Viral Velocity: Social media puts sports news on the fast break

Dylan GarrityThere were fewer than 800 people in The Nest on Feb. 1. Each one screamed in delighted disbelief when Dylan Garrity’s one-in-a-million shot swished through the net to lift the Sac State basketball team over visiting Weber State.

Less than 48 hours later, millions had seen Garrity’s game-winner. The ¾-court shot gave the Hornets a victory over Big Sky Conference leaders. It also gave Garrity, his teammates and commentator Steve McElroy instant viral video fame.

“After our home games we go through the crowd and say thanks for coming and supporting us and every guy I gave a high-five to said, ‘You’re going to be on SportsCenter! You’re going to blow up!’” Garrity says. “That’s when I kind of realized what happened.”

As Garrity ate dinner later that night with his mother and a friend, they cheered wildly when his shot earned the top spot on ESPN’s nationally televised SportsCenter Top 10 Plays. Even with the Super Bowl the next day, the buzz around the buzzer-beater continued well into the following week.

Within three days, the YouTube clips generated more than 20,000 views. A six-second Vine video of the shot was shared by thousands on various social media sites.

Garrity’s Twitter following erupted. On Saturday, his following consisted of a handful of friends and family. By Monday, hundreds of fans had tracked him down and given him a “Follow.”

If you tweet it, they will come

Like the 24-hour national sports networks before it, social media is changing the game, for sports writers, athletes, fans and even coaches. Twitter’s constant, instantaneous flow of information virtually abolished the news cycle. The morning headlines in the newspaper rarely break news—they news has already gone out on Twitter and spread within minutes. 

It was just before 3 p.m. on the day after the Fourth of July when Sam Amick’s Twitter feed started looking like the readout at the gas station pump.

Dwight Howard, the biggest catch in class of 2013 NBA free agents, was headed to Houston and Amick ’00 (Journalism), an NBA reporter for USA Today, had the scoop. But before Amick even put his substantial writing skills to use on the details, he broke the biggest NBA story of the year on Twitter.

“I don’t think I’ll ever see anything explode like that again,” he says of the instant viral reaction. “I opened my laptop the next morning and was watching the mentions on Tweetdeck (a Twitter-related app). It was on spin cycle for 24 hours.”

Dylan Garrity's 3/4-court shot to beat Weber State on Feb. 1 was SportsCenter's top play of the day and made the Sac State junior a viral sensation over the following days.

Photo by Bob Solorio

Online ExtraClick to see the video of Dylan Garrity's buzzer beater against Weber State

Social media also gives athletes a platform to espouse their views, promote their brands and connect with fans, who enjoy access to their favorite players and personalities that was impossible to get prior to the social media era. 

Amick’s Twitter following didn’t happen by accident. He was, as author Malcom Gladwell would call him, an “early adopter.”

“My older sister introduced me to Twitter and I remember her trying to explain it and it looked like another language with the embedded links and the @ symbols,” Amick says. “Now everyone is so well versed in it. Luckily I jumped on it sooner than later. Coming out of school in 2000, I was open to (the technology) but it wasn’t that far along.”

As the Sacramento Kings beat writer for the Sacramento Bee, Amick started blogging around 2004 and steadily built an online following. Like many of today’s multi-tasking reporters, his roles as a journalist began to expand. At USA Today, Amick is a part of regular Spreecasts, a video conference website that allows the writers to answer questions and interact directly with readers.

Along the way he’s had to learn new computer programs, develop new skills and more than anything, adapt.

“It’s a tough industry,” Amick says. “But I’ve had good bosses and that makes me want to kill myself even more for the company.”

Avoiding the tangled Web

For coaches, social media is a blessing and occasionally, a curse.

The Internet is a simple, effective way to connect with supporters and even prospective student-athletes.

“It’s a great way to promote our team, our accomplishments and to get out important information pertaining to our events,” says Kathleen Raske, Sac State director of Track and Field/Cross Country. “We have both a Facebook page and a Twitter account and those help us in the recruiting process and help us stay in touch with our alumni and fans.”

The key for coaches, administrators and student-athletes is to leverage the tools correctly. Social media sites can easily damage reputations and stir up negative attention if they’re left unchecked.

Raske says the Sac State athletic department expects student-athletes to behave online just as they would in any public setting.

“If student athletes are not representing themselves, the team, the university or the athletic department in a positive way, that creates a positive image, they can be disciplined,” she says.

The voice behind the viral video

For Garrity, Internet notoriety has been all for the good, with fans flocking to check out the video for his feel-good vibe of his shot—as well as for McElroy’s amazed, almost crazed, call. McElroy’s reaction to the game-winner was unmistakably genuine. Calling the game for KTKZ radio and the Internet video feed, he assumed the game was headed for overtime after Weber State’s Davion Berry nailed a long 3-pointer and left a mere 0.7 seconds on the clock.

He reacted to Garrity’s heave by screaming, “Oh, oh my God!” as players and fans dog piled the hero near the Sac State bench.

“I was stuck describing Berry’s shot and I wasn’t thinking we’d get a shot off,” says McElroy, who has called Hornet basketball games for 17 seasons. “From a verbal standpoint it wasn’t a great call, but it was pretty good from an excitement standpoint.”

Garrity, a communications major from Huntington Beach, says he hopes the shot heard around the web will draw more fans, students and even athletes to Sac State. He relished the limelight, which doesn’t shine on the Hornets often.

“My freshman year when we played Oklahoma, we were on the bad side of SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays—a guy got a nasty dunk on us,” Garrity says. “This is the first time we’ve been on the good side of the Top 10 Plays. If it helps our school, helps people recognize Sac State athletics, then I’m all for it.”