For years, professional athletes have been used to endorse a variety of brands, products, and services. Michael Jordan’s partnership with Nike, recognized by many as the archetypal athlete endorsement deal — which produced a successful spinoff brand — has been modeled by many other partnerships that have resulted in several billion dollars worth of contracts.
Across sports, athlete deals continue to grow and evolve. Not only have sports, telecommunication, automobile, beverage, hotel, technology, and many other companies upped their antes, but athletes from a variety of disciplines, including surfing, motocross, base jumping, and other unconventional sports are partnering with brands to promote their wares. Brands are taking notice of lesser-known nano-influencer athletes, and athletes from other different influencer tiers to promote their campaigns as well.
In 2016, FIFA superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo, signed a $1 billion lifetime deal with Nike, which helped him to become the highest paid athlete in the world in 2017. Compellingly, Ronaldo’s deal not only capitalizes on the soccer celebrity’s likeness but also his reach on social media.
The combination of athletes and social media has created a new field for competition. What’s even more novel, however, is that not just MVPs, all-stars, and top professional athletes are cashing in on the craze. Lesser-known pros, as well as relevant amateurs, are now being tapped by brands to promote their goods.
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While top athletes are still considered pop culture celebrities, they are increasingly operating as social media influencers due to their direct line of communication with fans and followers. With ongoing exposure from their team, league, and/or sponsors, athlete influencers already have a built-in fanbase. When they perform well — winning championships, breaking records — or are otherwise covered in the press, these athlete influencers gain additional attention, resulting in more followers on social media.
In a report looking at the most popular sponsored influencers on Instagram, Cristiano Ronaldo (@cristiano) ranks second in the amount of millions of likes and comments that his Instagram posts generate. With 142 million followers and 4.22 million likes and comments generated, Ronaldo’s user engagement sets him apart as a top-tier influencer.
Despite being under close watch, an athlete’s social influence is no longer strictly tied to their success in sports. Increasingly, an athlete’s engagement, attitude toward fans, and social relevance are upping their value in the eyes of fans, consumers, and brands.
The combination of athletes and social media has created personal broadcast platforms for many of today’s top sports’ stars. In kind, many athlete influencers have used the opportunity to speak out about the issues that are important to them.
Four-time Olympic gold medalist and Grand Slam record holder, Serena Williams, has been publicly vocal about issues around race and police violence. In an interview last year, the tennis champion talked about the importance of making one’s voice heard: “I think having that opportunity and that platform that we have, to be able to say things that we feel and speak up for social issues or things that aren’t right, or things that are right, good things and bad things, I think is really important.”
Two-time Olympic gold medalist, four-time NBA MVP, actor, and philanthropist, LeBron James, has used his social media presence to speak on the topics he cares about, as well. The basketball phenom has also expressed political criticism, which has set off a barrage of online responses from athletes, politicians, journalists, and fans.
In 2016, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team leveraged social media to raise awareness around equal pay with their #EqualPlayEqualPay campaign, while NFL free agent quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, has become the face of today’s athlete protests for declining to stand during the national anthem.
While protests and boycotts followed the Kaepernick ad, Nike is pleased with the overall response, touting higher revenue and record engagement. Still, brands piggybacking off of social action by athlete influencers has drawn in its own ire. Last month, comedian and talk show host, Jim Jeffries, blasted companies for what he dubbed, “pretend wokeness.”
Over the years, athletes have demonstrated their talent for selling products. In the age of social media, athlete influencers are maturing along with the expanding influencer marketing landscape, becoming more strategic about who they partner with and what they promote. Still, a panel conducted by ExpertVoice found that 54% of respondents were concerned about payments that celebrities, athletes, and influencers received for their recommendations.
Athletes with unsavory online behavior have the power to compromise online sentiment. From poorly produced content to offensive tweets, athlete influencers also have the potential to jeopardize brand safety.
Athletes are more than just players “on the field.” Many are role models, trendsetters, tastemakers, and social influencers. Exposing their authentic selves through social media, athlete influencers have found new ways to engage with people outside of the sporting arena.
Despite the controversies, many athlete influencers resonate with consumers and deliver for brands. Key to creating such buzz relies on factors including budget, marketing goals, brand message and image, and partnering with the right influencers. For companies looking to leverage the power of athlete influencers, a qualified influencer marketing agency can offer insights into the landscape, as well as help craft campaigns from initial concept to final performance reports.