Why Athletes Were and Still Are the Original Influencers — If They Want to Be

There’s this notion that athletes have to build their brands. If they’re not making the most of their time in the sports spotlight and growing their brands (in the form of social media clout), they’re deficient, missing out, or even negligent.

But it’s not so black and white. It’s like the 7-foot teenager whom everyone expects to try and make it big in basketball or the Rookie of the Year that bursts onto the national radar — if they’re not maximizing that opportunity, they’re doing it wrong.

But the thing about sports, and what differentiates athletes from professional influencers and creators who literally make their living from social media clout, is that it’s largely gravy for the most elite athletes. The marketing and branding opportunity, however, can be transformative helping to create value for universities, leagues, teams, and, yes, the athletes themselves and their families.

Dakota Crawford, Head of Marketing for athlete influencer marketplace platform MarketPryce, has encountered just about every variation of athlete in his career. He worked with IndyCar drivers whose livelihood was directly affected by their attractiveness to potential team sponsors. He helped National Hockey League (NHL) players build their brands, an ancillary goal for many who already had millions guaranteed thanks to years-long contracts. And now at MarketPryce, Crawford works with athletes of all sorts, particularly college athletes at all levels, many of whom have a brief time in the spotlight to capitalize on that athlete advantage.

Crawford has come to appreciate that the different circumstances in which athletes find themselves affect the sense of urgency they feel to build up a brand that’s all their own.

“There are a couple of ways I think of it,” said Crawford, who helped the NHL launch and grow its Player Social Development Program before joining MarketPryce. “One is like this graph of an x-axis and a y-axis where one [axis] is how good are you at your sport and how influential are you on the field or on the ice or what have you. The other is how much do I need to put my personality out there? And they’re inverted lines, right? So if you’re Alex Ovechkin, you don’t necessarily ever need to do anything that shows off your personality. You’re good enough at hockey that you have a built-in following and they’re gonna be excited if you post anything…

“If you are a rookie playing in Anaheim, you have a slightly different challenge and I think you have to come in ready to put yourself out there, build your brand. And that’s even more so the case for the athletes we’re working with now at MarketPryce, who are D1, D2 volleyball players — your performance on the court isn’t gonna carry you to stardom on social…”

Athletes have so many built-in advantages that those others, the professional social media influencers, do not. First, they arrive with [and live] stories that are appealing to followers and to brands. No athlete reaches the pinnacle of their sport without a lot of sacrifice, hard work, and aspirational talent. Second, while creators find themselves on a perpetual hamster wheel of content creation, athletes often have photos, highlights, and stories flowing by nature of their occupation, coming from leagues, agents, teams, and media. Crawford called out this valuable benefit for athletes but noted that for the non-Ovechkin-like athletes to go to that next level, they need to do a little more.

“We would tell players [at the NHL] we can only do so much for you, first of all, but what we can cover is the base that is your on-ice performance. I can help you celebrate your biggest moments on the ice, I can help you have great assets to share, to support NHL campaigns like Hockey Fights Cancer or something to post during pride month or whatever it might be,” he said. “But the most engaging thing you can put out is what you are willing to do yourself. 

“I think I would tell any college athlete who we work with now ‘Figure out how to put your personality out there. Tell your story, do it authentically. If you get a hype video from the team that you play for, great; post that. But it can’t be the only thing that you post.”’

Crawford and his colleagues saw that promise come to fruition during the height of the pandemic in 2020, as players had nothing but time and TikTok took the world by storm. That enthusiasm and activity dissipated, however, as Crawford said many NHL players largely went back to the perhaps excessive humility once things went back to (kind of) normal. But something else magical started to happen as Crawford and his team found a young, willing group of up-and-coming star players.

Working in collaboration with the league, Anaheim Ducks rookie Trevor Zegras became the ‘poster child’ for what it could look like to mix the spoon-fed sports highlights with the ‘put yourself out there’ mentality. And that took it to the next level, for Zegras and for the league.

“We equipped him to post around [his viral] moments and that’s great. And it’s kind of like we talked about — because he was doing awesome things he’s getting more engagement so he didn’t have to lean into it with his personality to keep those numbers going up,” Crawford described of Zegras’s ascendance in his 2021-22 rookie season, highlighted by a viral video the league made for Zegras representing his anti-highlights, a ‘lowlights’ video of Zegras messing up at times.

“Not every player was willing to laugh at themselves in that way, but Trevor was, and we learned that, after six months, a year of working with him through the first stages of his career…”To me, that was the moment where I was like, ‘We did this.’ We really got a player excited, bought in, and posting something that moves the needle for his brand and for the league.”

A new generation of athlete is here. One that recognizes the opportunity to be more than an athlete, that the combination of being a superstar athlete and a human is powerful. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Athletes were always the original influencers, anyway, and they’re starting to realize the opportunity that offers.


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