Lance Armstrong was minutes away from surgery, but still took time to post a photo of himself in his hospital bed. Charlie Villanueva and his team were told by their coach to step it up during halftime of an NBA game, and the Milwaukee Bucks forward just had to tell his fans all about it before he went back on the court.
The social networking Web site Twitter was already big, but athletes are quickly turning it into a way to entertain, interact with their fans, share their news --- and sometimes put their spin on a story. “There's a lot of things that I can't do,” Armstrong said recently.
“I can't go over to Starbucks and sit there and have a coffee with 20 other people, although I do sometimes. I can't go down to the bar and drink beer with a hundred other guys. It doesn't work. It's a scene.”
But he can connect with fans on Twitter — 140 characters at a time — and does so several times a day — even after his big comeback took a big step backward this week.
Armstrong's crash on Monday in Spain put Twitter in the spotlight, as fans who follow the electronic feeds from members of his team were among the first to learn that the seven-time Tour de France champion had broken his collarbone. He's just one of several high-profile athletes who are using Twitter. Fans have an insatiable appetite for access to their favorite players, and the stars want to boost their images while avoiding the mainstream media.
They've found common ground at Twitter, which allows users to send text-message “tweets” to a mass audience. For Shaquille O'Neal, one of the site's most popular sports figures, the message is simple: I'm just like you. “I'm a regular guy,” O'Neal said in a recent interview. “I shop at Wal-Mart. I try to do the same things so-called regular people do. I know when they see some of my comments, they know that I'm as funny as I seem.”
O'Neal uses Twitter to bring his fans closer _ sometimes literally. He'll hold impromptu scavenger hunts, tweeting his location and offering a free pair of tickets to the first person who finds him.
Armstrong, who has been unhappy at times with his portrayal in the media, now has the option of bypassing reporters entirely and making a direct connection with fans.
“I think some people see it and think, 'The guy's building a Pinewood Derby car with his son? That sounds awfully normal,”' Armstrong said recently. “Or, 'He's taking his kids to the church play or he's talking about the music he likes,' or, hell, whatever. I put everything on there.”
Cycling fans who care about riders beyond Armstrong can follow a feed from Italian Ivan Basso, who tweets in his native language and broken English.
“We go eat sushi with my family!!” Basso posted on Wednesday. Villanueva is so addicted that he couldn't stay away during halftime of the Bucks' March 15 victory over the Boston Celtics, tweeting that he had to step it up. He got in some hot water with his coach, Scott Skiles. But he also became an overnight Web celebrity.
The new U.S.-based Women's Professional Soccer league is allowing players to tweet during Sunday's inaugural match between the Los Angeles Sol and the Washington Freedom.