Editorial Note: The following is a freelance piece from a contributor. Alex Reimer is a journalist with an extensive history of covering sports media and culture. Previously, he was a talk show host on WEEI in Boston.
When Twitter Blue’s new pay-for-play verification system is rolled out Saturday, it will be the end of Sports Twitter as we know it. While that may sound hyperbolic – it was only a few months ago when people were posting their “goodbye letters,” convinced the platform wouldn’t survive – it is true. We are about to be awash in a polluted sea of Fake Adam Schefters and low-life trolls. Anybody who doesn’t pay Elon Musk $84 annually for a blue checkmark will be banished to the Twitter abyss.
Up until this point, Sports Twitter has largely been insulated from Musk’s destruction of the so-called digital town square. The overall website is more toxic than ever, with unbanned neo-nazis running rampant and the algorithm feeding users hateful garbage from people they don’t follow.
But on Sports Twitter, we still coo over sick slam dunks and follow our favorite NFL Insiders for up-to-the-second free agency info. The sandbox remains playful.
Twitter use among sports fans hasn’t declined since Musk’s takeover. In fact, sports fans now use Twitter at a higher rate than the general population. A recent Morning Consult poll found that half of sports fans said they’ve used Twitter at least once in the last month, compared to 44 percent of the general public.
Sixteen percent of sports fans say they use Twitter multiple times per day, compared to 13 percent of U.S. adults.
Despite all of Twitter’s flaws, it remains a great late-night sports hangout, with cool crews like #NBATwitter and #Pac12AfterDark taking over the bar.
Sadly, our blissful ignorance is about to be shattered. Let’s start with the most basic function of Twitter: whose tweets will users see?
Starting April 15, Musk says only verified users – that is, Twitter Blue subscribers – will be featured in the “For You” section. In other words, anybody who doesn’t pay will effectively be shadow banned.
When Musk first introduced the revamped Twitter Blue, he billed it as a way to upgrade the experience for power users. But as it turns out, legitimate users aren’t keen on the idea of paying for fake clout, because they have the real thing.
So who is keen on paying for fake clout?
All of the guys in the back, screaming into the void.
This week, Mashable reported that half of Twitter Blue users have less than 1,000 followers, and 17.6 percent of Twitter Blue subscribers have less than 100. Though Musk and his weird devotees are framing their scam as a populist uprising (pay $7.99 per month to join)!; the truth is, they’re destroying the point of the platform. Twitter is a news website. According to Pew, 53 percent of Twitter users go to the site for news.
That includes sports fans, and now, there’s no guarantee we’ll be able to easily find it. ESPN tells Awful Announcing it won’t be reimbursing talent for paid verification. (The company’s accounts, however, are in a beta test for “verified organizations.”)
That will only add to the Wild, Wild West element. Imagine a world in which Dov Kleiman is verified and Jeff Passan is not.
Or even worse, how about a world in which there are hundreds of verified Wojs?
What a nightmare!
well this is going to be fun… pic.twitter.com/sMab5OvAXa
— Monica Lewinsky (she/her) (@MonicaLewinsky) March 26, 2023
Multiple high-profile news organizations, including the New York Times, Washington Post and LA Times, have announced they won’t be reimbursing talent for verification, either, or pay to be verified themselves.
Come Saturday, Sports Twitter is going to be far less funny, informative and enjoyable, and that’s a huge bummer. Twitter is the gathering place for big games. In 2015, sports comprised almost 50 percent of all TV talk on Twitter, according to Nielsen. Twitter use on Super Bowl Sunday was reportedly up 20 percent year-to-year.
But now, the world’s greatest sports bar is going to be overrun with the boorish drunks in the back. Athletes are routinely subjected to racist and hateful tweets. Now, those bigots will potentially have the loudest mics – as long as they’re willing to pay.
Imagine you’re Luke Prokop, the first out gay active player under NHL contract, and you log onto Twitter after the league’s next Pride Night debacle. Last week, Prokop posted a heartfelt statement about the disappointment he feels when teams and players opt out of wearing Pride jerseys.
Many of the responses are homophobic, and in just one day, they’ll be given priority if they come from paid accounts.
It’s easy to envision a world in which athletes and teams significantly curtail their Twitter use. Industry sources told Morning Consult that Twitter’s elimination of its “Moments” feature has already impacted teams’ strategies, and at least three pro sports clubs have said they can’t develop a long-term creative strategy for the platform.
Darren Rovell, one of Sports Twitter’s most prolific (and often-mocked) power users, told Morning Consult his Twitter use is down 25 percent since January 1st. He says he spends more time on Instagram now, because it’s more positive.
If Twitter is too toxic for Rovell, just imagine what the experience is probably like for LeBron James, Serena Williams, and, you know, actual star athletes.
Voices that matter are fleeing Twitter, and the ones that stay are going to be drowned out. The digital sports bar that we know and love is now serving its last call.