Slowly dying are the days of fans writing to their favorite athletes, then checking the mailbox for an autographed photo, ball or letter in return. Instead, Twitter, Facebook and myriad other social networks are giving fans the ability to connect instantly with sports teams and athletes. And now fans are getting responses that no one expected.

Two New England Patriots players recently showed the power of connecting via Twitter when they surprised fans with tickets to playoff games.

Chad Ochocinco, one of the most vocal athletes on Twitter, provided round-trip flight, hotel and tickets to the Patriots game against the Broncos to a Florida fan who had been tweeting at him for two years. The following week, Wes Welker surprised a fan who tweeted a shirtless, painted photo of himself at the game, which was played in single-digit temperatures. Welker was so impressed, he offered him tickets to the AFC Championship game.

The goodwill the athletes and, by proxy, their team got from each giveaway is hard to measure, but the sports industry is definitely taking notice. With the popularity of MLB’s Fan Cave and the New Jersey Devils’ Mission Control last year, teams and player are interacting with fans like never before, and Twitter is playing a huge role. According to @Pro_Athletes, there are more than 4,800 athletes on Twitter from all the major sports organizations. Athletes are using Twitter not only to interact with fans, but to support their sponsorship endorsements and comment on their sports. The recent NFL and NBA lockouts were great examples of how athletes influenced public opinion through their tweets.

Sports marketers spend hours every season dreaming up promotions that will help connect fans with their teams. The power of personable players tweeting back at their fans can be priceless. Although a recent Men’s Journal article suggested that the King of Twitter, Shaquille O’Neal, could make upwards of $5 million through sponsorship deals based on his $4.3 million followers, a monetary value of players’ non-sponsored tweets is still a ways off. But according to a study published in the International Journal of Sport Communication, 17% of athletes’ tweets are responding to fans, the highest of all the content they share, and proof that athletes see the value of this interaction.  You can be sure that teams are pondering how to leverage the popularity of their players’ interactions on social media, and that dynamic will factor into the ongoing relationships between teams and athletes.

So what’s next? Will fans constantly tweet at their sports heroes, hoping they’ll receive tickets? Probably. Even if they don’t, the one-on-one interaction fans get from Twitter is invaluable. It brings the excitement of talking to a player to their fingertips. And as long as athletes think before they tweet, Twitter will remain a great way to build their personal brands, enhance their teams’ images and transform the fan-athlete dynamic in ways we can only imagine.