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More and more sports fans are turning to Twitter to keep up with their favourite athletes.

Fans follow athletes on Twitter

Twitter has found its way into the daily routine of Olympic champion Simon Whitfield.

The 2000 Olympic triathlon gold medalist, who tweets @simonwhitfield, generally comes home from a swim and logs on. He reads through various tweets and often finds about a half dozen links from people he trusts. Whitfield, who is based in Victoria, where ParetoLogic (@paretologic/team-paretologic) is headquartered, opens the links in new tabs and reads them throughout the day.

"I find Twitter very interesting," the 2008 Olympic silver medalist told the ParetoLogic newsletter. "It's a great way to interact with friends, read news and story recommendations and interact with my peers in the triathlon community."

Of Whitfield's 5,669 followers, as of April 7, many are fans. Twitter has become a popular way to keep tabs on athletes. In a September, 2010, Burst Media reported that more than a third of sports fans between 18 and 34 follow athletes online. As of April 7, basketball player Shaquille O'Neal (@the_real_shaq) of the Boston Celtics was the most popular athletic tweeter with 3.68 million followers, according to tweeting-athletes.com. Coming in second was Real Madrid soccer star Kaka (3.2m, @kaka) with seven-time Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong (2.7m, @lancearmstrong), skateboarder Tony Hawk (2.3m, @tonyhawk) and Real Madrid standout Cristiano Ronaldo (2.2m, @ Cristiano) rounding out the top five. In sixth place is four-time Wimbledon champ Serena Williams, who has the most followers (2m, @serenawilliams) of any female athlete.

Twitter gone wild

Unfortunately many athletes are finding that when people are following you have to be careful about what you say. Back in 2009, prolific rusher Larry Johnson of Kansas City Chiefs complained about his coach via Twitter. Sources believe those tweets were a factor in the National Football League team releasing the running back.

Before the 2010-2011 NFL campaign began, Chad Ochocinco was fined $25,000 for violating the league's social media policies. Players are not permitted to post messages on game days for a period starting from 90 minutes before kickoff and ending with when their postgame media obligations are fulfilled. During a preseason tilt, the Cincinnati Bengals receiver (@Ochocinco) tweeted twice in that time frame.

San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson (@BrianWilson38) took heat for his tweets in 2009. The day after the baseball star tweeted about being at a Scottsdale night spot, Wilson blew a save. A San Francisco Chronicle beat writer speculated Wilson's first blown save of the season could be linked to his late night activities. By the way, Wilson's famous beard also has its own Twitter feed, @BeardOfBrian.

Another high profile example of Twitter getting athletes into trouble was in the aftermath of this year's NFC championship game. Many current and former NFL players tweeted criticism when Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler did not re-enter the game after sustaining an injury. For example, Maurice Jones-Drew (@Jones_Drew32) of the Jacksonville Jaguars tweeted "All I'm saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee... I played the whole season on one." Jones-Drew later backed off his remarks, but he received much negative publicity over them.

"It's a funny thing that the same people who can be cautious and bland – who would never, ever call out another player in an on-camera or postgame interview – will put down 140 characters that they would never utter aloud," wrote CSNBayArea.com contributor Ann Killion in a Jan. 26, 2011 website posting.

Safe or boring?

The dilemma for the brain trust and PR folks for sports teams at a variety of levels is figuring out how to use Twitter, Facebook and other social media to bond with fans but without stirring up controversy. On Vancouver Island, the Victoria Highlanders FC (@HighlandersFC) soccer organization uses its team Twitter feed to promote its six squads. The organization, whose top men's team plays in USL Premier Development League (PDL), uses social media to build its brand, said Communications Coordinator Dustin Finerty. When the Highlanders were deciding whether to move its top female side up to the USL W-League, it used Twitter to gauge fan interest, try to generate excitement and get info out to followers quickly.

"By posting pictures, behind the scenes photos and videos and by the creation of viral videos that our fans can ‘Like' and ‘Share' on Facebook, Twitter, and any other social medias they prefer; we try to create an atmosphere whereby our fans feel like they are truly a part of our team," Finerty told the ParetoLogic newsletter.

The Victoria Salmon Kings (@TheSalmonKings) of the ECHL use Twitter to promote its hockey club. Representatives of the Highlanders and Salmon Kings indicated that, to their knowledge, their players are not active on Twitter. On the other hand, the B.C. Lions (@BCLions) of the Canadian Football League encourage their players, particularly big names like all-star slotback Geroy Simon (@geroysimon), to promote themselves, the team and the CFL on social media. However, Jacqueline Blackwell, coordinator of communications, said the Lions ask their players to use caution.

"Generally, the message we send to players is to refrain from making statements via social media that they wouldn't state publically," Blackwell said. "Such statements can include criticizing fellow players or coaches, officiating, the league or any other remarks that the club would impose a fine for if they were said to a member of the media or in another public manner."

Rhys Duch (@DucheeLax10) of the National Lacrosse League's Washington Stealth said he won't tweet if alcohol is involved. Duch, who also plays senior lacrosse with his hometown Victoria Shamrocks (@_Shamrocks), also avoids tweeting about personal, family things.

Whitfield strives to keep his tweets engaging. He said he avoids "inside jokes, complaining about specific dramas and vague tweets with no point of reference."

"I tweet about things I find interesting, funny moments in training, special events and a fair bit of re-tweeting of stories or articles I want to share. I do find it hard to set aside caring what some people think and just tweeting freely, unfortunately within any social group there's judgement and like many people I probably care too much about it (and participate too much in judging others....)"

Some observers wonder if when athletes censor themselves does it give fans the insider view they are looking to have on Twitter?

"Most athlete Twitters are boring. I know they give us some totally unvarnished insight into their personal lives, but so would their phone bills. It's one-way communication (for the most part) that's even more stunted than a post-game interview -- with the only advantage being that there's no pretence of formality," popular blogger Bethlehem Shoals wrote on SB Nation in 2009, responding to the early popularity of Twitter.

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