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Terrific or Toxic? – Sport and Social Media

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In the latest special feature, Dai Sport’s Graham Thomas and Sport Wales’ Paul Batcup take a look at the highs and lows of social media in sport.

IT’S easy to believe that the relationship between sport and social media has gone badly wrong when you hear the recent rumours about Lionel Messi and Barcelona.

The world’s greatest footballer was claimed to have been the victim of a Twitter campaign to bring him down a peg or two, orchestrated by his own club – a suggestion believable enough for Barcelona to issue a denial that they had hired a company to undermine their biggest star.

Wales’ own footballing royalty, Gareth Bale, has 18 million Twitter followers and a further 43 million on Instagram. Combined, that’s almost the entire population of the UK.

Not bad for when it comes to promoting his own commercial interests, but when the boot is on the other foot – as it was over last year’s “Wales, golf, Madrid” row – then high numbers can mean abuse on an industrial scale.

So, is it all bad for Welsh sports stars, clubs, fans, and anyone else who steps off the playing field and into the unprotected minefield of social media?


Or can there be a middle ground, where the platform opens up communication between athletes and fans – or clubs and their members – without it all ending up spiralling down the plughole of nauseating abuse?

Former Wales international rugby wing Alex Cuthbert – a Grand Slam hero, no less - found some of the personal attacks launched his way in the aftermath of performances were so draining that he eventually left the country to join Exeter Chiefs.

It was not so much the direct effect on Cuthbert – who claimed he simply steered clear of the platforms – but the strains carried by his friends and family.

“I didn’t use to look at it, but then I’d get a friend asking me if everything was alright in a really concerned way,” says Cuthbert.

“Then, my family would hear about it and they would be worried about me and so I’d be worried about them. It just goes round and around and feeds itself, even if the person in the middle manages to avoid the direct hits.”

Cuthbert’s coach at the time at the Cardiff Blues was Danny Wilson, who is now the current forwards coach with the Scotland national team.

He could see the powerful effect social media was having on his player’s performance, loading his shoulders with worry, feeding anxieties that would ordinarily be kept in check.

Wilson admits he was at a loss to understand why some people revelled in their ability to press some keys on their phone-pad in order to abuse a player representing a national team the poster was supposed to support.

“I just couldn’t see what the purpose of the criticism was when it was so personal and abusive,” says Wilson.

“Every rugby player has had bad days and makes mistakes. But no-one tries to do that, but it was almost as if some of the abuse was designed to see how thick-skinned the player was – to test how much rubbish he could take.

“Every season, there seems to be someone playing for Wales who gets this sort of stick – really personal stuff, when it should just be about facts and performance.”

Cuthbert’s former Cardiff Blues and Wales teammate, Gareth Anscombe, has also been a target for the online armies that will assemble against one individual.

The official advice from governing bodies, clubs, and their various managers is not to rise to the bait, but as Anscombe admits that is easier said than done for sports people who are expected to be ruthlessly competitive and responsive in every other area of their chosen profession.

“It’s frustrating because you want to bite back at some people, but that gives them the reaction they want,” said Anscombe recently.

“If you try and put someone in their place, then the player is the one who gets crucified. Some people just want their two seconds of fame and so they try to come up with a smart tweet, but thankfully I’m a bit older now and a bit wiser, although there was certainly a time when it would weigh me down.”

In football, the Football Association of Wales give specific guidelines that seems to deal with exactly the kind of frustration felt by Anscombe.

The FAW’s Fair Play Code advises to all social media engagers, “Be in the right state of mind when writing a post.

“Individuals should never post when they’re angry, upset or their judgment is impaired as this can lead to engaging in insulting behaviour and the alienation of other individuals.”

In other words, take a deep breath and put your phone away – whatever the provocation. That’s easier to write down than manage in reality, but would appear a sound judgement, nevertheless.

And here’s some other good advice from the same code – “Remember that the internet is permanent and that information travels fast and easily online. Many different audiences will see a post and therefore individuals should remember that deleted tweets can always be located. Individuals should not post anything that they would not be comfortable seeing in the media.”

The FAW’s guide also has plenty to say on the healthier side of social media, as you might expect from an organisation that cleverly marketed their “Together, Stronger” campaign in the heady days of Euro 2016.


The power of engaging social content was highlighted by Trefelin BGC when they tweeted footage of Swansea City legend Lee Trundle scoring in a recent veterans match. At the time of writing the film had been viewed more the 400,000 times.

As one Tweeter pointed out, companies can pay thousands of pounds for this sort of exposure.

One sport where social media use appears to have more upsides than down is netball, where players, clubs and fans of top level Vitality Superleague clubs seemingly use various platforms in a positive manner.

Wales stars like Nia Jones, a mainstay at the Celtic Dragons until her recent move to Seven Stars, regularly bring both personality and insight to her posts, such as a recent video of her pre-match warm-up routine.

Will Rees, Welsh Netball’s communications and marketing manager, says: “Social media is a huge marketing tool for us. I’d say about 75 per cent of our marketing is done through social media.

“Nia Jones was exceptional. She put out great content, with a sense of fun and personality. I would hope we can now nurture that among some of the other younger players. I always encourage them to be bold. If something bad happens, then we’ll deal with it at the time.

“Instagram is the main media tool for players and fans to connect. For sponsors and journalists, it’s Twitter. And for mums and ticket buyers, the people with the purses, often it’s Facebook. So, you have to cover all bases.”

Of course, occasionally bad things do happen and the vitriol delivered to female athletes can often stem from different motivations than that delivered to male equivalents.

Wales’ most capped female footballer Jess Fishlock has spoken about online abuse, while the current battleground over transgender rights within sport appears to have taken an aggressive edge towards anyone brave enough to wade into the debate.

Will Rees adds: “In women’s sport, trolling can be a huge issue. The profile of netball is obviously far smaller than football and players don’t get targeted as much as women footballers. But when it does happen, the effects are disturbing. It can range from unfair criticism to physical stuff.”

In male football, the Professional Footballers association (PFA) recently admitted they were seeing a reduction in the numbers of players using social media because of trolling, while the number of players accessing the PFA's counselling services rose to a record 643 in 2019, up almost 50% on the previous year.

Last year, also, saw professional footballers boycott social media for 24 hours to protest against the way the football authorities had responded to racial taunts.

All this might seem a world away from grassroots sport and yet it is at the local level that social media can bring the most positive benefits.

The recent flooding across Wales left dozens of football, rugby and cricket clubs with their fields underwater and in many cases, their clubhouses wrecked.

Social media not only became a vital tool with which to organise and mobilise people during the immediate clean-up operation, but the platforms are providing an enormous opportunity for fundraising in response to the crisis.

What seems to matter here is careful strategy rather than speed. A picture of a flooded field or clubhouse posted on Twitter may provoke plenty of sympathy, but driving that towards fundraising pages and actual pledges takes more thought.

Both Cross Keys and Bedwas rugby clubs suffered substantial flood damage to their clubhouses, but whilst Cross Keys’ GoFundMe page had raised just over £3,000 by the beginning of March, at nearby Bedwas they had gone over £18,000.

The Bedwas donations have included pledges from Oman, Dubai, China, Germany and Australia as well as from celebratory donors like TV presenter Carol Vorderman.

Guiding the Bedwas online fundraising effort has been Will Rees, a keen supporter of the rugby club when he’s not marketing Welsh netball.

He says: “There was a lot pressure on the club straight away with people saying we need a crowd funding page and that other clubs were doing it already.

“I said, let’s hold our horses. We had to be really clear with people as to what’s happened, what’s the damage, and why we need the money. On social media you need a clear statement as to what has happened to make it clear for the lay-person. 

“We wanted to be really accountable for the money, too. It couldn’t be money that was going to be swallowed up by an overdraft.

“You also have to keep people regularly updated as to where the money is going. 

“That’s the effective thing in social media. It an ongoing, story-telling approach.”

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