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Published: Sunday, 7/19/2009

Getting the message: Players, coaches explore power of social network site

BY ZACH SILKA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Scot Drucker sat in front of his locker in the Mud Hens' clubhouse, "twittering" and "tweeting" away.

Drucker was on his MacBook Pro laptop sending and receiving messages via Twitter, a free social networking Web site that allows users to post "tweets" - 140-character-or-less messages - on their own personal profile page. Tweets, which can be sent using a computer or cell phone, are also delivered directly to the author's "followers" - users who have chosen to follow a particular person's Twitter updates.

Although the San Francisco-based company does not release the number of active accounts, Twitter is the fastest growing social network site, attracting more than seven million visitors in February, according to a report by Nielsen Online. That's an increase of 1,382 percent from the year before, when Twitter had 475,000 visitors.

While Twitter has exploded globally, its impact in sports has been even greater.

Whether it be a player protesting a referee's call or announcing he's been traded, or a college coach reaching out to potential recruits or pumping up fans for the upcoming season, Twitter has revolutionized how members of the sports community convey their message.

Drucker is just one of many professional and amateur athletes tweeting before and after games, offering fans an intimate look where they never had one before.

"It's a fun thing to allow people to keep updated and know what's going on in your life," Drucker said. "It's almost kind of a self-absorbed thing, but if somebody is willing to read about it and take the time, then let them live through your life, I guess, or see what you're up to."

Drucker first joined Twitter a few months ago to help promote his business, Superkix.com, but has branched out from there to post random thoughts from his life several times a day.

Over baseball's All-Star break last week, Drucker kept his followers up to date on his travels and travails as he headed back home to his native Miami.

"Landed in miami ... fun and sun for the next 3 days," he wrote at 9:18 a.m. Monday.

Then on Wednesday at 3:23 p.m., Drucker tweeted from his cell phone, "Spending loot at the mall ... back to baseball tomorrow evening."

Drucker was even tweeting before the Hens' game at Buffalo on Thursday evening, writing, "Batting practice, shagging balls cant there be an easier way to collect the balls like a golf range?"

Down the hall from Drucker in the manager's office, Larry Parrish is not on Twitter, instead taking a more traditional approach to his pregame activities, like filling out his lineup card for that night's game.

Parrish does admit some curiosity about Twitter, however.

"I haven't done that, but I do a lot of text messaging, which I guess is a little bit like that," Parrish said. "I've asked some of the guys, 'What the heck is Twitter?' And they tell me it's like sending a text message, you just have an open line and whoever wants to can respond to it."

But Parrish sees limits to Twitter, particularly how and when a player uses the site.

Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ocho Cinco made headlines recently for saying he plans to use Twitter during games this season.

Detroit Pistons forward Charlie Villanueva did post a tweet at halftime during a game last season while playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, a decision he was reprimanded for by coach Scott Skiles.

"To me, to play at a high level takes concentration," Parrish said. "I don't see how you're going to be able to do that if you're thinking about sending a [tweet]. You're not focused."

Other athletes have gotten themselves into trouble by letting their tempers get the best of them after a game and posting a vitriolic tweet about officials.

Houston Dynamo forward Brian Ching was fined $500 by Major League Soccer for this message he posted on his Twitter page during a July 11 loss against the Seattle Sounders: "Ref in Seattle just cheated the dynamo. What a joke. Not even close. Ref is a cheat."

Ching was not present at the game. Instead he was training with the U.S. national team in Foxborough, Mass., and apologized the following day on Twitter, writing, "I apologize for the comment which I made in the heat of the moment. Everyone tries their best and mistakes happen."

While Twitter seems innocuous on the surface, it does have its pitfalls.

"It's a double-edged sword," Drucker said. "It can be a good thing, but you don't want to put too much on there because it's open to anybody to see."

For University of Toledo football coach Tim Beckman, Twitter has opened up a whole new dimension to recruiting.

Beckman is one of five UT coaches who are on Twitter, but he's by far the most eager and willing participant, sending an average of 7-10 tweets a day.

"You always try to stay one up on everybody," Beckman said. "There's always something new happening. When I first found out about it, I said, 'Boy, this seems interesting. Can it benefit not just me personally, but will it benefit our program?' If you follow my twitter page, it's not about what I'm doing, it's about what the university is doing and what the football program is doing."

Thursday morning, Beckman tweeted, "Spending great day @ Maumee Bay! Another close attraction for our local players to be apart of! Toledo has a bunch of fun places close by!"

Earlier in the week, he tweeted, "Ran by weightroom today-checked out the countdown clock-less than 25 days till Preseason Camp! Time going fast but can't be here qk enough."

The NCAA does not restrict how many tweets a coach sends out, allowing an unfettered avenue in a normally rule-clogging environment. The only thing a coach is not allowed to do is mention any recruit by name in his/her tweets.

After the NCAA banned the use of text messaging in recruiting in 2007, Twitter has opened a different and vastly unregulated door for college coaches to reach out to prospective members of their programs.

The Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, which was influential in getting text messaging banned, so far has been reluctant to take the same strong approach against Twitter.

"At this point, I don't feel Twitter is a personalized medium," SAAC chair Matt Baysinger said in a statement released last month. "It's meant to be public information. It's meant for everyone, which puts it in a different category from a text message."

While the NCAA allows plenty of latitude in coaches' usage of Twitter, UT men's basketball coach Gene Cross does his best to stay on the straight and narrow.

"You have to be very aware and cognizant of what the NCAA rules are, so you don't break any rules or overstep any boundaries," Cross said. "But what you can do is almost send a coded message to people with regard to whom you're recruiting or what your needs are. You can tailor the message to a particular group or person without really specifying, which crosses over into the gray area of recruiting."

Bowling Green State University women's basketball coach Curt Miller sees Twitter continuing to play a larger and larger role in recruiting in the coming years.

"The [high school graduating] class of 2011, I think, will be the first class really encouraged to follow coaches and be a follower of your Twitter," Miller said. "I think that's when you're going to see the first signs of how effective your tweets and the Twitter phenomenon can be in recruiting."

Miller, one of nine BGSU coaches on Twitter, is also the Falcons' most noteworthy. Football coach Dave Clawson and men's basketball coach Louis Orr so far are abstaining from the site.

Miller's belief in the power Twitter holds in recruiting is evidenced by his decree that every member of his coaching staff also join the site.

"I joined Twitter after the latest Mid-American Conference meetings in the spring," Miller said, "and I contacted my staff during the MAC meetings and said, 'By the time I get home, let's see if we can all start our own Twitter pages.'•"

Miller's friend and counterpart, UT women's basketball coach Tricia Cullop, is also on Twitter and believes we've only seen a glimpse of what the site is capable of.

"You always want to have the newest look and best means for sending information to your recruits and even to your fan base," Cullop said. "Obviously, we're not going to know the impact that Twitter has for a while, but the one thing I am noticing across the country is that it is a great means to get short blips of information to people."

Contact Zach Silka at:

zsilka@theblade.com.



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