Shaq Blazes Social Media Trails for Professional Athletes

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Happy retirement to a sports and social media legend.

Shaquille O’Neal retired from the NBA this week after an illustrious, 19-year career. He was a bigger-than-life figure on the court, but perhaps an even larger factor on sports business and social media.

It was fitting he used Twitter to announce his retirement, sharing a 16-second video and thanking his millions of fans.

Today’s professional athletes should thank Shaq for what he’s done for personal branding. I’m not talking endorsements, although Shaq has his share of those. In the not-too-distant-past, it was traditional endorsements using traditional media that enriched professional athletes beyond their player salaries. Shaq is a trail-blazer for athletes and other celebrities who today use their social media star power for financial gain.

Sure, Shaq has done a lot to get where he is today: Hollywood actor. Rapper. Product spokesperson. Humanitarian. He’s not Shaquille O’Neal anymore. His brand name is simply Shaq. In 2007, CNN/Money named him the seventh-best endorsement superstar. And that’s a product of intense, frequent – and often brilliant – personal branding.

He’s created a language all his own – mashing “Shaq” with other words to make them larger than life – or Shaq-worthy. As his Twitter profile boasts, he’s very “Quotatious,” and “performs random acts of Shaqness.”

There’s also that stellar stint in the NBA, where Shaq earned 15 trips to the all-star game, 4 rings and numerous statistical milestones. He was the last bridge to previous generation of NBA greats.

When he wasn’t on the court, Shaq seemed most comfortable in the social media space. It’s the one place he could – and can – truly be himself. The authentic nature of this medium translates perfectly to Shaq’s large, unencumbered personality. It’s no surprise he’s the “most-followed athlete and first verified celebrity on Twitter”, according to his social media rep, Amy Jo Martin of Digital Royalty.

Shaq burst onto the social media scene when it was in its infancy. At nearly 4 million Twitter followers and more than 2 million Facebook fans, Shaq’s following is large for an aging athlete who has spent more time injured than playing the past few seasons.

In early 2009, Shaq shunned so-called traditional media to pimp his latest endorsement deal at the time with Enlyten, a maker of mouth strips that provide athletes with electrolytes. At the time, he had just 500,000 or so followers, but no one had done such a thing using social media. Now it’s becoming commonplace.

Shaq’s retirement announcement on Twitter was, of course, how he wanted to go out. As Martin told ESPN:

Shaquille is the media. He didn’t need a press release so the media could tell the world he’s retiring in their words. He told his millions of friends directly, in his own words. The social influence he has built has given him the freedom to leapfrog the middleman.

Shaq’s using his Twitter following to determine a new, post-retirement nickname. “The Big 401k” currently leads the way, but you can still tweet up Shaq with your idea.

Regardless of what you call him, Shaq remains a social media force in the sports world. Or, in Shaq terms, he’s Shaq-tastic.

Thanks for being a fan.

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