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Navigating social media in the US & UK: our top tips for athletes, executives and sponsors

Wednesday, 26 August 2015 By Alex Henderson, David Blood, Danielle Moore Burton

Sports is one of the most popular topics discussed on social media. The 2014 FIFA World Cup broke all records as the most tweeted about event ever, with 672 million tweets sent referring to the finals in Brazil.1 In the UK, 8 out of the top 10 tweeted about moments in 2014 related to football. Of the top 10 topics on Facebook in the UK in 2014, the World Cup came in third, closely followed by the Premier League title. Even Louis Van Gaal's pending, and then subsequent, appointment at Manchester United received more social media engagement than other more serious topics such as the Ebola virus outbreak and the First World War centenary.2 While the athletes themselves are not as well followed (none are in Twitter's top 10 most followed accounts3), Cristiano Ronaldo still has in excess of 37 million followers on Twitter and more than 100 million fans on Facebook.

The opportunities for athletes, executives and sponsors to leverage this exposure is tremendous; they can engage with fans, market themselves, break news and share personal information. While social media can be used advantageously to expose players, increase profitability and promote brands, mismanagement of social media can be as equally destructive and lead to damaged reputations, disciplinary actions, fines, and suspensions.

The first half of this article looks at how social media is being used in the sports industry in both the UK and US and considers briefly how traditional legal tools can apply. The second half will go on to offer ten top tips that athletes, executives and sponsors should consider when using social media platforms.


Social Media Missteps in the UK

When people think of sports and social media in the UK, they often think of ill-advised tweets from athletes that end up in fines and, in some cases, suspensions. Since 2011, the FA has heard over 120 cases and issued over £350,000 worth of "Twitter" fines.4

Some of the more high profile incidences include a fine of £25,000 and a one match ban for Mario Balotelli for a racially inflammatory post about Super Mario,5 Ashley Cole's fine of £90,000 for using an expletive to describe the FA following the John Terry racism case6 and then Liverpool player Ryan Babel's £10,000 fine for posting a doctored picture of a high profile referee in a Manchester United shirt after Liverpool's defeat at Old Trafford.7

Indeed, one of the most active sportsmen on Twitter, Rio Ferdinand, who has in excess of six million followers, was fined £45,000 for merely re-tweeting another user referring to then international team-mate Ashley Cole as 'choc ice' (a slang term that describes a black person who allegedly acts like a white person).8 More recently in November 2014, Rio Ferdinand was fined again, this time £25,000 along with a three match ban for responding to a tweet using the slang term “sket” (meaning a promiscuous girl or woman).9 In imposing the sanction, the FA reportedly held particular regard to the fact that Rio Ferdinand is an experienced Twitter user and is seen by many to be a role model. The sanction was imposed despite the “jokey” nature of the back and forth between Ferdinand and Twitter users, of which the tweet in question was a part, and is particularly interesting considering the similar sanctions imposed on John Terry (four games)10 and Luis Suarez (eight games)11 for the far graver offence of racial abuse.

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Written by

Alex Henderson

Alex Henderson

Alex is a commercial lawyer at Dentons with a particular emphasis on the media and sport sector. Alex has worked on media rights related matters for a number of clients including, the England and Wales Cricket Board and Chelsea Football Club as well on various commercial arrangements in sports such as football, cricket and formula 1.

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David Blood

David Blood

David is a partner in Dentons'  Corporate practice based in Los Angeles, with more than 15 years of experience negotiating corporate and complex commercial transactions, particularly in which media, sports, technology and intellectual property are key assets. David has broad experience representing US, international and multinational clients with respect to matters such as joint ventures, private equity investments, licensing, distribution, mergers and acquisitions and complex commercial transactions. Internationally, he has counselled companies operating throughout Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

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Danielle Moore Burton

Danielle Moore Burton

Danielle Moore Burton is a member of Dentons’ Corporate practice and based in Los Angeles.

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