Photo: Chad Ochocinco Johnson
Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson. Photo courtesy Cincinnati Bengals

The One Big Thing you need to know this week is that the use of social media by athletes is going to reshape the economics of professional sports. That’s what I believe, anyway.

We have certainly seen our share of newsworthy Tweets coming from the professional athletes in this state. Exhibit A is the breaking Tweet in which Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love announced that Kevin McHale would not return to coach the team.

Screenshot: Kevin Love tweet's Kevin McHale's dismissal
Kevin Love tweets Timberwolves’ Kevin McHale’s firing

That was one of the high-profile social media incidents that involved a sports figure. We’ve also seen Twitter trash talking, with Chad Ochocinco of the Cincinnati Bengals calling out Shawne Merriman of the San Diego Chargers on Twitter:

To which Merriam replied:

And, for good measure, followed up with a YouTube video that has since been deleted.

You can follow the rest of the “conversation” at the Bolts From The Blue blog.

As entertaining as all of this may be, the fact that athletes are now actively using social media means it is inevitable that they will begin using these tools to take greater control of their careers. We are already seeing that happen with Chad Ochocinco, who is really a pioneer among social media active athletes. He promises he will Tweet during games even though NFL policy prohibits that.

The NFL is in the process of massaging their current policy, which prohibits the use of personal electronic communication devices by team staff or players from pre-game warmups to the end of a game. Ostensibly, this is to prohibit their use for gaining a competitive advantage during the game.

Roger Goodell and NFL officials have got to have considered the implications athletes’ use of these tools have for the league as a business.

Professional sports leagues are notorious for locking down online content. I’ve ranted before about the NFL not providing copy and paste code for the videos hosted at NFL.com. Major League Baseball sells streaming audio and video of their games to fans.

And, of course, the personalities of the athletes themselves are heavily marketed by the teams and the league itself.

Athletes taking control of their fans by building direct communication channels to them through social media threatens the very economics of pro sports. Kevin Love’s 34,000 followers on Twitter give him a lot more leverage in sponsorship deals. And by the way, why wouldn’t a sponsor want to go directly to the far more precisely defined audiences that individual athletes command, than having to work through the league to get access to the far more diffused and imprecise target audience that they can deliver?

There are both economic and speech freedoms at issue here that are likely to be challenged. The only real question is who will be the modern day Curt Flood?