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Sports Debate: What Athletes Should Be Using Social Media?

New York Jets vs Jacksonville Jaguars Military CeremonyQuestion: Who can benefit more from social media: small-time or big-time athletes?

Ryan: My initial reaction is small time athletes and big-time athletes once their career is in a decline. I will start with the argument for small-time athletes. Upper echelon and mainstream athletes already have significant followings. Many have endorsement deals, sell tons of merchandise, etc. Why do we like certain athletes? Because they’re A) really good at what they do. B) something about their personal life, approach, style, etc. resonates with us.

Big-time athletes have two big advantages: 1) They’re better players. 2) This enables them to be on television more, do more interviews and enable the fans to get more insight into their personality. On both accounts, it’s easier to “like” the more mainstream athlete. Social media helps level the second playing field. Dwayne Wade is always going to be a better basketball player than Charlie Villanueva, but now that Charlie has a presence on Twitter fans get significantly more opportunities to witness his personality in action and grow their affinity for him as a person.


Sam: It’s a tough question, because I think both small and big time athletes have a lot to gain from social media. Even though I whine a lot about guys like LBJ & Tiger not being on social media, I tend to agree with you, that small time athletes probably have the most to gain. A good example is Kerry Rhodes of the New York Jets.

Now, Kerry isn’t necessarily “small time,” but I wouldn’t consider him big time either, not yet at least. We (VaynerMedia) started helping Kerry with social media towards the end of 2008. We actually helped him create his Twitter account. Now, Kerry has 350,000+ followers on Twitter because of his hard work, responding to fans, providing them with good content, and just caring. So, that’s a pretty huge testament to the power of social media for someone who’s not necessarily in the spotlight.

There is an inherent value for big time athletes with social media, because they’re almost guaranteed to gain a lot of fans or followers without too much work. Then, look at big time athletes like Steve Nash, Ocho Cinco, and Shaq, guys who have excelled with social media. They’re not necessarily getting new sponsors bigger contracts because of their social media followings, but all three have made a lot of headlines, and a lot of new fans, because of what they’re doing online. I think social media has definitely helped their public perception.

Social media helps fans connect with athletes, big and small, on a level like never before. So maybe it’s we, the fans, who are the real beneficiaries of social media.

kwcRyan: This is a great segue to the second argument I wanted to make. I think a lot of the appeal for the big-time athletes you’ve mentioned is that they’re primarily on the down slope of their careers. Granted, all three are still putting up solid numbers, but could it be that they all have the foresight to realize that getting involved in social media can enhance their brand and enable them to remain relevant after retirement?

I think it would be interesting to evaluate a true marquee athletes’ use of social media at the peak of their career, but I can’t think of any right now. Nash, and Lance Armstrong are probably the closest, and Lance isn’t involved in a sport that gets much attention (in comparison to others) save for the Tour de France coverage. That’s one reason social media makes sense for him.

Sam: Good point, Ryan. I think you’re right. Those guys (Nash, Ocho Cinco, Shaq) are all heading towards the ends of their respective careers, and I’m sure that’s part of the reason they’ve taken such an interest to social media.

At the same time, I don’t think we’ve really seen a big time athlete in the prime of their career truly take advantage of social media. Dwight Howard might be one. He’s on Twitter, with 1.5 million followers, and currently has a My Touch 3G branded background. My Touch clearly saw value in Howard’s Twitter presence.

There are other young, star athletes using social media (e.g. Larry Fitzgerald, Dwayne Wade), who really add value for the fans. They’re the pioneers. I think that in five years, nearly every big time athlete will be utilizing some form of social media (whatever that may be in five years), because they will have no other choice.

In conclusion [Ryan]: I think we can both agree that at this point in time small-time athletes probably get more benefit from social media, and there are a multitude of examples to illustrate this belief. That said, it’s also a win-win scenario for a big-time athlete because with less effort they can acquire a bigger following due to the extent of their athletic success. Like Sam said, the real beneficiaries are the fans, and as athletes adopting social media becomes more commonplace we can only hope that it will take the fan experience to a whole other level.


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Image by kwc

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18 Responses to Sports Debate: What Athletes Should Be Using Social Media?

  1. Todd E. Jones March 8, 2010 at 9:33 am #

    I think you make a good debate. I want to argue for Semi-pro athletes. Semi-pro, in most cases, will never be professional, but they often have monetary needs to keep playing. A social media plan could help them leverage sponsorship, etc. They need to look at themselves as someone who needs to be branded. And, if they do end up playing professional, they already bring a fan base with them and they can expand on that. I think semi-pro athletes can really use the power of social media. That’s my take.

  2. Ross March 8, 2010 at 10:01 am #

    Great chat fellas – Not sure where this blog has been hiding my whole life but I’m glad I found it. Anyways, if the argument is superstar athletes vs. small-time athletes; I give the upper-hand to the guys in the middle.

    Really, it all depends on what you consider a small-time athlete and a big-time athlete. I think the definition of big-time started to get blurred a bit throughout the convo with veteran. And if thats the argument I see opportunities for all athletes to take advantage of.

    No name (rookies) athletes get an opportunity to build their reputation and create a solid fan base. I’ll never forget when I was doing research on the rookie class and stumbled upon Kevin Smith (Now RB for the Lions) blog and video posts on youtube. While a lot of people questioned his abilities – It was obvious that he knew he could increase his value by getting his name out there. Earlier this year; Mike Sims walker (Jags) carried out a self managed ProBowl marketing campaign using twitter.

    Middle guys (Young on the scene) – When I think of this class of players I think of guys like Reggie Bush, Fitzy and Chris Johnson. Now these guys are popular because of their talent but social media leaves them a chance to really build their personal brand. Larry Fitzgerald has a flawless brand as it is – but someone who is still young and fresh like Chris Johnson is still a mystery. Thus, leaving an opportunity for him to get closer to his fans and really show another side of the beast we see on the field. I think these guys would be able to really boost their reputation and even get a pro-bowl by having a strong online presence. Not to mention, it gives them a chance to build a reputation tat could allow them to seek out new endeavors once they’re no longer able to play.

    As for the big time vets – Its obvious where the value is for these guys. Their careers are coming to an end and they are going to have to look for new revenue streams. If that means using IZEA down the road or using their twitter page to hold prizes/contests – So be it…

  3. Gregg Swanson March 8, 2010 at 10:02 am #

    I agree with Todd and in addition to semi-pro, college athletes looking to go pro. A good social media campaign get generate public interest. Public interest is what sponsors love. So, I guess if semi-pro, college is classified as “little time” then little time could benefit more from social media. The pro on the decline could use it to announce career changes. Really ALL can benefit from social media it just has to be thought of a piece of the overall “marketing campaign.”

  4. Sam Taggart March 8, 2010 at 11:18 am #

    Todd, thanks for the comment. I hadn’t thought about semi pro athletes too much, but you definitely make a great point. These guys should be all over social media. Absolutely no reason not to be involved.

    Ross, appreciate the comment and glad you found sportsnetworker! I think you’re right, the lines got a little blurred, but you make excellent points. What it comes down to is, social media has tremendous value for all types of athletes.

  5. Ryan Stephens March 8, 2010 at 11:23 am #

    @Todd – I like the notion of semi-pro athletes using social media to build up their brand. The point about bringing a fan base with them if they ever turned pro is a great one. My one concern is that semi-pro athletes might have a very tough time accumulating much of a following.

    Are their creative ways to do it? Absolutely (i.e. day in the life of a minor league baseball player – that’d be fascinating!) But sometimes these players are devoting so much time to their craft they find it hard to find time to learn something new such as social media and don’t make enough money to invest in themselves yet.

  6. Ryan Stephens March 8, 2010 at 11:26 am #

    @Ross – You bring up something interesting in your discussion of the middle-tier athletes. And I agree, it’s all semantics. I’d personally have 4 tiers with uber stars (Peyton, Tiger, LeBron) and then to tier (Fitzgerald, Chris Johnson), middle tier (declining vets, up and comers, etc.), then role players, most rookies as the final tier.

    Anyway… I like that you compare Chris Johnson and Fitz. Yes Chris Johnson could really use social media to connect with the the fans more; he is in fact a mystery. My question is do you think some athletes are discouraged from using social media because they’re not as articulate as others? While Fitz is more polished, Johnson could certainly benefit from a bit of media training.

  7. Sam Taggart March 8, 2010 at 11:29 am #

    Gregg, nice point. The college athlete debate is a good one. My only thought is that college kids may be more restricted (coaches, school regulations, etc) and they also cannot make a profit for playing their sport. Just have to be careful. In the end, we agree: all can benefit!

  8. Alex Bernstein March 8, 2010 at 2:55 pm #

    As a former NFL player (97-01) who clearly fell into the “small time” category, I constantly tell active players that there is a TON of long term value that an athlete can gain from growing their personal brand.. and social media is the lowest cost / highest impact way to make it happen.

    No matter where an athlete is in their career, growing their circle of influence is a good thing.

  9. Sam Taggart March 8, 2010 at 4:36 pm #

    Alex, excellent contribution. How do you think “small time” athletes can best capitalize on social media without the large fan base a “big time” athlete has?

  10. Sean Callanan March 8, 2010 at 8:08 pm #

    Small time athletes have the ability to be more “social” as they develop their network which gets them more social media credibility as they interact with their fans.

    Big time athletes have terrific opportunity to use social media platforms in more of a broadcast media manner like Shaq with his Toys 4 Tots campaign.

    As more athletes (and sports leagues & franchises) become more comfortable with social media more athletes will become players will use social media. Then fans will start deciding “What value do I get following [athlete]?” that’s when you start seeing the cream rise to the top. Athlete’s that provide value to their fans will become big players regardless of their on-field ability.

  11. Anita Lobo March 9, 2010 at 6:15 am #

    Hi Ryan, Sam,

    Athletes who don’t play the most popular sport of their country, benefit most from social media smarts.

    I see this in emerging markets all the time. The Indian market is a case in point. Cricket dominates and then there’s everything else.

    Athletes who are not cricketers are taking the lead, to creating a new and direct channel to reach fans, new and current. This also helps work around mainstream media who give them inadequate coverage.

    Interestingly, the cricket establishment is now rapidly adopting social media, to deepen their reach and to put a ‘human’ face to this 800 pound gorilla!

    Anita Lobo

  12. Sharlene Sones March 9, 2010 at 1:12 pm #

    I think ANY athlete that wants to engage and build a fan base and their personal brand should be using social media. There is no better way to invite fans to participate in your story. When (such as during games) and how (content focus) they engage is a different conversation. And what the athlete or agent does with the fan base is another. Social media participation does not automatically equate to sponsors beating down doors. It should be part of a total strategy for developing and leveraging the athlete’s brand story. I’d tell any athlete that having direct ways to reach your fans is a very valuable proposition!

  13. Will Simpson March 12, 2010 at 9:35 pm #

    Hi guys,

    Not much to say that hasn’t been said, other than that ALL athletes should be using social media. For such a small, simple input the potential output can be potentially unheard of in any form of branding and marketing as a whole.

    I just can’t get my head around that more athletes aren’t taking advantage of this, especially outside North America such as here in the UK, but I guess this more down to ignorance than sloth.

  14. gijsbregt March 14, 2010 at 2:12 pm #

    A somewhat odd discussion. Why should we decide who should use Twitter? Isn’t the whole point of Twitter (and social media in general) that these are personal media?

    Still, I like the idea that “over the hill” athletes take up Twitter for lengthening their careeers or starting off a new career (in business). I can think of 2 athletes here in Holland who fit this profile.

  15. ducks24 April 18, 2010 at 7:34 pm #

    I'm “sort of” retired now, but in my life I worked in different fields-including time doing a bit of sports reporting. I toy with the idea of starting a blog, but with so many good ones out there, I am still deciding.

    I'm still a big sports fan though. “Small-time” is not an accurate term. How about “less well known?” The less well known I think benefit more and will in the long run. From a fan's point of view, if a non superstar athlete builds a following, he or she can hope to pick up new fans and also send tweets to a larger percentage of their followers.

    As the lame expression goes, it's a win-win for players and fans. Players get feedback on what the public thinks of them. (they can almost see a “Q rating” building.) For the fan, it's nice to have contact with the athletes. I also have contact with a few entertainers, and I know they seem to love the instant feedback on their work. Twitter and Facbook work well for this. I do prefer Twitter for the most part over Facebook and My Space.

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