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The rise of athletes as media

(Source: Megan Rapinoe’s Instagram)


ATHLETES BECOMING MEDIA: PLAYERS ARE BECOMING MORE AWARE OF THE VALUE OF ACCESS AND NO-ONE CONTROLS ACCESS BETTER THAN THE PLAYERS THEMSELVES.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the paragraph above was straight out of 2020, written as a result of our current global situation where the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) has seen our top athletes lead the conversation with sports fans.


In one sense you’d be right: it’s a pretty accurate reflection of the current situation. But it was actually one of the seven digital trends in sport that Seven League identified in December 2018 (see the 2019 edition of our annual Digital Trends in Sport here, 2020 version here).


Back then we saw top-tier athletes take a leap forward as media brands. Many of them started to go direct to fans via social media and newly formed platforms, rather than relying on their clubs, national governing bodies or sponsors. 


Okay well done us, but why raise this now? Well, right now, and for the foreseeable future, literally no one has access to the players other than the players themselves. 


Clubs and leagues have long known that it’s player content that moves the needle, but access has always been the challenge. Social distancing and self-isolation has given the public arguably more athlete access than ever before. 


What’s interesting is how elite athletes across the industry have adjusted, and will adjust, while sport continues to be on hiatus.


Some are seasoned pros, naturals. These athletes are confident in the limelight and often talented in front of the camera. They are passionate, engaging, authoritative and likeable marketers who are adventurous on social media. They can be considered influencers in their own right. These athletes have been engaging directly with their fans for years, often reaping the commercial rewards whilst driving forward a new kind of fandom. 


With sport on hold they have been active on their channels as normal, tweaking content accordingly and seizing the opportunity to use their platforms to deliver powerful messages. 

Take Paul Pogba, for example, who was quick to use his platform to deliver an important WHO-endorsed message to his millions of global followers:



Or just simply show off some of his skills:




He’s not the only one. There are many more like him who have kept their audiences regularly engaged and adapting to life on the inside:


He’s not the only one. There are many more like him who have kept their audiences regularly engaged and adapting to life on the inside:


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GENIE BOUCHARD KEEPING ACTIVE ON INSTAGRAM STORIES

DANIEL RICCIARDO ROPING IN SOME FAMOUS MATES FOR A BATTLE

JESSE LINGARD AND THE #STAYHOMECHALLENGE WITH A TRICK SHOT

MEGAN RAPINOE STAYING AT HOME BUT STAYING CONNECTED

IAN WRIGHT AND ROMELU LUKAKU HAVING A CHAT


We needn’t worry about these athletes – they’ll be fine. They’re well up and running. They already have vast swathes of loyal fans on social media and they know exactly what makes these fans tick – even when there’s little actual sport to talk about. 


It’s the others, for whom this is new ground, that it’s interesting to monitor. These athletes can no longer hide behind their clubs, national governing bodies or federations or shy away from the limelight. 


With global sport at a virtual standstill, sports stakeholders need athletes to be online and present more than ever before, maintaining relevancy and demonstrating solidarity with their fans. 


The situation has clearly impacted the athletes themselves too, with many professional athletes feeling anxious as they struggle to cope with all the uncertainty that lies ahead. We’re not saying social media is the answer to this, but it can play an important role both in the short and long term.  


If athletes have been reluctant or afraid to build a direct connection or social profile before, this might just be their social calling – the opportunity to kick-start their social adventure. 


What’s crucial now is that it’s real. Never before has it been more important to show audiences on social media your true personality, your human side, your authenticity and your compassion. And that rings true for both athletes and non-athletes. 


That will be comforting for many athletes. Before the coronavirus outbreak, many may have been unsure of how to build relevancy outside of their sporting endeavours. In times like these, all they can talk about are their non-sporting endeavours, and that means every athlete has a point of relevance with their audience. 


If anything, this pause in play compels athletes to embrace the opportunities that social media offers, to be creative and build confidence as social superstars. This emergence of new personalities in sport is what should excite us. 


Indeed, we’ve seen a some athletes take part in viral social formats or dabble with the idea of increased exposure:


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While these are great to see, many athletes haven’t yet built up a regular stream of content or found regular formats that they are comfortable with. That’s understandable: it won’t happen overnight. It will come through trial and error and positive reinforcement. 


Athletes that do this will be taking the plunge into the unknown but they will learn from their experiences. They will be honing their skills in communication, experimenting with trending social platform features and developing imaginative ways of engaging and informing their audiences. 


They will build confidence and build followers. They will be contributing to their clubs and their governing bodies. They might not know it yet but they will be valuable contributors to the long-term prosperity of their sports.  


We should be hopeful that as long as this unprecedented situation continues, it will breed a new generation of athletes who are increasingly comfortable as creators. 


Of course, they need to strike the right balance between performance and publicity, but we’ve seen that can be done. It just takes discipline, a little thinking and a dose of strategy. 


Take some of our work with the Badminton World Federation (BWF) for example. With the long term aim of growing the sport by creating athletes with higher profiles, we’ve been helping a handful of top players over the last six months harness the power of social media by helping get the basics right, teaching them new skills, developing their confidence and giving them regular ideas.  


We’ve helped them find their tone of voice, establish their personalities, understand the risks and capitalise on opportunities so that the sport of Badminton can benefit from them being stars in their own right. 


Over the last few weeks, we’ve really seen them come into their own with creative execution and this can only be good for the sport.


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BY POPOR SAPSIREE TAERATTANACHAI


ATHLETES BECOMING MEDIA: AN OPPORTUNITY OR A THREAT?


From a club, governing body or sponsor perspective, it’s understandable if you were starting to get concerned about athletes cutting you out of the relationship with the fan. However, athletes building their own profiles and developing healthier interactions with fans should be considered a positive long-term development for any sport, not least the industry as a whole. 


These organisations should seize the opportunity to build more role models in their sport. They may now have more willing participants in their squads of on-field talent. Their role will be to support, to guide and to facilitate their exploration of social media. 


If that happens, we’ll emerge with new characters connected to the sports we love. They will have built their profiles on some of the important personal attributes – trust and integrity, humility and humanity. And it will just so happen they are leaders in their sporting discipline too. 


For more information on how Seven League can support your organisation with digital training for athletes or building a digital brand, please contact us.

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