“He is never going to win the Ballon d’Or because you have to be on social media”
Guardiola’s perspective is that to win one of the most renowned awards in football, it is not enough to be the best on the pitch – you also have to work on your brand to gain greater recognition from the football community.
Social media has been growing extensively, even more so with the emergence of new players such as TikTok. Its effects reach all aspects of the business world, the sports industry being no different. Clubs and organizations can leverage these new tools, but the true stars of the moment are the athletes. They are the influencers. They are culture shapers. Athletes such as Lebron James or Cristiano Ronaldo are leaders on and off the field. They have millions of followers, close endorsement deals, and set what is cool or not.
Social media is not without its pitfalls. We all know of numerous cases where athletes have been punished (and even “canceled”) for something they said at any point in time. Ironically, Bernardo Silva was at the center of one of these polemics. A cautionary tale of the punitive power of social media.
An essential step in building a personal brand is knowing how to connect with your fans and maximize their engagement. Youth are shifting from a team-oriented approach to an athlete-oriented approach to sports. Athletes need to take advantage of this new dynamic and embrace it as a component of their professional careers. They must get closer to their fans and strive to satisfy their need to know better the person they admire.
National Hockey League followed an out-of-the-box approach. NHL invested in educating its players on “how to effectively use social media to engage fans and grow their profiles”. They understood that the more players engage and grow their communities, the more the sport benefits.
Social media is no longer a game for the top-athletes only. Depending on the goals, investing in micro-influencers (accounts with 10k to 50k followers) can result in a better return than investments in mega influencers (accounts with 1M to 5M followers). Among other reasons, micro-influencers are seen by their followers as “people like me” so they tend to be more relatable than the big stars.
There are multiple opportunities ready to be taken by athletes if they commit to a clear digital strategy.
The right channels
The way athletes market themselves is pivotal – 20 years ago, there were two main ways to watch sports content: on-site or on TV. While there is still a large group of fans who consume sports through traditional means – the near future will bring a different “fan landscape” where mobile is king, and new trends such as Fan Tokens or Metaverse will alter how fans interact.
Gen Z (the fans born in the mid-90s to early 2010s) prefer to consume sports content via social media on their smartphones – and this is a trend that is unlikely to regress. If athletes and sports companies do not respond to this change in behavior, the business side may struggle to compensate for this demographic loss in a few years.
A quick search on Instagram tells us that by now, most clubs and athletes already have their accounts on Instagram, but what about TikTok? This social network went from 65 Million users worldwide in 2017, to more than 1 Billion in 2021 – you can not ignore it anymore. Another question pops up: are they producing the right content (or any at all)?
The right content
With the advent of short-form videos, athletes hold a competitive advantage based on all the coverage they receive during competitions or training. The expectation can no longer be:
- “Let us hope that everyone watches all of Man City’s games and realizes that Bernardo Silva deserves to win the Ballon d’Or”.
- “Let us prepare great video content of Bernardo’s performances and use it in all channels available”.
A study conducted by Morning Consult shows that Generation Z “places less value on watching live events than older generations” while choosing sports highlights as the non-live sports content they consume most often. Recurrence is also fundamental to maintaining high levels of engagement. Different channels require different content, but with a mix of research and trial & error approach, it is possible to set a plan to engage a community.
Wrapping it up,
Sports must innovate to avoid losing fans. Athletes are at the forefront of that race. If they manage to understand who their fans are, what channels they prefer, and what content are they’re looking for – it will be possible to elaborate a well-structured digital strategy to grow their reach and take advantage of all the opportunities that social media can offer.