Blog & Tackle: NFL’s message control Twittered away

August 05, 2009 | Chris Pika

The rise of Twitter from social networking novelty to full-blown breaking news source in the sports world was cemented in recent days, not in general acceptance, but in the attempts to control its reach by some NFL clubs.

The team-media relationship is mostly controlled by league-mandated access to players and coaches each week. The NFL has steadily added media access for in recent seasons, despite push back from some teams.

And as the NFL controls the access, the teams mostly control the message. Team PR representatives do an excellent job coaching key people (head coach, GM, top players) on what kind of questions might be asked and the best way to answer them, especially in losing situations. But they can’t control every info outlet.

Some of the ways journalists bypass club control is by reading major team message boards for rumors, talking to players’ personal PR reps and logging onto public player Facebook pages. Now, add Twitter to that mix. Twitter, in its’ own 140-character way, has further blurred the lines between players and fans.

Position battles and effect of injuries rule talk radio and the internet during training camp, and Twitter fuels that fire.

Sites such as SportsIn140.com do a great job of compiling legit player accounts (as opposed to fakes) in the major sports and the media. Tech-savvy fans can follow players, agents and media and decide which sources they want to follow.

For instance, Ravens fans can follow WNST’s Twitter page along with other media sources and Ravens’ players, and the real-time info flows into your mobile device.

Even the NFL itself has a large Twitter presence with Roger Goodell and several PR people tweeting regularly. PR/website employees at the Ravens, Falcons, Saints, Broncos, Chargers and other clubs have active accounts.

But Twitter’s immediacy makes some clubs nervous. Nine NFL teams (the Saints recently relented) have banned the use of Twitter by media attending public training camp practices. Fans in the stands can tweet, but media is restricted from using devices on the field (cellphones, PDAs, etc.) or tweeting from workouts. This has upset many media members, with a story by Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star in USA Today highlighting the fact that the Twitter genie is out of the bottle, and teams will have to deal with that fact eventually.

In some cases, players’ use of Twitter is an issue. Several clubs banned tweeting from team functions (meetings, etc.) under threat of fines. San Diego’s Antonio Cromartie was fined $2,500 for tweeting that the club served “nasty food.” Star players with big contracts might decide to tweet anyway just because they can and one club’s reported $1,700 fine for tweeting at functions equals the fine for being late to practice.

The media follows these players on Twitter to get information they can quote in stories and use in interviews. Ultimately, star players know they, not the clubs, hold the control on access.

One point: Once practices are closed to the public for the regular season, media has restrictions on what info they can disclose on any platform, plus many teams close practice to media after a certain point (usually before team drills; media can see who is out at practice or missing during individual drills), then let them back in at the close of practice for interviews. So, game day becomes the next Twitter playground, especially for fantasy football players.

The use of cell phones and PDAs on the sidelines or locker rooms during game day (including halftime) by clubs is banned by the NFL for competitive reasons, so Twitter is out of the question (no Shaquille O’Neal-type halftime tweets).

The league also restricts in-game content flow from media outlets and web sites. According to the NFL’s 2009 credential terms, “Game Information must be time-delayed and/or limited in amount (including while a game is in progress) as set forth … and may not, under any circumstances, constitute, serve as a substitute for, or otherwise approximate, play-by-play accounts of a game in any medium.” That seems to include Twitter, but the sheer volume of real-time info from press boxes will test those limits.

NFL clubs aren’t the only ones to wrestle with Twitter’s growing popularity.

ESPN decided to formalize a policy that says employees are held to the same standards on Twitter than they would be on air or online. No problem. ESPN is also trying to figure out how to get tweets to publish on ESPN.com and other network platforms and push links and content back to Twitter. Good idea. “The first and only priority is to serve ESPN-sanctioned efforts, including sports news, information and content,” the policy says. Still no issue. But then comes this: “If ESPN.com opts not to post sports related social media content created by ESPN talent, you are not permitted to report, speculate, discuss or give any opinions on sports related topics or personalities on your personal platforms.”

All of the tweeting about inside NFL stuff from ESPN talent – now (maybe) off limits. No speculating – that’s the oversaturation coverage ESPN usually loves to spread over all of its platforms every time there is a huge story. Just don’t look for trade rumors or quarterback speculation on ESPN’s Twitter pages.

ESPN’s competitors see it differently. SI.com’s Peter King, in his Aug. 3 column, wrote: “It’s a weird media world we’re in right now. My allegiance, obviously, is to SI.com, but I know if I take 10 minutes right now to dictate the item to someone on the news desk, the story will get up in 20 minutes, and we’ll probably be too late.”

And even more telling was a tweet from Yahoo’s Charles Robinson after ESPN’s policy became public: “ESPN says no more job-related tweets from reporters? Too bad. Follow Yahoo Sports reporters. We’re tweeting around the clock.”

What King, Robinson and other outlets, including WNST, know is that speed and accuracy drive web traffic to web sites and stories in the Twitter Wild West. You can’t say much in 140 characters, but you can give fans a place to learn more.

The real winners in the Twitter battles are the fans, who will always migrate to online sources, regardless of platform, that consistently deliver the best info and react fast and accurately to breaking news.

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