Twitter has had its moments in the political spotlight in recent months, as you might have heard and read — or as you might have noticed by glancing at its trending topics most any morning or afternoon.
But even in these complicated times, come nighttime the social media site continues to be dominated by a subject that has been one of its strengths in the face of competition from bigger Internet fish such as Facebook: sports.
That has been mostly positive for leagues, teams and media companies, who leverage the site to keep fans engaged, and for Twitter itself as a platform for GIFs, videos and live streaming that are a nice fit for the games people play.
And yet, the site continues to be a complicated tool for athletes — and media members — who use it, given that it can be employed both for good and, um, not so good.
Let’s just say it’s complicated, including for the traditional media that bankrolls much of the sports industry. People who are fixated on second screens during games are engaged; they also are distracted from the first screen.
Jim Bell, president of NBC Olympics production and programming, said the multi-screen universe — especially of “those pesky millennials, and I’ve got four of them” — has become a fact of business and personal life.
“They almost can’t watch TV without a second screen,” Bell said of his young family members. “I think Twitter serves, whether it’s a media event or politics or sports, as a very capable second screen when your feeds are populated with the right things. It can also end up devolving quickly into garbage and insults.”
Even in the heated political year of 2016, the first and fourth most-discussed Twitter topics were the Olympics and the UEFA Euro Championships in soccer.
The site also skews younger than a traditional medium such as television. Twitter said 70 percent of its NFL live stream audience last season was under 35 years old.
Speaking of which, Twitter also has streaming deals with the NBA, PGA and MLB Advanced Media, and recently added the National Lacrosse League.
Global fan base
Laura Froelich, Twitter’s global head of sports partnerships, said the site always has been a natural fit for sports, saying users “can experience games as a community with their fellow fans.”
She said Twitter also works for a world in which fans are spread far and wide outside a team’s home area.
“Sports are becoming borderless thanks in part to fans’ ability to follow along and connect on Twitter from wherever they may be — whether it’s NBA fans in India, Arsenal fans in the U.S., or Cristiano Ronaldo fans everywhere,” she said. “Thanks to Twitter, players have the opportunity to become global brands.”
That is reflected in business terms. Froelich noted Twitter’s NFL, NBA and PGA Tour partnerships are global. Several advertisers in Mexico and Brazil sponsor streaming of “Thursday Night Football,” for example.
Still, for many of the athletes, coaches, executives, journalists and fans who use the service, restraint does not come easily, for better and worse.
Most agree that when used responsibly, Twitter and other social media offer a valuable connection. When used irresponsibly, look out.
Some embrace it despite the risks. Others, not so much.
“Man, let me tell you something: You know I’m not a social media guy,” Turner basketball analyst Charles Barkley said. “I think social media is one of the worst things that ever happened to the world, because every loser has an opinion.
“Every loser thinks their opinion is important and it’s one of the evils of the world. I do no social media whatsoever. Never have, never will. But, hey, man, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube now.”
That you can’t. So most teams and players have tried to make the best of it, even collegians, who have less leeway than do highly paid pros.
“Most guys have social media, but it’s a matter of: Would you want your parents to read what you’re putting out there?” said Oregon guard Casey Benson, whose team will play in the Final Four on Saturday.
“I think guys are smart about it, especially on this stage with the platform we’re on. If you’re going to put ignorant things out there, it’s going to bite you.”
Often the attitudes about social media sharing, and oversharing, differ along generational lines.
As CBS/Turner basketball analyst Reggie Miller, who is 51, said, “There’s no way I would’ve been able to deal with it in today’s landscape if I was an athlete. I could not have done social media.”
Miller acknowledged the brand-building benefits of direct outreach. But watch out for those Twitter “mentions.”
“If you have thick skin and you can read that and not let it bother you, then great,” he said. “But everyone now has a voice because of Instagram and Snapchat and Twitter and whatever. That could be your downfall. If you’re thin-skinned you shouldn’t be on it.”
Miller is on it, but it is easier now that he is a Hall of Famer who talks about basketball on TV rather than an active player who once was Public Enemy No. 1 for Knicks fans.
Wally Szczerbiak, another CBS/Turner analyst, who played at Cold Spring Harbor High before spending a decade in the NBA, said the league has been “leaps and bounds” ahead of others in its constructive use of social media.
But he is not displeased that his final season, 2008-09, came just before athletes’ use of Twitter became widespread.
“It would have been hard for me, it really would have,” he said. “I was a guy who just wanted to be known for what I did out on the court and I wanted my private life, my family, my kids, to stay private. Nowadays that is tough to do.
“But it’s a balance. There’s such a big pot of gold, so to speak, at the other end of that rainbow through social media if you don’t do it, you’re missing out, big time. You’re hurting your image.”
Multitasking not for everyone
Announcer and studio host Bob Costas, who grew up in Commack, said watching two screens at once is fine for those who are into that sort of thing. Which he is not.
“If you’re a 23-year-old kid, and you’ve grown up multitasking technologically, you can do probably three or four things at once,” he said. “You can be checking your Facebook page, you can be following what people are saying about it on Twitter, you’re watching the Cubs play the Cardinals and you’re in a Cardinal or Cub chat room.”
Costas said he marvels most at the ability of some announcers to engage in social media DURING a game they are calling.
“I would think that, even if Twitter didn’t exist,” he said, “I would not want to be doing a crossword puzzle between innings while I was doing a baseball game or during a commercial while I was doing a football or basketball game.”
There are nearly as many approaches to the site as there are users.
NBC golf analyst David Feherty has more than half a million followers, but he said he mostly lets NBC staffers do the posting. “I just don’t pay any attention to it,” he said. “I don’t read tweets; I don’t answer them.”
He shudders to think how different sports life would have been if this had been around last century.
“Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, can you imagine?” he said. “Arnold Palmer?” That would have been a different story altogether if we had had this kind of instant gratification and communication . . . One of the reasons I don’t use it is there is so much downside to it.”
John Tavares has tweeted once since mid-November, a March 21 post supporting a fundraiser organized by teammate Anders Lee.
Other than that . . . nothing, by design.
Not only that, but the Islanders captain rarely bothers even looking at Twitter to see what everyone else is typing about — or looking at his phone in general. Bold words for a 26-year-old.
“I don’t really go on it ever anymore, even just to look or scroll through news or mentions or whatnot,” he said. “I just find that I don’t want to be on my phone all day, so I try to get away from it a little bit.”
So, count Tavares as a voice of reason and calm in a stormy social media sea.
“Even if you put something on there you wish you didn’t put up there, even if you delete it, it’s still there,” he said. “So there’s no taking that back. People in our position have to be extra cautious.
“In a lot of ways it’s a good tool. But obviously there are certain things that you want to avoid and keep them to yourselves. Using Twitter may not be the time and place to voice something.”