Sports is an integral part of American culture. As UN Secretary General Kofi Anna put it: “Sport has a unique power to attract, mobilize and inspire. By its very nature, sport is about participation. It is about inclusion and citizenship.” Sports have this unifying force that other industries cannot replicate. There are multiple different groups of people involved in the sports industry. From the athletes themselves, to the fans watching them, to the owners of teams, to the coaches, the sports industry has found such great success as a result of the interconnectedness of all of these groups of people. For this reason, it is no wonder that the global sports industry is worth somewhere between $200 and $700 billion and is projected to grow another $10 billion just over the next five years (Sutera 33).
In the age of new technology, sports culture has transformed tremendously, bringing all of these people even closer together than they were before. In particular, social media has contributed to this bridging of people from all edges of the sports industry. While this bridging can be positive, especially for fans to be able to engage in sports discourse at any point of their days and for athletes to market themselves and their brand, it can also produce a negative impact on these very people. Social media has completely transformed sports in American culture: it has created a new initial platform for sports-related information, created a space for athletes and fans alike to engage in conversations as well as heightened engagement, and has functioned as a marketing tool for people from all over the sports industry to utilize.
In the age of new digital media, social media has completely shifted the hierarchy of how we receive and consume information, and this is seen particularly in discourse around sports. Sports information was once solely available on the pages of newspapers and on select channels of television. Fans were only able to find out play-by-play information and live updates through physically being at the game or watching it on television. Players were only able to market themselves through advertisements in magazines or websites. Sport talk could be conducted casually between average sports fans but only within their close circles but widespread sport talk was only available on sports talk shows.
However, In the last 25 years, the sports industry has surged tremendously as a result of more interest and advanced outlets for sports entertainment supporting this increased interest. With the creation of social media, less and less people have tuned into sports games on live television as well as attending sports games in real life (Leitch 5), and now take to Twitter for live updates. Similarly, while sport talk shows still exist, people with Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts can freely discuss sports with others in a rapid manner, which has allowed for amateurism in sport talk. Athletes who have accounts on these platforms can also freely self-promote and promote brands that sponsor them. Often, athletes will showcase paid partnerships with different products on Instagram, which adds this element of control over making the public aware of these partnerships.
Sports is a business, and social media has acted as a tool to enhance the business operations of the sports industry, especially in marketing. It’s no secret that social media has transformed modern business in general, particularly because it allows for more marketing opportunities, but in the sports industry specifically, social media has allowed all parties involved to fully brand themselves, whether they be athletes, teams, or leagues.
On Instagram, professional athletes have utilized the platform’s business tools in order to make their partnerships with companies more clear to their following. Before the age of social media, sponsorships were communicated through sparsely distributed magazines or television ads, but with Instagram, sponsorships have been easier acquired and communicated to the public.
Hashtags have played a huge role in this increase of marketing opportunities in sports. Almost every sports related show, event, or sports related moment has its own hashtag, and this has become a way for fans to engage in a way that was not possible before the popularization of social media. There have been many successful uses of hashtags on social media related to sports, for example, #SheBelieves, is a social media movement created by the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team to empower young girls to play sports. Beyond social media movements that use hashtags, events like the NBA draft (#NBAdraft), Stanley Cup final (#BecauseItstheCup), and the World Series (#WorldSeries) also utilize hashtags in order to centralize discourse.
Another way in which social media has completely transformed the sports industry is through restructuring the temporal schedules of the average sports fan. In American culture, sports has always given those who consume them a sense of belonging and in many cases, power, so for this reason it is no wonder why sports media is so vastly consumed by the American public. Because of this vast consummation of sports media, there has been a “digital plentitude” of it (Serazio 72), and an increase in the amount of highlights and analysis shows as well as spaces for amateurs to offer their own commentary on sports-related news. This digital plentitude of information is completely opposite from the scant sport information in the pre-digital era when information was only accessible on television or newspapers. Sports fans would acquire their information through these platforms, though it was rare and sparse, and discourse could only be conducted verbally.
With this new element of social media, this lack of information is no longer an issue- social media has increased the speed of which sports fans consume their media, and it is far more immediate than before. Social media has shifted the hierarchy in which sports fans acquire their information, and social media has become the initial point of receiving information. Because of this, daily routines of the average sports fans have been completely modified for contemporary American culture: before, information was distributed in decisively spaced checkpoints, making daily routines slower-paced, but now, this information is constant. There is essentially always breaking news to post.
This idea that the daily routine of the average sports fan has been altered is further supported by the fact that the emergence of social media has turned watching sports into a multi-tasking. Now, instead of just watching a game, fans watch and tune into social media to talk about it. Twitter in particular acts as a place for fans to jot down their initial thoughts and reactions, and it has become the first point of information. In this sense, social media has become breaking news without the title of “Breaking News”. Fans no longer have to actually watch games in order to get live updates.
According to a study done by Navigate Research, sports fans are 67% more likely to use Twitter to enhance their viewing experience compared to non-sports fans. Think of it as a virtual sports bar that fans go to during the pre-game, game, and post-game to engage in discourse with other fans. This significant edge that sports fans have over non sports fans when it comes to use of Twitter to intensify their viewing experience shows how the very foundation of support for sport has shifted toward the digital front.
In the sports industry, social media has also socially constructed the way athlete’s bodies are gendered by social practices and it has shaped the way the public establishes ideas of masculinity and femininity. This has been thoroughly examined through “virtual maltreatment” of athletes on social media, which is defined as “direct or non-direct online communication that is designed to cause emotional or psychological upset, through hostile, abusive and bullying comments” (Litchfield 1). In the particular case of tennis player Maria Sharapova’s 2015 Wimbledon run, many comments were made on Sharapova’s physical attraction and sexuality over her athletic abilities. Social media has created this online space where ordinary individuals are given the power to perpetuate hegemonic beliefs about people- in this case, internet trolls are given a platform to put out antisocial behaviors toward female athletes, and continue to degrade them and reinforce this marginalization of women in sport. Clearly, many social media depictions of female athletes carry this gendered lens, and it can be extremely harmful for vulnerable groups.
Overall, modern digital media, particularly social media, has completely transformed the way in which the sports industry operates as a business at large, and how people involved in this industry individually operate. It has created a new initial platform for sports-related information, which has in turn changed the temporal routines of the average sports fan, has functioned as a marketing tool for people from all over the sports industry to utilize in order to raise their brand, and has created an online space for content gatekeepers to put out ideologically influential images for the public that alter individual thought. The sports industry has always dominated American entertainment, and the digitalization of sports discourse as well as aspects of the business more broadly has only bolstered this. At this rate, sports will just continue to take over American culture as the digital medium becomes more all-encompassing.
DiMoro, Anthony. The Growing Impact of Social Media On Today’s Sports Culture. Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 2 July 2015,
Litchfield, Chelsea, et al. Virtual Maltreatment: Sexualisation and Social Media Abuse in Sport. Psychology of Women Section Review, 2016.
Serazio, Michael. The Power of Sports: Media and Spectacle in American Culture. New York University Press. 2019.
Sutera, David M. Sports Fans 2.0: How Fans Are Using Social Media to Get Closer to the Game. Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2013.