Every season the number is shrinking. We’re not far away from sports leagues where every athlete will have been born into a world in which Facebook, Twitter, smartphone cameras, and ubiquitous social media are the way of life.
But that moment can wait. Because this extended period of sheltering has accomplished as more than any generational shift ever could. Over this strange spring of 2020 just about every athlete experienced the epiphany — that fans still care, that they still have notoriety, and that their platform can still be powerful even when the games stop.
Maybe that connection is growing because the walls are being broken down and athletes are being seen at eye-level.
“This is the time where people feel like they’re just like these athletes, because they’re doing the at-home workouts, and they’re just like you having to wear a mask and not going to the gym, not traveling and not going and sitting courtside,” said Jacqueline Dahl of 1UP Sports Marketing on a panel for the recent Leaders Week.
“So I truly think this is such an opportunity for athletes to engage with their audience because they feel just like them.”
It’s more than that, though. Many marvel at LeBron James not just for his prowess on the court, but also because he has seemed to understand the power of his platform and his brand from day one. As this public health crisis has ensued, many more athletes are realizing they too have a potentially powerful platform and that fans want to hear what they have to say. They always had a feeling they were influential, but now many are acting more like influencers.
“What’s been interesting with athletes is a lot of them are at home and they’re using Facebook and Instagram — they’re used to using these tools, but now they’re becoming power users, which has been amazing to see.,” said Kevin Cote, Facebook’s Director, Sports Partnerships on a panel at Leaders Week. “Leveraging our tools in new and creative ways, doing it themselves…seeing them use tools like Instagram Live to both entertain, but also to inform and support.”
Things really hit home when Dr. Anthony Fauci went on Instagram Live to discuss the coronavirus and the nation’s health and safety. His interviewer/host — not some national news anchor or reporter, but former NBA MVP and true national influencer Stephen Curry. Sure, not every athlete has the clout of Curry, but every one of them is an influencer of some degree and all it takes is to post a bit more personally, engage and interact, and those same athletes have their eyes opened what an enormous audience is there listening, watching, and talking on the other side. Cote took a visionary view, commenting on what this period could mean moving forward.
“What athletes have especially shown is that they have these massive audiences, they can go directly to these people and connect in so many different ways,” he said.
“…In this moment athletes are stepping up in so many different ways, to identify themselves as they are human beings as well, there’s an ability to connect directly with their fans, directly with other public figures for good. And I think that’s going to be one of the lasting legacies of this time.”
How long would it have taken for so many of these athletes to get on TikTok, Twitch, and Instagram Live without this extended idle time at home? When would these same athletes have realized what they’d been sitting on all this time? When you combine the inherent clout of an athlete with the intent and mindset of an influencer, there is incredible power unleashed.
There are far more important concerns as we all hope this pandemic passes. But these strange circumstances have perhaps helped to usher in a new era for athletes on social media. And even things aren’t quite the same when sports start back up again en masse, the door has opened, athletes have seen the light, and for many things will never be the same again.
(PS: Learn more about Leaders Week)