To get some idea of the power of social media, look no further than Alex Morgan's Twitter account.
Before last summer's Women's World Cup, the U.S. national team forward had about 10,000 followers on the social media website and primarily used it to catch up on headlines and talk to friends.
It made me a little nervous. Some people even analyzed every little thing I said on Twitter. It took some getting used to.” -- U.S. soccer player Alex Morgan, on her Twitter followers
But her performance, coupled with the kind of looks that might prompt a Google images search, soon won her many more fans. By the time the World Cup final was over, Morgan had more than 100,000 followers and was receiving tweets from celebrities like Tom Hanks.
"It made me a little nervous," Morgan said. "Some people even analyzed every little thing I said on Twitter. It took some getting used to."
Morgan isn't the only female athlete discovering the power of social media. Many women use it to keep in touch with fans, add sponsors and promote games that don't get the same kind of coverage that those of their male peers enjoy. Morgan's heightened profile is a perfect example. Unlike in previous years, when media coverage faded after an event like the World Cup, Morgan has been able to stay connected to the World Cup audience and build on that momentum.
One of her recent tweets -- "its really, really nice to sleep in every once in a while" -- was sent to nearly 400,000 people. For them, Morgan won't disappear for three years until the next World Cup. They can track every tournament and all the sleep-ins in between. Social media also gives fans a chance to connect with athletes in the lead-up to a big event, like the Olympics. Allyson Felix, Jessica Hardy, Jordyn Wieber and Lolo Jones are just a few of the London hopefuls who are active tweeters.
"You used to have to rely on 'SportsCenter' or TV exposure," said Morgan's agent, Dan Levy of Wasserman Media Group. "Now people can really handpick what they want to follow and care about."
Levy has seen the way social media has altered the sports landscape for female athletes. He also represented Mia Hamm and several other women from the 1999 World Cup championship team, and watched as they tried to keep the energy generated by their victory in front of a packed Rose Bowl crowd. Twelve years later, the number of Morgan's Twitter followers now exceeds the daily circulation of most major American newspapers. For an athlete of her caliber, it's a fan base that concretely translates into advertiser interest.
"Every single perspective sponsor, it's the first or second thing they look at," Levy said. "It's the difference between getting a deal and not getting a deal."
The NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL have television contacts at the local and national level. There are beat reporters assigned to every practice, and programming orchestrated to analyze games or profile the players. For women's sports, that kind of coverage is nonexistent or episodic. So to reap the benefits of social media, they need to make a connection with fans.
Julie Foudy and her 1999 teammates might have played a full slate of off-year games without much fanfare. She tells young athletes that being on Twitter is nonnegotiable -- you need a social media presence to cover the gap between your fans and the mainstream media's coverage.
"I would even go so far to say it's necessary now," Foudy said. "You have to be in that world and understand it."
And that world isn't just about the women at the top of the athletic food chain, like in soccer or basketball. Okiima Pickett, a running back with the women's football team the D.C. Divas, uses Twitter to promote her team and let people know about upcoming games and events. For Pickett, it led to a chance encounter with basketball legend Nancy Lieberman, who agreed to participate in a fundraiser for the Divas after Pickett reached out to her.
"I would never have had that connection without social media," Pickett said.
Pickett also meets people who bought a ticket to her game after reading about it on Twitter or Facebook.
"Women's sports don't have the money and the TV commercials that the men have," Pickett said. "Our only mode right now of promoting the game is social networking and word of mouth."
Sponsorship may be a bonus, but the best Twitter accounts don't hit you over the head with pay-for-tweets. You might notice that some Twitter avatars include a prominent watch or a sponsorship that is particularly large; but, for the most part, the ads have to fit with the athlete.
And the best athletes, male or female, are nearly as authentic on Twitter as you imagine they would be in person. With more than 150,000 followers, Notre Dame basketball player Skylar Diggins comes across as very real.
In the days before the NCAA selection show, Diggins tweeted, "Some people don't realize, I get at LEAST 50 very negative tweets a day, real life negative comments and criticism. Yours doesn't bother me."
Between Notre Dame's first- and second-round games of the NCAA tournament, Diggins explained that the variety of fan interaction is part of the deal with social media.
"It can get interesting sometimes, but that's what you sign up for when you get on Twitter," Diggins said via email. "I don't have a way to respond to everyone's questions, but I do try to get to as many of them as I can when I have the time. And I know and expect that not everyone is going to like me, the way I play, my team or the sport, and that's fine. Everyone has a right to their own opinion and I respect that."
Twitter is not without risk for female athletes. New York Liberty basketball player Cappie Pondexter is one of the few women who had to apologize for a rash tweet when she used insensitive language after last year's tsunami in Japan. She didn't specifically address the incident when asked, but Pondexter has stayed on Twitter to remain connected with fans as the she plays overseas during the WNBA offseason.
"I love [staying] connected with my followers," Pondexter wrote in an email from Istanbul. "It can be tough, uplifting and challenging, but overall, I enjoy getting feedback and encouragement."
Levy said there is a huge variation in the comfort level that women have with the medium when they start. Some are naturals; others aren't sure they want to open a two-way street with fans that could be partially negative. Levy estimates that 5 percent of comments will be negative.
"People do hide behind their computers sometimes," Morgan said. But the soccer player, like most of the athletes we interviewed, said the positive interactions overwhelmed the annoyance.
Foudy was reluctant to join Twitter for another reason: She figured fans didn't want to hear her updates on dirty diapers now that she has retired from the game. But more than 18,000 people care enough to follow Foudy, an espnW contributor, and now she's sold.
"People get to know you," said Foudy. "It's not just a numbers game -- how many people follow you? -- but it's getting to know you."