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Star athletes and sports clubs can’t live without social media but must use it wisely

Skærmbillede 2014-05-07 kl. 11.02.25

Photo: Winner of the 2012 #GameFace competition (source: ESPN).

I recall reading an article on about the impact of social media in athlete branding/personal branding in sports.  I totally agree on the agenda of the article, which dealt with the raising power of social media and its influence on media-related and commercial depictions of professional sports. There is no doubt that social media have come to stay in professional sport. We know that most people carry ‘the guns of postmodern consumer society’ in their pockets, i.e. their smart phones. We know that most people have various realities in which they are engaged, i.e. being present in the physical encounter with other persons vs. being present in encounters with others in cyber space. These things affect our actions and thus sports consumption patterns as well.

Fan culture has changed and forces like media portrayals of professional sport, sports properties investing in new technologies and the never-ending hunt for additional revenue streams in sport have caused new behavioral patterns to increase. For instance, the media incorporate tweets and Facebook messages in sports broadcasting, professional sports clubs invest in new technologies to provide better social media experiences and usage in venues and they offer social media training to their professional athletes as they fully aware of the fact that more quality content from their idolized sport stars is a good avenue to bring in extra money. Moreover, sponsorship integration has stretched the commercial expectations to the interactions between clubs, athletes, club and personal sponsors as all involved parties know that there is an ongoing competition on and off the field since the rapid professionalization of elite sports have provided an intensified articulation of the fine balance between sporting and commercial performance. Today, corporate brands are cognitive about ‘value for money’ and they are very strategic about tapping into the commercial potential linked to a sports clubs’ and a sport star’s massive social media crowd.

The Forbes-article points to a study conducted at Harvard University, which notes that the average user spends 23 hours per week e-mailing, texting, using social media, and other forms of online communication. I know from myself that I tend to have my smart phone ready and loaded whenever I attend sports events, when I watch a football match on TV or in terms of responding to sports discussions with my friends on social media. This type of meta-communication is part of popular culture everyday life. It affects us and sets the agenda for new and even more engaged fan behaviors. One of my Facebook friends uploaded a picture from his home, which displayed what he had painted on his wall:















 THAT’S fan culture and strong identification with Liverpool FC although the physical distance between the club and the fan is big because this fan lives in Denmark. New technologies allow fans to strengthen the way in which they show their affection for athletes and sports properties (e.g. clubs). Such actions are very valuable for athletes and clubs for what reasons any serious sports property must find appropriate ways to build and nurture engaging relationships with fans and other stakeholders via new technologies. This also means that sports properties must be strategic and cautious about how they act in these environments. It is important to ‘give a lot’ of yourself but it is also important not to overdo it in a way that violates what the most essential stakeholder groups think is suitable. New technologies can clubs and athletes but may also make them vulnerable if actions are not in alignment with stakeholder expectations simply because ‘shared’ information on social media spreads so rapidly. Social media is key when building a professional sports brand but cautions must be taken since online statements are hard to erase. Therefore, it is now quite normal to see that clubs and athletes go through social media training. It is also usual in today’s sports world that clubs implement social media rules and regulations to prevent clubs and most importantly their athletes from ending up in negative situations.

Skærmbillede 2014-05-07 kl. 11.03.09

Photo: From the 2012 #GameFace competition (source: ESPN).

From my perspective, it is significant that clubs inform their players about the fact that online sport conversations take place at all times, e.g. before, during and after events. The latter is termed the ‘water-cooler effect’ and refers to conversations that exist around the ‘water-cooler’ (Hanna et al., 2011) after a sports event and these conversations have also moved online and may play a role in stakeholder perceptions of a sports brand. Consequently, clubs and athletes should always be on their toes in terms of how conversations may influence stakeholders even though the conversations are not associated with what takes place during the game. Athletes may think that they are free to communicate about everything on social media but they must keep in mind that they are role models and that all their moves are watched carefully by lots of people. To elaborate on the impact of social media on the sports world, it was no coincidence that social media brand Twitter established a partnership with sports media giant ESPN to monetize on the increasing number of tweets about sports on TV. This meant that we saw co-branding efforts around marquee sport events like the NBA finals and the Super Bowl. In the videos below, you see how ESPN’s basketball expert Jalen Rose promoted the #GameFace campaign in which he encouraged sports fans to engage in online fan conversations. Another video shows how personal hygiene brand Gillette taps into the emotional equity of sports fans with a similar campaign. Athletes must contribute positively to such processes but must do so while paying close attention to the unpredictability and controversial aspects that may arise from the changes in public expression, promotion and portrayals of star athletes given these new media technologies (Hutchins, 2011). If sports organizations and athletes get it right, there is a huge potential in social media as a brand builder and social media present way in which sports organizations and athletes can reach target customers instantly and ‘speed to market’ is essential in today’s dynamic business environment.

Examples of athletes behaving badly:



Hanna, R., Rohm, A., & Crittenden, V. L. (2011). We’re all connected: The power of the social media ecosystem. Business Horizons54(3), 265-273.

Hutchins, B. (2011). The acceleration of media sport culture: Twitter, telepresence and online messaging. Information, Communication & Society14(2), 237-257.

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