Sports have always been a social endeavor. What would the battles in the arena be without the cheering crowds and fanatic followers? Feats traveled beyond the walls through tales, newspapers, broadcasts and today, in more ways than I could have imagined in the late 90’s when listening to my friend yell “SPORTS” into his flip phone to try and access up-to-the-minute scores. Today we can follow our favorite athletes everywhere. They share their workouts, setbacks, recoveries, triumphs and so much more. It can offer a virtual presence in the huddle or a peek behind the curtain.
Marketing athletes is nothing new, but the channels we have and the connection they can make with consumers is revolutionary. Participation by athletes is the key element to this new age. It is our first chance to hear directly from them, without the filter of a reporter or representative. It has allowed for their personality to come through and their opinions shared, for better or worse, and now we can jump into the conversation.
Not surprisingly, athletes in global sports have the greatest following with Cristiano Ronaldo and his 158 million followers leading the way. For comparison, America’s pastime’s biggest personality has the biggest following, but with 2.9 million Big Pappi has a long way to go to catch Ronaldo. As we know, however, it is not just about followers, it is about content and engagement, and this is where I will stand up for baseball.
It is the quirkiest of sports with its unique rules and culture. Combined with a long season that offers little time apart it offers fans a chance to become part of the family. No team is doing this as well as the Chicago Cubs. They have an historic start giving fans hope to end an historic drought. They also have a team of personalities with a ring leader of a manager who brings magicians and zoo animals into the clubhouse to break up the monotony of a season.
This rise in athlete and fan engagement has also lead to new opportunities for marketers. You don’t need millions of dollars to court Ronaldo. A long tail view can find good value down the bench. Take David Ross, a backup catcher with 130K+ engaged followers on Instagram and Twitter. Rascal Scooters got a free plug in spring training when David Ross received an early retirement gift from the young stars of the team. I’m surprised Lazy Boy hasn’t sent its best chair to the clubhouse for him. In other sports, linemen who rarely get noticed can now help a brand reach a specific audience, particularly geographically. These are the athletes that truly connect with the fan base and have credibility with their followers.
The Summer Olympics in Rio will see an unprecedented amount of social activity, with people around the world dual screening throughout the competitions. Brands are already working to build the buzz. NBC who invested billions for the broadcast rights is trying to stay relevant on social too, including many of their analysts in its Top 100 follows for the Summer Games. IOC rules still ban athletes from posting anything but still photos from inside the Olympic Village or accredited venues. It does diminish platforms like Vine and Periscope, but there are still many opportunities for memorable images and powerful stories to spread around the world.
Marketers who can’t become official Olympic sponsors should be identifying athletes to engage. They might have a local connection, a sport where your target audience indexes high, or a story that aligns with your brand or cause. Start supporting them now, rather than jumping on the bandwagon after they win a medal. Follow their training, show your support, and rally your own following behind him or her. Look beyond the top athletes to find the relevant athletes to your brand.
We’ll have more to say on the BuzzBin and hand out some marketing medals as campaigns unfold. While the massive campaigns by the P&Gs and Coca-Colas of the world are always fun, I’ll be keeping an eye out for those organic efforts to be part of the largest global event of 2016.