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From a Supporter to a Skeptic on the Impact of Social Media on Women’s Sports: Musings of an Emerging Scholar


calhoun-webAustin Stair Calhoun, M.S.Ed.

Second-Year PhD Student (Sport Sociology), University of Minnesota

Tucker Center Research Assistant

Just a few moments ago, my co-advisor and Tucker Center Associate Director, Dr. Nicole LaVoi, said to me after I went on a mini-rant about social media and female athletes, “Well, I am still waiting for your blog.”

My response?— “Me too.”

Despite being one of social media’s biggest fans (I even dressed up like Twitter for Halloween!) and the self-proclaimed new media nerd of the Tucker Center, writing *this* blog has been a struggle for me. I have so much that I want to say, especially since the Tucker Center Distinguished Lecture, that I can hardly wrap my head around one single, coherent point or even three marginally coherent points. Until today (I hope).

Today I was reading a recent post on Women’s Sports Blog titled, “Is Twitter A Woman Thing?“, and this line really caught my eye: There is no question that more female athletes are tweeting than male athletes.

I have to disagree—and I have data to back it up. In addition, I would argue that even if female athletes outnumbered male athletes on Twitter it wouldn’t matter.


Will social media "fail" or save women's sports?

A fellow graduate student and I presented, Examining Elite Sport Representations in Social Media: Conceptualizing Twitter, at the European Association for Sport Sociology in May in Rome. We tracked the usage and presence of 113 professional athletes who used Twitter (if you want to know more about our selection criteria and method you can email me). First, our sample was comprised of only 25% (n=28) female athletes. Second, if you add up the number of Twitter followers for ALL 28 female athletes for our October 2009 data collection, you get just under 98,000. That is 24 times fewer followers than Shaq alone (as of 1:30pm on November 2, 2009 Shaq had 2.49 followers). The female athlete group total is roughly the same number of followers as Andy Murray—a men’s professional tennis player from Scotland. Murray may be the 2008 U.S. Open Runner Up—but is one Andy Murray equal to a two-time national champion (Candace Parker) plus a six-time NCAA All-America honoree (Shannon Rowbury) plus an iron(wo)man (Rebekah Keat)?

Even Serena Williams, one of the highest followed female athletes on Twitter, has 1.3 million followers. (In case you are curious, Venus has just 183,886 followers. Being the older sister is tough.) has considerably fewer followers than Shaq.

The point is—even if there are more female athletes then males in the Twittersphere—they may just be tweeting to the choir and talking amongst themselves. They may be tweeting, but who is listening? Are they making new fans and connections? Is their digital presence serving to challenge and transform the normative ways the media has traditionally depicted female athletes (i.e., inferior athletes, sex symbols, family-oriented)?

I am not sure the answer to any of those questions is an affirmative. And that worries me—and it should worry you if you care about women’s sports.

Women’s sports is looking for social media to be its savior (you know because women are inherently more “social” then men). Yet I’m not sure social media is the tool or the platform to make real social change—the kind that shakes up the system.

Until … 1) female athletes are trained to use social media in ways that present themselves authentically, athletically and as the amazing role models they are, 2) female athletes tweet about the winning shot over their bikini shot, 3) women’s sports can show an ROI of using social media—until then, I remain a skeptic.

And a very, very interested (emerging) scholar.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 11/03/2009 8:01 pm

    Interesting article, Austin. I am actually just encouraged by the fact that someone is watching and studying this so closely. I think this could be a long conversation, but I just wanted to add my $.02. I’m not sure we (as female athletes) are looking for social media to be a savior. I just think there is a real opportunity for us to leverage social media to make things better.

    I think the trick is in getting the right people to follow us. We need to find our local news outlets online and engage in their conversations first. Once we get their attention and gain some credibility, then we can start to pepper them with our own messaging. In order to be successful, it needs to be a little slow and subtle first.

    • 11/04/2009 11:13 pm

      Colleen – I love the idea of using social media to create social change, and I really appreciate your perspective. Thank you for your comment! -Austin

  2. Galen Clavio permalink
    11/03/2009 10:41 pm

    Good thoughts all around…I saw that article too (courtesy of Heather Maxwell’s facebook news feed, no less) and also had to disagree. Although I didn’t have that sort of data to back up my disagreement!

    Part of our problem as sport social media researchers is that we’re often times trapped into thinking about social media the same way we think about traditional or non-social media. Your follower numbers are interesting, and I’ve used the same thing in some of my research…but I’m starting to think that counting followers misses the point entirely.

    Regardless, your point about training athletes to use social media is spot on. Sadly, most sport orgs either don’t see the point, or worse, see it as a distraction/danger.

    • 11/04/2009 11:51 pm

      Thank you very much for your comment – and I am glad to provide some data to the discussion. I agree that followers may not be the most robust way to “count” or track the impact of social media — content and textual analysis of these social media platforms is clearly the next step, in my opinion.

      In addition, I agree that it is sad that organizations don’t see the use in giving athletes suitable training in managing their digital presences. If they did, imagine what social media could do! (I am looking more like an optimist here then a skeptic!)



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