Tebow Mania: The Rise of Sports' First Social Media Superstar

By Ty Duffy
Aug 31, 2013, 7:00 AM EDT

I received an email on January 11, 2012. My wife and her work colleagues were having a water cooler discussion about Tim Tebow, how good of a quarterback he was and the reasons for his broader cultural impact. They wanted to know my thoughts. This was odd.

My wife is not a sports fan. She listens to me patiently, but has little interest. Her “water cooler” resides in a Post-War and Contemporary Art department. Her colleagues, seldom observed discussing anything beyond art and office gossip, were the furthest thing from sports fans. One of them might have had a boyfriend who followed Georgetown basketball.

Three days before the Broncos were dismantled by the New England Patriots in the Divisional Round, Tim Tebow was perhaps the most famous athlete in American sports. He was fascinating and he was everywhere. He was officially “now.”

We have accepted Tim Tebow’s fame and the attendant coverage as a fait accompli. For some reason, it feels natural for the third-string quarterback of the New England Patriots to be thronged by the media. We cover him, because he still “moves the meter,” although how and why he does has surpassed any organic outgrowth from his football career. That says more about the present state of sports media than it does about the football player, himself.

Tim Tebow media coverage increased exponentially from the start of his college career through joining the Jets in 2012. In 2007, when he won the Heisman, ESPN.com mentioned him 87 times in a year. By 2012, the site mentioned him 3,520 times. That was nearly 1,000 times more than Tom Brady. It was almost four times as often as the league’s MVP, Adrian Peterson.

Other outlets echoed ESPN, albeit with a bit less gusto. The New York Times expanded its coverage ten-fold from 52 mentions in 2007 to 531 in 2012. Our own site swelled from 47 mentions in 2007 to 353 mentions. Some of this was simply producing more content. Much of it was meeting the demands of an escalating obsession.

Besides numbers, Tebow coverage transcended genres. GQ photographed him shirtless and Christ-like, only for Vogue and Annie Leibovitz to one-up them with a monster truck tire. Frank Bruni fashioned a New York Times Op-Ed about him. US Weekly obsessed over his love life. Jimmy Fallon mashed him up in a music segment. Every outlet from the New Yorker to TMZ weighed in on his trade to the Jets.

Coverage of Tebow was so ever-present it became the story, to the point where it was fodder for self-parody. Sportscenter held a Tebow hour on Dec. 7, 2011, saying his name 88 times over the 48 minutes. It would have been more, but Jerry Sandusky had to spoil the fun by getting arrested. Fret not, however – the WWL crushed it on the second attempt, with 160 mentions.

Tim Tebow became the nation’s biggest sports story. He can still steal the headlines, completing one of six passes in the second-half of a preseason game. The question left unanswered is why?

His gross popularity does not seem to be personality-driven. Brian Costello, who covered Tebow on the Jets for the New York Post, described him to The Big Lead as “gracious with the media” and a “very nice guy.” CBS Sports’ Jeremy Fowler, who covered Tebow at Florida, described him as “very normal” and a guy who “could relax a bit” when out of the spotlight. Both liked him. Neither gave him the full Brennaman treatment.

What seems more important is what Tebow represents for others. He’s more inflammatory as an idea. He hits the nub of major fault lines in American sports and American culture where there is no middle ground. His mere presence almost forces you to react to him.

Sports have become far more analyzed and quantified. Numbers and spreadsheets are integral. Draft gurus parse every aspect of a player’s game for projection. There is a great strive to find true value and to make rational decisions. Tebow flies in the face of it.

His throwing motion is terrible. He reads through progressions like a Madden amateur. He completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes in 2011. His value comes from being Captain Intangibles. His “stats” that season as a starter were comeback wins (5) and game-winning drives led (6). He achieved them through inveterate character and clutchitude.

This made him popular. The scrappy, heroic, greatness-emerging-when-it-matters-most angle appeals to many sports fans and writers. That narrative is well-worn and goes down well with beer. One could scream about sample size till blue, posit that he was hindering what should have been a better team or try to explain him with stats (such as opening running lanes for running backs) to moderate effect. But he was, for at least a few months, a perceived trump card for the philistines, which made him both loved and loathed.

How you feel about Tebow hits the core of how you perceive athletic competition. Arguing about him can get personal, with little chance of resolution. It’s sort of like religion, where Tebow can be equally polarizing.

It’s impossible to divorce Tebow from his faith. He comes from a family of evangelical missionaries. He and his family actively espouse their cause. “They wanted to further their ministry. I think they used football as a platform for that,” Fowler told The Big Lead.

Tebow prayed on the sideline. He wrote biblical verse numbers in his eyeblack. He publicly avowed his celibacy. He participated in an anti-abortion ad during the Super Bowl. He’s no firebrand, but his religious beliefs are an essential part of the whole.

That part of him irritates and baffles some on the secular coasts. That part of him also attracts many from the Protestant church scene in large swaths of the country. Those people may not consume much sports content. But for Tebow, they might make an exception. As my colleague Jason Lisk noted, the Tebow posts on The Big Lead that caught on were the positive ones, not the snarky ones.

Tebow can rouse people to an inordinate extent, on and off the field. But that alone does not explain why he became a media phenomenon when he did. He was in the spotlight for years before things hit a critical mass. Tebowmania needed a hothouse to build upon itself. That hothouse was social media, specifically Twitter.

When Tebow won his Heisman in 2007, Twitter being inundated with 60,000 tweets in a day was newsworthy. By March 2011, the average number was 140 million. By 2012, 140 million users were sending 340 million tweets per day. It’s not a coincidence Tebowmania hit its peak just as Twitter oiled up and began flexing.

Twitter has a peculiar effect on the media. It provides a window into the populace at large, but a distorted, Mercator-like one. It does not highlight what the majority are doing. It highlights what the most people are doing simultaneously. Barring a royal baby or a celebrity death, that’s watching live sports, which has its importance magnified. Sixty times as many Americans may not be watching that football game. But it will still be trending nationwide!

When Tebow became the biggest story in sports, he became a Twitter story. He was dominating attention during Broncos games. He was setting tweet-per-second records. #Tebowing became an Internet meme. There was also its more Internety cousin #OccupyTebow. ESPN showed a simulcast of a notable personality live-tweeting his press conference on ESPN2.

Writers covering Tebow discovered his Twitter power almost immediately. Their audience broadened, both in numbers and demographics. From Costello:

"The night of the trade I gained 500 twitter followers in a few hours. The other thing I noticed was how many female twitter followers I gained because of interest in Tebow. Tebow has a huge female fan base, which is an audience not always served by mainstream sports coverage."

Tebow went “viral.” Those viral events were more memorable and often had stronger cultural resonance than what he was doing in real life. This influenced how and how often he was covered.

Do media outlets cover stories people are interested in? Or, do people become interested in stories media outlets cover? The answer is a little bit of both. The public reacted to Tebow on social media. Media outlets noticed and tailored more coverage to him. This resulted in more public reaction, which resulted in more coverage. The story snowballed.

"There was never any specific communication from anyone at ESPN to talk about Tebow, or focus on a story. That’s not how it works. We are presented with the ratings, along with what the same program in that time slot/event one year previous rated. Then its up to the producers, if they wish, to look at those things with Audience Research and go from there. But there isn’t some Black Hawk helicopter flying in from Burbank with strict instructions to push Tebow."

ESPN producers saw what was happening with Twitter, other forms of social media and web traffic. They also saw what was happening with their Nielsen ratings provided in 15-second increments. Tebow “moved the meter.” A lot of small, independent decisions to add a dollop of Tebow, at a place with the reach of ESPN, adds up. The WWL was both reacting and inciting more reactions.

More Tebow interest. More coverage of him. More Tebow interest. More coverage of him. The snowball grew larger and more rapidly. The story assumed a life of its own, dissipating only when it became clear there would be no competition between him and Mark Sanchez. Tebow blew up because he was the right person just as the media cycle intensified.

Tebow handled his public persona admirably, in large part due to his upbringing. According to Fowler, he was “conditioned at a young age” to handle public life. He was “pretty well protected” while he was at Florida. He had experience dealing with publicity since he featured in a high school documentary. He was endowed with a sense of family identity and duty. “Tebows try to act a certain way,” Fowler said. They are “respectful.”

That firm grounding carried through to his NFL career. Besides being, by all accounts, genuine and upstanding, he controls his media access. He is unflappably bland on social media. He’s conscious and on-message, even on a wholesome bowling date (note the crisp sponsor t-shirt and crucifix).

The most controversial, off the script thing Tim Tebow has done was taking a playful jab at Brady Quinn and Notre Dame at a booster event. His people, somehow, made sure even that minor malfeasance was sponged from the record.

Tebow is human. But he was drilled to be freakishly diligent. That’s worth remembering when we contrast him with Johnny Manziel. Mr. Effing Football is no Tim Tebow (few people are). He was not endowed with the faith, the mission or the firm grounding. We can presume he has committed graver sins since his last confession. Texas A&M should, in retrospect, have kept its hand more firmly on the tiller.

Manziel also faced a far rougher ride than Tebow. He came in with Twitter going full bore. What happened over five years to Tebow happened to Manziel in five months. Tebow had a support structure and a team of professionals. Manziel had his parents and Uncle Nate. His apparent faltering the past few months was unfortunate. But, one suspects, in coming years, it won’t feel that uncommon.

Social media is not creating a new brand of athlete. It is creating a new brand of media: accelerated, intensified and with far less capacity for nuance. You don’t need to be Tim Tebow to set it in motion. You may need to be him to survive it intact.