Social media has brought fans and athletes closer than ever. Twitter India’s Aneesh Madani on what makes athletes so damn popular.
In June 2015, Poonam Rani (@poonamhockey) made history by being part of the first Indian women’s hockey team to qualify for the Olympics since 1980. Her reaction was to thank fans for their support with a heartfelt tweet of a team selfie. The emotion touched a chord, and resulted in a tweet with the most hearts in 2015 from a non-cricket Indian athlete.
Sports is a part of everyday life. The first memory of sports for a generation of fans in India would be Sachin Tendulkar slicing up bowling attacks in the ’90s. Back then, the closest fans could get to their heroes was a TV interview, a sound byte, or an interview in a newspaper or magazine.
We are going to Rio Olympics. Thanks for Indian Hockey fans, Love you. Woman going to Olympics after 36 years. pic.twitter.com/L2HGzKcZVR— Poonam Rani Malik 15 (@PoonamHockey) July 4, 2015
Fast forward to 2015, and social media has transformed how fans connect with sports stars. Today, athletes from nearly all 56 Olympic sports, and other major sports are on Twitter. All professional sports leagues and teams in India are on Twitter, as are 80 per cent of Indian cricketers playing the upcoming ICC World T20.
Athletes being themselves
The lives of professional athletes are defined by their results on the field. And fans can be unforgiving. While some athletes find it hard to face the heat, others rise to the occasion. For instance, footballer Sunil Chhetri (@chetrisunil11) gained a lot of respect after he tweeted to fans acknowledging the team’s below-par performance when India lost to Guam in a FIFA World Cup qualifier.
Not the result we wanted but can't thank everyone enough for backing us the way you did. We will keep improving.#TeamIndia— Sunil Chhetri (@chetrisunil11) June 11, 2015
With victories, though, the accolades are never-ending. All athletes talk about how they cherish tweets from fans after a big win. This direct relationship allows athletes to be themselves, and share thoughts on things they care about. Tennis champion Sania Mirza (@MirzaSania) tweets to support women in different walks of life, and speaks her mind on current affairs. She also enjoys roping in her fans after a title, just like she did when sending an emoji-only Tweet after winning the Wimbledon in 2015 to signal that the party had well and truly begun.
When stars turn fans
Part of the joy for athletes is also the chance to be a fan themselves. For instance, tennis star Rohan Bopanna (@rohanbopanna) regularly live-tweets matches that he’s watching, and engages in conversation with fans while he’s at it. It’s no coincidence that his tweets have even made it into BCCI’s (@BCCI) signature #AskTheExpert where tweets are featured on live TV.
His tweet to commentators asking whether batsmen with their score in the 90s are eager to reach their hundred, or if the adrenaline is too high was immediately picked up by fans.
With tough training schedules and long tours, athletes also use Twitter to unwind and stay in touch with their peers. Fans have the best seat in the house for these conversations.
For instance, when eight Indian athletes from six different sports – Rohan Bopanna, Joshna Chinappa (@joshnachinappa), Ashwini Ponnappa (@P9Ashwini), Sunil Chhetri (@chetrisunil11), Pankaj Advani (@pankajadvani247), Somdev Devvarman (@somdevd), Karun Chandhok (@karunchandhok) and Jwala Gutta (@GuttaJwala) – playfully tweeted to each other about a bet, they ended up playing a badminton match to settle it.
Madani is the head of sports partnerships, Twitter India. He tweets as @aneeshmadani