Why Are So Many Sports Stars Becoming Social Media Stars?

Written by Phil Birss: Group CEO.
· 4 minute read

We all like a little bit of social media. Whether it’s watching the latest shenanigans from our favourite celebrity on Instagram stories, drunkenly Snapping your friends on a hazy night out or penning embarrassing comments on your Grandkids’ graduation photos, social media has captured the world. Sports stars are no exception to this rule. So much so that in the last year we have seen a rise in the way sports stars have opened themselves up to their adoring fans. Yes, for many of us our view of our favourite football players is that they are bored youngsters, killing time by filming their barber playing FIFA in their living room. I’m not saying this has never happened, however, when we look deeper, there’s a bit more to it than this.


What Are They Looking To Achieve?


Beyond having a bit of ‘training ground banter’, sports stars are starting to catch on to the lucrative partnerships available to them. If anyone can remember the dark desolate wasteland we used to live in before the dawn of social media, TV and print campaigns were the place to be for sports stars looking to earn a few extra pennies on the side. Whether it be Gareth Southgate profiting from Pizza Hut, Mo Farah getting quids in with Quorn or the ultimate of Michael Jordan and making money from everything ever, there was a certain place to make your extra money if you were a major sports star.


Much like the world of business, what social media does is gives so many more people the ability to connect on a more segmented basis. Pro athletes and their representatives have realised they don’t need to hold out for the big brands to come to them, they can build a lucrative brand on their own and start generating extra income. Gone are the days of just the most famous athletes automatically being escorted onto the set for the Nike and Pepsi adverts, athletes are now carving a brand out for themselves.

The interesting thing about this model is how the stars are going about doing this. Rather than going straight to the brand’s and asking for one-off ad appearances, they are building a social following which increasingly makes them more marketable. A prime example is footballer Raheem Sterling and his Youtube channel. Sterling is starring in videos that people can watch for free without any form of marketing or advertising attached to them. Much like the model of the video game Fortnite, they are building up an audience with no initial intention of profiting from. It is only when they have a large engaged audience when they can start profiting.


Mainstream athletes have taken a leaf straight out of the book of e-sports stars, an area that has often been overlooked. When eSports star Tyler Blevin took over Cristiano Ronaldo last month as the most interacted with athlete online, it proved that mainstream athletes would be daft not to follow the eSports lead. The world of eSports offers a vast wealth of personal content that shows the personalities of the athletes on a daily basis. This is exactly the route that other athletes are going down and it is a route that is going to lead them to increased sponsorship opportunities.


Why Chase The Cash?


Ok I know what you’re thinking, sports stars have tons of money, why do they need to be chasing these sponsorship deals so actively. I’m not going to sit here pounding away on my keyboard to the defence of how much stars get paid as it makes me cry just thinking about, but it is worth taking a look at this from a business perspective.


This model of branding has a long term thrust to it. The vein of thought for well-paid athletes is to make as much money as you can whilst you’re in vogue as it won’t last forever. Yes, that is still true to a great extent, however, this model is aimed at building a brand beyond retirement.


Shaquille O’Neil retired years ago but there is still so much value attached to his name as he keeps his brand going through social media. We see this as well through Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is only a few years away from retirement, but pushes hard to share his iconic image across his social feeds. These are sports stars who’ve made it to the top of their sport and are using social media to maintain their brand values. But what about sports stars who aren’t worldwide names?



The levelling effect that social media gives to businesses also applies to sports stars. It gives the opportunity for smaller athletes to build a brand bigger than their position may reflect. If we look at footballer James Milner for example, he is getting towards the end of his career yet has only just joined Twitter. He is currently capitalising on the ‘boring’ straight-laced image many people affectionately have of him, in a humorous way to attract an audience to his feed. Milner is very active with his charitable foundation and the assumption is that he is making the most of his time in the spotlight now to build himself a brand that he can capitalise on for his charity when he retires. Social have given someone with a cult following the opportunity to profit in wider ways.


Another reason why sports stars are opening up more on social is because it gives them the opportunity to control their public image. In a world of trolls and paparazzi, letting the world into your private world on social media allows you to control the narrative. It gives fans the hit of celeb action they want, whilst reducing the demand for paparazzi news and photos. Much like politicians, the stars can then control the public perception of them which is not only good for their ego, but for their ability to attract sponsorship deals. If the public see a good side of you, then brands will want to benefit from this also.


What Can We Learn From The Stars?


From a wider marketing perspective, we can learn a lot from our famous idols. The main two things to take from this is that a personal, informal tone is dynamite on social media. People always want to see behind the curtain and treating your brand like that of a professional athlete can give the adoring masses the same experience. Secondly, this approach gives the ideal opportunity to control your brand’s narrative and public image. If you actively shape the image of your brand through interesting and engaging content, then your smaller brand can be built in a way that even the biggest and best athletes in the world would be jealous of.