jane, this isn’t off topic at all. Thanks for your thoughts (to see Jane’s comment go to http://www.womentalksports.com/items/view/20167). No I don’t think female athletes are coerced into being sexy, I think they have internalized years and thousands of images of “what it means to be a woman” (i.e. a narrow range of sexy, pretty, feminine). In essence some females athletes (if not all to some degree) have unconsciously adopted these ideas. There is a great report by the American Psychological Association (http://www.apa.org/pi/wpo/sexualization.html) that outlines this process and how dangerous it is for females, and athletes are not excluded. The report does recognize the important role of sport/physical activity in counteracting the many negative outcomes associated with the sexualization of girls. It also outlines the high value placed on physical attractiveness can result in girls experiencing reduced cognitive functioning, low self-esteem, eating disorders, depression, diminished sexual health, and internalization of stereotypes. I’m not saying that female athletes should be limited to only representing their athletic selves, but when they have grown up in a culture & society that has continually sexualized females, it is not surprising that some female athletes find this an important aspect of their identity to promote. In short, I guess what I and others would argue is that to change this cycle, and to have women take control of their own messages as Megan points out, females athletes have to primarily promote what their bodies can DO, rather than what their bodies look like. When that happens, all the young female athletes growing up now will have different images and messages that are positive…which can hopefully counteract all the other less positive messages they are bombarded with every day.

19 05 2009
nmlavoi

Megan, You raise some thought provoking points. (To see Megan’s response go to http://www.womentalksports.com/items/view/20167). I agree you can’t quantify relationship building, which is one problem of social media research right now. I love your point about female athletes getting to control their own message(s) and “brand”, rather than leaving it to traditional sport media which is largely comprised of men (see AP Sports Editor Report, 2008; http://web.bus.ucf.edu/documents/sport/2008_rgrc_ap_sports_editors.pdf) and as a whole has been responsible for scarce and marginalizing coverage. I do think this aspect of social media can be positive if female athletes want to “opt-in” and interact with each other or fans, but it might also be problematic. If both the WPS and WNBA representatives “give them the green light to say anything they want” that can be both good and bad. As evidenced by the Twitter widget and blogs, these women have a lot to say and finally have an outlet to say it! (We all know they don%u2019t get the opportunity much in traditional media. However, all of the athletes in those leagues have grown up in the post Title IX era and have not had to “fight” for the right to play. They’ve also consumed a lot of sport media, a majority of which tells them they should be sexy, pretty, feminine AND athletic…so they’ve bought into the dominant way of “marketing” themselves…perhaps INCLUDING their use of social media. If female athletes are given free reign to say what they want, without guidance, advice, media training or any critical thought about WHAT messages they are sending, not only about themselves but their leagues, that could be problematic. I’m certainly not about stifling free speech or advocating for somebody to play Big Sister/Brother and monitor what female athletes say, but I do think there might be times when as you say “being truthful and honest” may hurt the women themselves and the league, not help. Thanks for your post I appreciate your perspective. -nml

19 05 2009
nmlavoi

Rob: I agree with you (see Rob’s comment athttp://www.womentalksports.com/items/view/20167) that the female athletes we are talking about are intelligent women, but that doesn’t mean they are all trained to manage their own messages. Even the most intelligent and capable athlete, celebrity, politician etc…can benefit from professional media training. I think we’d all be surprised of the % of women (or men) that don’t have a clue about, as you say “the messages than emanate from our culture” or how to manage their own messages. If all people did, the entire industry of media and communication training (such as Kathleen Hessert’s Sport Media Challenge, http://sportsmediachallenge.com/) would not exist. Secondly, I was talking about “sexualization” of female athletes, not healthy (or ‘dirty’ as you say) sexual health. According the the APA (http://www.apa.org/pi/wpo/sexualizationsum.html) sexualization occurs when any one of these four criteria exist:
1.a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
2.a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
3.a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
4.sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.

I would also argue that “suppressing” female athletes’ “nature” to promote sex, is not a product of nature (meaning it is inherent in everyone), but speaks to my original point-women grow up internalizing societal and cultural messages about femininity, and what it means and looks like to be a female…in addition to the (sometimes conflicting) set of messages about what it means to be a female athlete. Unfortunately, currently only a narrow range of female athletic bodies are seen and promoted in main stream media, and those bodies are the ones that most closely align with dominant ideas of femininity. I can’t wait for the day that main stream media embraces and promotes all shapes and sizes of females athletes like Ann G. writes above. That is why WTS (www.womentalksports.com) is so needed (thanks WTS!) to provide an alternative means to promote all types of female athletes and their athleticism.

19 09 2009
On Writing (Part 2): How Might Advances in Social Media Influence Women’s Sports Coverage? | Yuvablog

[…] to think about social media and women’s sports. However, consider this comment from a post on the One Sport Voice blog: The ultimate strategy (for women’s sports) then it to is push for more integration of […]

6 11 2009
Diana

I believe it’s far too soon to gauge the impact social media, and Twitter particularly, will have on women and sports. Ladies – we need to just keep playing, keep working together and one day, those guys won’t know what hit ’em and I’m sure social media will have played some part in that revolution.

8 11 2009
nmlavoi

I hope you’re right! -nml

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