For years, Twitter has served as the world’s biggest virtual sports bar, where friends and strangers alike connect to discuss their favorite teams and players — and often complain and commiserate — all in 280 characters or less.
In 2015, sports events comprised about 1% of the U.S. TV programming, but contributed to nearly 50% of all Twitter TV conversation, according to a Nielsen Holdings PLC media report. The number of U.S.-based tweets on Super Bowl Sunday was reportedly up 20% year over year. For many sports fans, Twitter is an indisputable resource that’s a crucial element of every game, highlight and news report.
“Fans aren’t going to BBC Sport or ESPN for their news,” said Will Misselbrook, chief creative and content officer for Major League Soccer’s LA Galaxy. “They’re using Twitter as that primary platform for keeping up-to-date with their teams.”
Yet the symbiotic relationship between Twitter and the sports world has been challenged by Elon Musk’s divisive purchase of the platform in October, resulting in a complicated new reality for both fans and industry professionals, experts say. Some stakeholders are rethinking how to best use Twitter and where it fits within their content strategy, though others continue to see value in the platform as a unique source of real-time information.
In the past six weeks, Morning Consult spoke with dozens of sports executives, digital marketers, advertisers, content creators and consultants to understand how the relationship between Twitter and the industry will evolve, and whether or not Musk’s takeover will impact the sports fan’s longtime reliance on the social platform.
Twitter is “definitely as toxic as ever,” said Darren Rovell, a senior coordinating producer for sports betting media company Action Network Inc. who has nearly 2 million Twitter followers.
Rovell said his Twitter output is down 25% since Jan. 1, and he now spends more time on Meta Platforms Inc.’s Instagram, a platform where he says “everyone is rooting for each other.”
“People are going on Twitter much less until it comes time for a tipoff or kickoff,” Rovell said. “They still want to be part of the shared experience of fandom.”
A complicated new reality for sports Twitter
Twitter and sports became synonymous more than a decade ago as a place to congregate around major sporting events, like the FIFA World Cup, Olympic Games, March Madness and the Super Bowl.
The NBA has its own popular corner of the platform, dubbed #NBATwitter, while even more niche sports conversations, like college football’s #Pac12AfterDark, also have devoted followings.
“Our audience over-indexes on Twitter, where the engagement and real-time conversation around live sports is unmatched by anywhere else right now,” said Sean Valukis, senior vice president of marketing at Action Network, in an email.
Morning Consult data corroborated that idea. Half of self-identified sports fans said they have used Twitter at least once in the past month, compared with 44% of U.S. adults. Meanwhile, 16% of sports fans said they use Twitter multiple times per day, versus 13% of adults who said the same, marking the biggest difference between the two groups among usage of any of the social media platforms mentioned in the survey, including Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok.
Sports Fans Are Checking Twitter Slightly More Often Than the General Population
Respondents who said they have used the following social media platforms multiple times per day in the past month:
Survey conducted March 4-5, 2023, among a representative sample of 2,205 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points.
Industry experts now say there are several concerns that could disrupt the harmony, including questions around the platform’s basic functionality, Musk’s haphazard product integrations and cuts, access to the Twitter API and brand safety.
In December, Twitter’s elimination of the “Moments” feature — a sort of highlight reel of top stories and tweets — ended sports stakeholders’ ability to curate a conversation, people said. Some executives have started to question how Twitter’s curated “For You” tab, similar to that of TikTok, will affect fan engagement.
Several sports leagues, like MLB, are keeping a close eye on changes at the platform. In mid-December, Brittany Gentile, MLB’s vice president of club marketing, sent an email to team marketing departments to provide more information and guidance on the relaunched Twitter Blue subscription program, according to parts of the message seen by Morning Consult.
Jonathan Gantt, founder of digital media and marketing firm Gantt C.S., said Twitter’s changes have forced a “more conscious realization” among sports executives to maintain a flexible digital strategy. “You’re at the whims of these platforms,” he said.
Emma Adams, senior social media manager for the Premier Lacrosse League, said the upstart league has encountered some recent hurdles, including some brand confusion as a result of fans with similar Twitter accounts acquiring verified blue checkmarks via Twitter Blue.
Teams like Major League Soccer’s LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake and the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets said they cannot develop a long-term creative strategy for Twitter because of the uncertain rollout of new product announcements and the sudden collapse of legacy features.
As a result, some experts said fans could see less high-quality content on Twitter, at least in the short-term, since sports organizations aren’t going to invest in time-intensive creative projects for an unpredictable platform.
Meanwhile, insiders said Twitter’s internal turmoil is clouding the lines of communication between the platform and its sports industry partners. Prior to the Musk era, Twitter’s sports group forged deep-rooted relationships with teams, leagues, federations and college athletic departments’ digital media and marketing teams. Many sports entities had an assigned sports partnerships manager at Twitter who answered questions, shared best practices and provided updated information about new product features.
That dynamic has been disrupted under Musk’s ownership, forcing social media managers and digital strategists across leagues to communicate more amongst themselves when there are questions about the platform, some people said.
Multiple U.S.-based Twitter employees who worked within the company’s sports group have exited the company pre- and post-Musk takeover, including Shelby Clayton, who joined Amazon.com Inc. in July, Will Exline, who was hired by Apple Inc. in January, and David Herman, who previously served as co-head of U.S. sports partnerships before his departure in December.
Some executives now describe a fractured working relationship with the company, ultimately compromising their ability to best leverage the platform for the benefit of the sports fans using it.
“I don’t even know who Real Salt Lake’s representative is at Twitter,” said Emma Kramer, the MLS team’s senior digital director. “Going to Twitter right now is not an option.”
Sports creators, power users still find success amid Twitter chaos
NBA Twitter personality Rob Perez called sports “an endangered species” and “one of the last remaining content choices that forces its viewers to watch and react as the events transpire.”
“That is why sports will never leave Twitter, the engine to the vehicle that is talking sports,” Perez added. He said his experience on Twitter hasn’t changed under Musk’s ownership of the platform.
Content creator Brenden “Coach 30” Clinton, who produces comedy skits of coaches’ film sessions for his 175,000-plus followers, agreed.
“After big sporting events, like the Super Bowl, Twitter is where you want to be,” said Clinton, who has worked with AT&T Inc., Wendy’s and ESPN.
Meanwhile, Clay Travis, founder of the sports media company OutKick and a conservative provocateur, said he’s “hopeful Elon’s purchase of Twitter will make sports media debates more fun and less censorious.”
Others in the space had a less charitable view of the Musk era. “Twitter is still the best thing for following live sports, but the problem is, I don’t think Elon Musk and his crew care about sports,” said Bobak Ha’Eri, sports editor of the popular college football Reddit page, which is on Twitter with the handle RedditCFB.
The RedditCFB account, which has more than 315,000 followers, generated 1.13 billion impressions during the 2022 college football season. That marked a 10% year-over-year uptick, per Ha’Eri, who argued Twitter has been “a dumber experience” since Musk’s takeover, featuring more spam bots on the platform, advertisements in replies and confusion around the Twitter Blue program.
“I almost want to say, ‘Please hire a bunch of hardcore sports fans to work for you and embrace your strengths,’” Ha’Eri said.
Perez, who said he unsubscribed from Twitter Blue after disliking some of its features, offered other suggestions for Musk to improve the platform for sports creators, including a revenue-share advertising model. “Nobody is uploading their proprietary or evergreen projects directly to Twitter anymore,” said Perez, citing other platforms such as YouTube, Amazon’s Twitch and Substack, among others.
A mixed bag of sports advertising on Twitter in the Musk era
Ad spending on the platform from leagues, media companies and global apparel brands varied pre- and post-Musk, according to data provided to Morning Consult by market intelligence firm Sensor Tower Inc. Some groups are spending more, others about the same and some even more than they were — though sources cautioned not all spending plans had much to do with Musk’s ownership.
Sports Advertisers’ Spend on Twitter, Before and After Elon Musk’s Takeover
Ad spend on Twitter, September 2022 vs. January 2023:
Market intelligence firm Sensor Tower Inc. provided Morning Consult with monthly advertising figures from the top 1,000 companies that purchased ads on Twitter. Morning Consult selected a sample of sports-related entities and compared their pre-Musk, September 2022 ad spend to their post-Musk, January 2023 spend.
The NBA, for instance, reportedly spent only about $3,000 on Twitter in September, compared with nearly $59,000 in January, per the data firm. The NFL allocated about $529,000 toward Twitter in September, but that dropped to around $150,000 to start 2023.
Jordan Cohen, a spokesperson for The Athletic, wrote via email that The New York Times-owned sports media company has advertised on Twitter “for several years and will continue to advertise there as long as we can ensure brand safety.” In January, The Athletic spent more than $413,000 on the platform, per Sensor Tower.
Some global sports brands and media properties, like Fox Sports, Adidas AG and Nike Inc. didn’t advertise on Twitter at all in January.
Meanwhile, the Action Network spent close to $1.3 million in Twitter advertising in the January time period, according to Sensor Tower, though Valukis disputed the accuracy of the data (a majority of the organizations included in the chart did not directly dispute the data’s accuracy).
“We want to be where our audience is the most engaged, and as long as that’s on Twitter, it will be important for our business to maintain a presence there,” Valukis said.
The future of #SportsTwitter
Does the sports business industry have a viable replacement for Twitter, should things really go awry? The consensus among those interviewed was a resounding “no.”
“I don’t know that you can catch Twitter because they’ve established such a strong relationship with the user for real-time sports content,” said Professional Bull Riders’ Lawrence Randall, the organization’s senior vice president and head of content.
Perez described Twitter’s relationship with sports as “that ex who somehow keeps popping up on your timeline even though you’ve muted them.”
Gantt, who previously worked as a digital marketer and creative executive at Clemson Athletics, said sports stakeholders are willing to endure a “wait-and-see” period with Twitter amid Musk’s early tenure because of their entrenched relationship with the platform.
“These sports teams have a lot of equity built up in Twitter — whether it’s the follower account or the content that they’ve produced,” said Gantt, whose firm works with Clemson, Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and NASCAR.
“Pulling the plug and walking away from Twitter is not a small decision,” he said.
#SportsTwitter Users’ Engagement With Teams, Leagues, Players Roughly Doubles That of the General Population
Respondents who said if they follow any of the following types of sports-related accounts on social media:
Survey conducted March 4-5, 2023, among a representative sample of 2,205 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points.
For some pro sports teams and properties, the status quo on Twitter has continued in the past five months since the platform’s tumultuous new ownership. Randall noted the PBR, which has about 200,000 Twitter followers, hasn’t altered its approach to Twitter.
Real Salt Lake’s Kramer said she doesn’t plan to abandon the team’s nearly 169,000-follower fanbase on Twitter either. “If we take a step back and put more emphasis elsewhere, they will notice.”
In the future, though, Kramer said she could envision the major pro sports leagues encouraging teams to redirect some of their Twitter-specific efforts toward other platforms. That includes the suite of products from Meta, YouTube and TikTok, which has arguably the most potential of any social channel in sports.
Marcus Stephenson, vice president of media and content for the Blue Jackets, said the team expects to soon deprioritize Twitter output in the “5% to 10%” range, attributing the downgrade not to Musk but “audience attrition” and a focus on other platforms. The franchise plans to reinvest some creative output into Instagram Stories, TikTok and YouTube Shorts, he said.
Sports fans may also notice fewer tweets from their favorite teams and athletes on the platform since Musk became owner, according to data provided to Morning Consult by media measurement firm Comscore.
From January 2022 to January 2023, global superstar athletes, like top soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James and two-time Super Bowl champion Patrick Mahomes, among others, posted 21% fewer tweets, per the Comscore data.
Twitter’s transition to a reported tiered pricing model so users can access the platform’s API could spell more uncertainty for the platform’s sports users, experts said.
Jared Kleinsten, founder and chief executive of Gondola, a platform used by major sports leagues that allows social media creators to track their digital portfolios, said if leagues and teams are provided less data about their audiences, organizations could ultimately abandon their presences on the platform.
“I can imagine a lot of people saying, ‘Well, if I can’t tell you that it’s valuable, I can’t justify an investment in it,’” said Kleinstein, who was once the head of sports at the Twitter-owned short-form video app Vine.
In a nightmare scenario, how would the sports industry cope if Twitter disappeared altogether? Where would fans, who have grown accustomed to the platform as their vital second-screen sports companion, go instead?
“That’s a very real thing,” Stephenson said.
Recent outages have provided a glimpse at what life might be like for the industry in a world without Twitter — or, at least, a Twitter that actually works. Those recent outages, in which links and images appeared broken, have given executives pause. They’ve forced the industry to confront the possibility that its longtime symbiosis with the social app will one day break apart. Perhaps sooner rather than later.