Social media and the role it has played in the sporting industry

The relationship between brands and athletes

Professional athletes make their living by playing a sport which they excel in, but they also earn money through sponsorship by big brands. From a branding point of view, having a well-known athlete who wears/uses/endorses your brand, goes a long way in brand awareness with your target market.

In the days before social media, the only channels, which brands had to push their sponsored athletes, was television, print publications like magazines and radio. With the explosion of social platforms however, this playing field changed dramatically. Not only are there more channels in which to push brand endorsements, but each athlete has essentially become a brand themselves, with followers on social platforms numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

From an athlete’s point of view, brand sponsorship often ended when you retired from your sport, however now, with athletes building personal brands on social media with their own followers or community, they no longer have such a short sponsorship lifecycle.

Why athletes use social media

As a fan of a professional athlete, not only do you want to know what the latest results were at the last game or sports fixture, but you are also interested in who the person is, in their ‘normal’ life. Social media offers you this opportunity, to connect with this person and see the human side of them.

For the athletes, you have the opportunity to engage with your fans not only at a game, where adrenalin is often at it’s peak and you don’t always have the time and focus to respond as you wish to, but in a more human and personal way. Signing 1000 autographs takes up a lot of time, when in just one tweet you can thank all your fans for coming to watch and deliver a heart-felt message which makes them feel appreciated and fosters loyalty and brand affinity.

At some point your professional career will come to an end and if you plan on maintaining the lifestyle you were used to as an athlete, you will need to maintain your relevancy after your sporting career is over.

How Gian Simmen uses social media to stay relevant

We spoke to Gian Simmen (former Olympic snowboard halfpipe champion in 1998 and two times world champion), to find out how he has leveraged his sporting accomplishments on social media, to his benefit.



How has social media played a role in your career in the last 5 years?

« Social media gave me the chance to interact with fans on a daily basis, and not just on competition day. Another massive advantage is that before, I’d film all season long and come out with one video, now I can publish my own video clips, without having a major video company involved, which keeps me relevant and offering my community and fans little snippets all season, without the long wait. »

What are the advantages to being on social media still?

« I’ve made some amazing contacts from social media, like a couple of action photographers who I not only work with in-season in the snow, but also on a professional level in the agency I work in. »

Which platform do you find offers the most value to you?

« Instagram, because a picture or video says more than a thousand words. This platform is also free of advertising (for now). »

What do you hate about social media?

« That it makes people addicted to how they appear on these channels, so very little effort goes into real friendships and relationships. »

Gian Simmen - action shot

Gian Simmen – action shot

Hurdles which social media poses for an athlete

Athletes are not educated in how best to manage their social profiles and so often, inappropriate communication, content and messages can damage a person’s image online. Just as a brand has to tread carefully when it comes to social media, so do athletes, it’s just a bit more difficult because on your personal Facebook profile for example, you don’t always consider who may looking at your content and who may take offense, especially if you have a large following. This can lead to a PR nightmare for athletes who overstep the mark, as people react to often racist, sexist or rude updates.

With the social media landscape changing constantly, athletes will have more access to their fans through online channels, which means that more effort will need to be made on educating those in the spotlight on how to manage their social profiles, not only to avoid offending anyone, but also to make sure that they have a community which they can leverage, once they retire.

Written by Steve Borloz, former athlete manager and sports marketing manager for over 10 years at Redbull

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