Question: 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.
Ryan: 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.