Social media: Athletes affecting voting?

Athletes are perennial and influential pitchmen for products -- from what sneakers to buy to what sports drink to drink to what kind of sleeved blanket to wear.

But what about which candidates to vote for?

No study has been done yet on the direct impact of political endorsement by athletes on social media. Next week’s election is only the second presidential election since Twitter’s founding and Facebook became available to those without a college email address. And social media has come a long way in the past four years.

But combine the multibillion-dollar industry of athletes as endorsers with early research that social media can impact voting behavior, and it’s not a stretch to think one plus one equals two.

Sports fans are 55 percent more likely to buy a brand simply because an athlete mentions it on Twitter or Facebook, according to the 2011 Catalyst Fan Engagement Study. That figure climbs even higher among the 18-34 age demographic. Such a high level of influence doesn’t evaporate when the product happens to be a political candidate.

“Social media provides an additional avenue for fans to connect with athletes, to identify with them and, in many cases, be persuaded by them to buy a product -- or in this case, vote for a particular candidate,” said Jimmy Sanderson, an assistant professor at Clemson who researches sports and social media.

And when an election is expected to be as tight as polls and analysts have the 2012 presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, athletes’ political endorsements on social media could truly have an impact. Team Obama features New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz and Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose, among others. Team Romney’s roster includes Cardinals kicker Jay Feely and Toronto Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia.

“Political campaigning is more of an art than an exact science,” said Ford O’Connell, a political consultant who has worked on presidential and Congressional campaigns. “Right now, a lot of these battleground states are so close that any little thing could throw either candidate over the top. I do think that athlete endorsements in particular have greater resonance with youth voters, those 18-29. But again, with other voters it might work well too.”

That’s right. When it comes to that much-discussed undecided voter, athlete input might really make a difference.

“You’ve got several states that literally could be decided by a handful of voters,” O’Connell explained. “In some cases, yes, somebody who [voters] trust or an athlete who they like will help in supporting that candidate.”

Never has it been easier for athletes to get that message out. Whereas athletes once needed to hold a news conference or, at the very least, get a media outlet to hear them out and publish their opinion, social media is allowing athletes to circumvent that process. Now the message is being delivered directly to the fans. An athlete’s followers don’t need to hear from other sources about which candidate that athlete supports. The athlete will tell them.

While traditional media might pick up the news story of an athlete’s political endorsement only once, the athlete can publicize that information a few times over the course of the election cycle.

Social media is transcending the boundaries that once existed in the world of endorsements. There’s no longer a clear line between official endorsement and personal preference. Endorsements, whether political or commercial, are no longer simply the realm of superstars.

Social media is, as Sanderson fittingly called it, a “democratizing platform.” Any athlete with the Internet and a fan base can access it. With such a small fraction of votes ultimately deciding the election, tapping into those social media followers could play a part in determining who will serve as president of the United States for the next four years.

To suggest athlete political endorsements will make all the difference is unrealistic. But given both the proven value of athlete endorsements and the demonstrated influence of athletes on social media, to assert they will have no sway is equally impractical.

When Michael Jordan declined to publicly support a political candidate in 1990, he reportedly said the famous line, “Republicans buy shoes, too.” In 2012, Jordan is publicly supporting Obama’s re-election campaign.

In 2012, with athletes from across sports endorsing candidates via social media, the new adage might be, “Sports fans vote, too.”

Elsewhere in the social mediasphere

Major League Baseball ended the 2012 season on a social media high note. This year’s postseason generated 10.7 million comments across Facebook and Twitter, up 131 percent from 2011. Additionally, the Giants’ World Series win generated 171,000 comments in the five minutes following the final out, making it baseball’s most talked-about moment on social media since MLB started keeping records.

The Army-Navy football game has unveiled an extensive social media initiative as part of the lead-up to the 113th meeting between these two rivals. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and YouTube will all be leveraged to promote the Dec. 8 game.

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