Twitter, Trust & Fans

Kevin Pietersen MBE

Former England Cricket Captain

Kevin Pietersen MBE is a South African-born English professional cricketer. He plays cricket for a number of twenty20 franchises across the world as well as working as a broadcaster and expert pundit.

Do you know the biggest pressure on sports stars today?

Social media.

Every time you finish a match, you’ve got thousands of people commenting on everything you’ve done. As soon as I turn on my phone at the end of an innings I’ve got that instant feedback from the public – whether it’s been a good innings or a bad one.

That brings new pressure we just didn’t have when I started playing, and if you’re having a bad time on the field it can really get to you. I’ve played for different teams across the world and social media is absolutely massive everywhere. No matter what players say in public, most are really, really conscious of what is being said about them on Twitter, Facebook and the rest.

Social media is actually much bigger than traditional media now. When I was in Australia playing and commentating for the Big Bash we had 12 million people watching our videos on Facebook every single day. Compare that to the matches on TV, where we’re happy if we get over a million people. It’s mind blowing.

But criticism isn’t the only stress for athletes when it comes to social media. The smartphone has been a total game changer and while they’re great in many ways (I go crazy when I can’t get my 4G for Instagram!), they have built a real barrier between players and fans.

To be honest, because of smartphones I walk around thinking that every single person is basically a journalist now. You have to be a lot more reserved and closed-off. A lot more in your bubble. I’ve been burnt that many times I just totally close it off.

Recently in Melbourne, I was approached by a British tennis player who wanted a picture. To be honest, I was absolutely hammered and had been on the drinks since lunchtime, so I barely remember it happening! But I have had a rule for many years that I won’t pose for a single picture with anybody if I’ve had too many drinks, and that occasion was no different.

The next day I find out that he’s criticised me on Twitter for not giving him a picture. What can you do? I’ve been stung before by that type of thing – finding myself on the front pages of the paper and getting fined by the authorities. That’s why rules are rules!

Just look at what happened to Wayne Rooney when he went to that wedding and the guests sold the pictures to the tabloids! Rooney is someone we should be celebrating – an absolute legend – but instead we’re hammering him for letting his guard down and having fun. That’s the danger of social media – it means athletes have to be suspicious and can’t let their guard down with fans in the ways they did years ago.

Kevin Pietersen batting for the Melbourne Stars – with helmet camera and microphone – during the 2017 ‘Big Bash’ in Australia

Another rule is to be super careful when using social media. Politics, money, race and religion are all things that I’ve learned you should probably just leave alone – they are too risky.

Having said that, I still absolutely love social media! As a sportsman with a big global following – especially in the UK, Australia and South Africa – I have an important role to play in engaging with fans, but also speaking out on issues I really care about.

As a South African by birth and someone who was brought up in Africa, safari and wildlife has always been a big part of my life. You are not born in Africa, Africa is born in you.

About three years ago, I went on a conservation trip with [former South African wicketkeeper] Mark Boucher’s Legacy charity, which campaigns for the protection of rhinos. There’s only about 20,000 rhinos left and if we don’t do something to stop the poaching and murder then they will become extinct. That’s something we cannot allow to happen.

From that first trip, I thought, “How can I help?” How can I use my profile to help the campaign and raise money? What I’ve discovered is that social media is absolutely vital.

Out in Australia I decided to put rhino stickers on my cricket bats to raise awareness of the campaign, and then used my social media profiles to amplify everything. The impact has been huge: equivalent to millions of dollars’ worth of marketing, all for free! That’s what the power of sport can do.

Take golf, which is a huge passion of mine. Every single golf tournament should have players who are mic-ed up, so that the commentators can speak to them throughout their rounds. It’s like when you watch rugby and hear the referee talking to the captains. Those moments when you see things that are happening in real time and you’re thinking, “What is that guy doing?” Technology means you find out in real time and that’s part of the experience.

“The impact of social media has been huge: equivalent to millions of dollars’ worth of marketing, all for free!”

I’ve been mic-ed up when I’m playing cricket. Even if I’ve been playing badly or I have a bad knock, I understand that the average fan might occasionally swear too. If I nick off for nought and I’ve got the mic on, well that’s just life! I’ve had other occasions where I’ve been chatting to the commentators while I’m batting and I say to them, “Right, if he’s gonna bowl the ball there, I’m gonna hit him there”. That gives the fan an unbelievable insight.

Sport needs to realise that we’re here to entertain, so we need to bring the fans closer to the game. We need to try new things and not be afraid of what some critics might say. We have to build that engagement with our fans, to give them a reason to watch.

We also need to think about the format of our sports – how can we make them faster, more exciting and more entertaining? Golf and tennis are things that could definitely change. I watched Federer recently at the Rod Laver Arena for three-and-a-half hours and I was like, “Dude I’m outta here!” I went and watched the first two sets and then I was out at the bar for a couple of sets and then I was back in. It is just too long.

We shouldn’t be scared to shake things up. It’s about being bold, embracing new technology and taking risks – that’s how we change sport for the better.