@TheFakeNed: I begin my yearly march towards being disappointed…
— Chris Kamler, Royals fan, on March 5, 2012
It’s a Sunday night in February and Chris Kamler is sitting in the middle of a basement room crowded with computers and wires and Royals pennants. His 9-year-old son is off thinking about school. His wife, Kara, enters the room where Kamler is finishing this crazy story, the one about a 39-year-old dad from the Northland becoming a bit player in Kansas City’s sports scene. The one about the Internet-technology lifer — “I’ve always worked with servers,” he says — becoming the oafish (and super-unofficial) mascot for a beleaguered baseball franchise.
You might not know Chris Kamler. But if you’re a Kansas City sports fans, one of the diehards, there’s a decent chance you know Kamler’s crass alter ego: @FakeNedYost, or more recently, @TheFakeNed— an homage to real Royals manager Ned Yost.
For the past two seasons, @FakeNedYost has spewed his unfiltered (and sometimes X-rated) thoughts about the Royals into the Twitterverse.
And here’s the wildest part. Two years ago, Kamler was a father who lived across the street from the house he grew up in. (“Yeah, it’s all that ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ stuff,’ ” he says.) He was a North Kansas City High graduate who once played in the basketball pep band at Mizzou. And he was just a fan.
But on Twitter, where @TheFakeNed has more than 4,600 followers, he’s become something more than that. And sometimes … people actually listen.
This is a story about community.
Twitter has, in so many ways, become the world’s largest sports bar, a place where witty (and not-so-witty) one-liners rule the day, where fans can wield more influence than ever before, pushing and pulling and molding the narrative of their favorite team in real time.
Televised sporting events, perhaps more than any other piece of American pop culture, are perfectly suited for Twitter and all its accompanying riff-raff. Advertisers love live sports because they are DVR-proof, events that must be watched live, lest all the drama be sucked out.
On Feb. 5, during the final, dramatic minutes of Super Bowl XLVI between the New York Giants and New England Patriots, tweets were being fired at 12,233 per second, a new record for a single event on Twitter, according to the social media giant’s official Twitter account.
Last week, during the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament, millions of fans hunkered down in front of flat-screen televisions with Twitter open on their laptop or smartphone, commenting on every announcer’s misstep, every frantic finish.
It makes you wonder: What did we do before Twitter? Pick up the phone and deliver bursts of snark to our friends over the landline?
*”Social media is changing everything.”
“Twitter is revolutionizing communication.”
“Holy shit, Eric Hosmer just retweeted me!”*
But in the middle of the ridiculousness, a strange sports-infused Twitter zeitgeist has appeared. Fans are congregating online for news and links and fan fellowship. And characters like @FakeNedYost have evolved into a new type of fan: A diehard supporter who is able to voraciously consume news about his team while also adding to the narrative at the same time.
In Lawrence, a KU upperclassman has attracted nearly 11,000 followers on Twitter and cult status on campus. In Milwaukee, a freelance writer used Twitter to coin a term that would become the rallying cry of a division-winning baseball team. And in the northland, a 39-year-old sits in front of his television, puts down a couple pops and fires up his laptop. Tweet.
“The voice of the fan has never been stronger,” Kamler says, “and it’s never been more fun to watch a live event.
“Anything I would yell, I put on Twitter. And then I drink a lot.”
“FakeJeffWithey totally made real Withey famous.”
— An anonymous reader in the “Free for all” section of the University Daily Kansan, the student newspaper at KU.
This is a fan story.
It starts in Lawrence in September, just a few months before the start of the Kansas basketball season. Maybe the idea stemmed from some standard college boredom. But really, our second protagonist says, he just wanted an outlet for all the jokes he’d been making for years.
This is how @FakeJeffWithey was born.
The Real Jeff Withey, of course, is a 7-foot center from San Diego, Calif. And his story is not all that different from a lot of big-time college basketball recruits. He started his career at Arizona in 2008, transferred to Kansas after only one semester and spent his freshman and sophomore seasons at Kansas as a little-used big-man off the bench. He was thin and a little bit awkward and, if anything, his presence became something of an amusing side story as Kansas earned No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament in 2010 and 2011.
But something unexpected happened in Lawrence this season. Jeff Withey has become a college-town icon. Part of this, of course, has to do with Withey. During the last three months, Withey has transformed into one of the best defensive centers in the country. He led the Big 12 in blocked shots and during a three-game stretch in February, averaged 20.3 points and 6.3 blocks per game.
But part of the phenomenon, part of the madness, is being aided along by a KU student with more than 9,500 followers on Twitter. In early September, a 20-something logged onto his computer and activated a new account: @FakeJeffWithey.
On an afternoon in early March, the same 20-something is sitting in a restaurant in downtown Lawrence trying to explain Withey-mania. The first rule: He doesn’t want you to know who he is. Some of the account’s posting may be R-rated, but he says he’s not too worried about future job prospects or his reputation. Mostly, he says, he just doesn’t want to ruin the fun.
“No matter who’s running the account,” he says, “If people found out, it’d be a letdown.”
Of course, FakeJeff has a story that only seems plausible in a world with Twitter and social media. A little more than five months after it was activated, his Twitter account has exploded. The hash-tagged phrases that he spawned — #WitheybeingWithey and #Witheying (a pose modeled after the overplayed #Tebowing craze) — have become popular memes online and on campus.
At nearly all hours of the day, FakeJeff’s phone is buzzing with action from his Twitter account: New followers, new tweets and college girls passing along photos of themselves #Witheying.
Earlier this season, ESPN’s SportsCenter anchor John Buccigross used one of FakeJeff’s lines: “Getting Withey with it.” And FakeJeff has had to rework his schedule to make sure he’s able to tweet during every game.
“It’s like a full-time job,” he says.
The funny thing: The Twitter account also caught the eye of a local business and led to a marketing internship this summer.
On a March afternoon, the real Withey sits in a locker room in Omaha, Neb., as the No. 2 seed Kansas Jayhawks prepare to play their NCAA Tournament opener against No. 15 seed Detroit. In the middle of a room jammed with reporters, Withey hears the questions and smiles.
Yes, he knows about the Twitter account. He’s even met the kid behind it. “Great guy,” he says. “Funny.” You asked Withey if maybe the account has changed his life a little bit. Not in a serious way. In a, well, ridiculous way. Withey admits he’s been mobbed a little more when he’s been out in public. All KU basketball players go through this, of course, but this season has been different. People feel more comfortable approaching — like they know him personally, like they’ve been inspired to.
“I think he’s helped me grow in popularity,” Withey joked. “That’s for sure.”
Whether you find @FakeJeffWithey funny is certainly a matter of taste. The account generally treads somewhere between sophomoric one-liners and bro jokes. And this is the Internet, after all, so it’s not hard to find some haters. But @FakeJeffWithey is not the first sports fan to spark a citywide obsession.
This is a Milwaukee story.
It starts in the Twin Cities last spring with a 39-year-old freelance writer from Wisconsin and a speedy major-league baseball journeyman named Nyjer Morgan.
We start with the writer. Jason Albert was in a state of flux. He was living in a new city, waiting to hear back from a publisher, and baseball season was fast approaching. Even better: His beloved Milwaukee Brewers had a chance to compete for their first division title in decades.
Then his favorite team acquired Morgan, a player known mostly for his unstable and seemingly irrational behavior, and everything changed. Before the season, Albert spent a few weeks studying his team’s new center fielder. He stumbled upon this bizarre fact: At certain moments in the past, Morgan had referred to himself as Tony Plush, his “gentleman’s name.”
Like any loyal fan with creative juices to burn, Albert turned to Twitter. And the account, @Tony_Plush, was born. In the opening weeks of the season, the account became an instant sensation. National baseball writers were mentioning the tweets in columns. The Brewers were winning. And Albert was spending his nights in front of the television set, following each game on his phone. One night, Albert coined the term “Plushdamentals.” Within weeks, Plushdamentals had hit the mainstream.
“That’s just something I made up,” Albert says. “By midseason, Nyjer Morgan was using this.”
By mid-May, Morgan himself had joined Twitter, co-opting many of the traits and Plush-isms that had made Albert’s account a star.
“Every time I sent out a tweet,” Albert says, “Seven-thousand people heard it. That’s a voice I didn’t have before.”
So here’s the essential question: Do fans really have more power, more influence? Can a parody account really have an effect? Do the words that come from @FakeJeffWithey or @Tony_Plush or @FakeNedYost really matter? Is this fan-driven entertainment or a newly ascribed power to a population that used to rely on calling talk radio or writing the newspaper or, even more recently, maintaining a blog?
In 2010, a group of international researchers published a study entitled ” The Million Follower Fallacy.” The researchers studied more than 54 million Twitter accounts and found that while follower count illustrated a Twitter user’s popularity, it was not necessarily a reliable indicator of true influence — at least, as measured by retweets, mentions and other interaction on Twitter.
The study also concluded that users who keep their tweets to a single topic are more likely to increase their influence. But according to the researchers, it would be flawed to suggest that a faux Twitter account with scores of followers is more influential than say, a news aggregator account with a similar number of followers.
But here’s another question: What exactly is influence? Is it simply retweets? That’s part of it, no doubt. But is it healthy for a sports brand if one user is saturating their large number of followers with negative or cynical one-liners? And what about the community aspects? If fans are connected, consuming each other’s tweets and thoughts, retweeting their favorites, and so on — won’t this have an effect as well?
That question, of course, is up for debate. But that hasn’t stopped college and professional sports teams from trying to flood the Twitterverse with their messages.
The Chiefs’ official Twitter account has more than 83,000 followers. The Royals have more than 43,000, and Sporting KC more than 26,000. Chiefs stars Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry are active. So is Royals first baseman Eric Hosmerand a handful of Sporting KC regulars. The common response from the local teams: They won’t mandate that their players be on Twitter — but they will encourage it.
“We pride ourselves in our players being very active in social media,” said Rob Thomson, Sporting KC’s vice president of communications. “And not monitoring so much, but letting them be themselves, and showcasing their personalities.”
Thomson points out that Sporting KC CEO Robb Heineman, who has more than 4,700 followers, also regularly interacts with fans.
The relationship between sports and Twitter appears to be increasing. Earlier this month, the Edmonton Rush, a professional lacrosse team in Canada, wore jerseys with their Twitter names on the back. A minor-league stunt? Perhaps. But who knows?
The technology has also sparked controversy, of course. In 2009, Chiefs running back Larry Johnson was suspended by the Chiefs after belittling coach Todd Haley and using a gay slur in during a Twitter rant. In a more recent episode, KU guard Tyshawn Taylor caused a stir by firing back at fans who had criticized his play. Taylor is still on Twitter and has more than 21,000 followers.
Earlier this year, Royals officials had to remind players to watch what they posted on Twitter, even if it was just something they retweeted from a fan’s account. But the Royals still embrace the reward over the risk. Close to a dozen Royals are on Twitter, and during home games this season, the club plans to publicize the players’ Twitter handles on the scoreboard.
This is a basement story.
Kamler is still sitting in the same chair, still talking about the wife that didn’t know about his alter ego for months. Awhile back, he says, one of her co-workers found out she was married to @FakeNedYost, and when Kamler arrived to pick her up, the co-worker bolted out to meet him.
He’s just finished “The Rambling Morons” podcasts — one about the Royals and one about nonsense, he says. All the members of the Royals-centric podcast met each other through Twitter.
“Without Twitter, this show wouldn’t exist,” says Troy Olsen, who goes by the nickname @KCRoyalman on Twitter and is also one of Kamler’s co-hosts.
The show, a sort of 21st century version of “Wayne’s World,” is self-produced and self-financed and a generator of zero profits. But the guys have a decent following, mostly fans who’ve stumbled upon it through Twitter.
This is the democratization of fandom, a flatter sports world where sports-obsessed citizens have a place to come together, watch sports and force the franchises they follow to at least listen once in a while.
“This isn’t normal,” Kamler says, looking around the basement with the computers and wires and baseball pennants.
Thing is, maybe now it is.
Rustin Dodd covers the Royals and the University of Kansas sports for The Kansas City Star. Follow him on Twitter @rustindodd.