Greenfly insight | Why it’s time to turn to athletes in the search for social media marketability

Greenfly chief marketing officer, Tom Kuhr, says clubs need to lean into the social media power of their athletes to deliver social media success.
USWNT stars Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris are both in the 50 Most Marketable Athletes
Getty Images

The SportsPro 50 Most Marketable Athletes list means a lot for athletes and their sponsors. What does it mean for teams, leagues, and sports associations? If properties have not started thinking about their most valuable assets as their biggest promoters, it is certainly time now. 

Starting with clubs and teams, how can an athlete’s marketability on social media help drive more revenue? 

Commercial, sponsorship and marketing teams at the club level have maintained a mostly ‘hands-off’ relationship with players. In some cases, they are completely untouchable except for a preseason photoshoot showing off new kits. ‘We don’t want to bother the athletes’, ‘We can only talk to athlete relations’, ‘We want to make sure they aren’t distracted from the big upcoming game’, and ‘They’re not interested in club business’ are some of the things we hear from chief marketing officers and heads of commercial. This thinking is based on the realities of decades ago, but it is not true anymore. 

What happened? Social media.

Athletes are now in control of their own personal brand. They can cultivate their own audience. They do not need to speak at press conferences or only through their agent. The athletes on this list spend hours every week posting, sharing and interacting with their fans directly or through their own social team.

What athletes need now is a different type of support from the ‘back office.’ As they each focus on building their personal brand and cultivating their personal audience on and off social media, their needs are different. One of the things we know they need and cannot generate themselves are photos and videos featuring them to post to their social media accounts. Without purposefully putting digital distribution programmes in place, it is exceedingly difficult for most athletes to get social-ready digital media assets. 

On social media, the media part is critical. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok — they are all highly visual. Without media, athletes cannot talk about their best experiences on the court, field or track. A story without a photo or video just is not the same and definitely does not get circulated by social platform algorithms to the same extent. 

We also know that posting more frequently creates more engagement, which is why it is a key criterion for the 50 Most Marketable list. We also know that telling stories and highlighting great plays (or even mistakes) makes athletes more human and more relatable. We love to celebrate with them, and we are there to support them in a slump. Fans really appreciate sincerity and honesty as the athlete experiences both success and failure.

When teams and clubs embrace digital transformation and put programmes in place to deliver photos and videos directly to athletes, they benefit in multiple ways:

  • They improve athlete relations.
  • They increase reach, engagement and tap new audiences. 
  • They’re able to create more value for sponsors.

 Athlete relations

Athletes need to be supported in many ways: training facilities, transportation, clothing and salaries are typical, of course. But today, teams need to support athletes off the field and help them build their personal brands. Doing this is in the team’s best interest. When a team starts delivering digital media to each athlete regularly — after training, during competitions, at non-sports events and photoshoots — we see a change in attitude within weeks. Usually, the marketing and player relations staff are quite surprised — it is the opposite reaction to what they expected.

Increasing communication in a systematic and unintrusive way builds connective tissue within the organisation. Athletes feel supported, heard and are not at odds with back office requests. When they have the materials they need to tell stories and interact with their fans, they become more willing to help with direct asks and team promotions. Players and staff can work more closely together, but improving athlete relations has to start with the team.

Increased engagement

When an athlete shares a photo or video to their feed or story or even creates a TikTok, they invite fan engagement. They are giving away a snapshot of their life and providing the opportunity for fans to chime in. When their post is a snapshot of them playing or training, or the big moment from the last race, they are wearing team gear. They are implicitly or explicitly endorsing the team for which they play. They are highlighting their relationship with the club. From a sports marketing perspective, this is the best marketing possible. It is authentic, genuine and coming from a human — not a faceless brand.

Teams should be thinking of their players as social media influencers. Just as brands have embraced the human qualities of influencers to talk about their products, it is natural for an athlete to mention their love and support for their team. That has enormous benefits for the property. 

When the club shares media with athletes, they have the opportunity to selectively curate the media that supports the team’s message while they harness the collective social media power of ten, 15, 30 or 50 athletes. Distributing media can increase a club’s effective social reach by 2,000 per cent or more, appeal to audiences they would not target directly, and build more awareness and loyalty without spending a penny in advertising. 

More value for sponsors

When teams provide digital media to athletes, sponsors can benefit in two distinct ways. First, their logo is shown on every photo or video that the players share with their social audiences. Whether their logo is on a shirt, on a billboard in the background, or featured in a promotion, each athlete is increasing logo impressions and advertising equity. 

When teams measure this increased exposure for sponsors through analytics platforms like Zoomph, they realise they are providing ten to 100 times more sponsor exposure than promised. We have seen teams double their sponsor revenue after a single season because of the unmeasured value they were providing.

Second, if a team has a system to automate the distribution of media assets to players, they can easily create media galleries for sponsors. In this way, sponsors can more closely associate themselves with the team they  are supporting. They can use this media for their own promotions: digital or even more traditional TV or outdoor advertising. This capability gives them some great media to use without additional licensing fees, as well as providing the team with additional promotional value to further engage existing and new audiences. 

Today, athletes realise they have a mutual interest in creating and benefitting from the success of their club or team. Being competitors, they want their club to be the best, to top the charts in popularity and success. They may or may not want to be the centre of attention, but they certainly want the benefits of more loyal fans, sold-out venues, and fiscal growth, or at least stability. 

It is up to the team to support athletes in their personal success. In doing this, they will benefit from more promotion, more endorsements and can generate more revenue as they deliver more value to their partners.