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.


How Athletes Can Begin Preparing for their Post-Playing Life the Day their Career Starts

    When did you start planning for your retirement?

    Maybe it was the first time you faced down years of student loan payments. Or when you opened that Roth IRA. Or perhaps when you looked into your company’s 401(k).

    We spend more years planning for retirement than actually being retired from our careers. Except for professional athletes. They’re not thinking about building a career that’ll last past their 30s — they can’t, really, if they want to be among that top 0.00001% of their sport good enough to make a living playing it.

    So the harsh truth is that the majority don’t make it or don’t make it long. And then they have to enter the real world, starting from scratch — so they think. They’re behind their peers in their generation, some believe. But it’s easy to focus on what athletes may lack, better to reframe by accounting for the unique advantages they have, the experience they get, and the skills they develop. This is what Dr. Caleb Mezzy is working to do and we recently discussed his research, findings, insights, and recommendations.

    “You are an athlete for a period of time…,” said Mezzy of the opportunity-laden window of notoriety athletes have during their playing careers. “When you’re an athlete, you have this open door to just say, ‘Hey, I’m a player on this team, I’m gonna be in this town, would you like to meet?’ And you can meet any professional in the world…

    “Maybe you can get 7 or 8AM coffee with some high-ranking CEOs in California or in Arizona or Las Vegas, whatever it may be. Those are strategies that we can put into place.”

    It’s also about skills — “transferable skills,” says Mezzy, who is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management and Business at Neumann University — skills are appealing on a resume and go beyond reading a Cover 2 defense (but there are analytical thinking skills evident in doing that, too!).

    “Transferable skills are such a huge part of athletes going into the workforce…,” Mezzy explained. “Because they work so hard to get here [and] they don’t know how to articulate the skills that they’ve acquired into a different [occupation]…

    “Bridge that gap, tell that story, I think that’s the beauty there…Look at what transferable skills can we bring to the table because of what we did, because of who we were, and now where we’re going?”

    Social media changed the game, too. And as generations of athletes with more social media savvy and propensity enter — and leave, whether by their choice or not — their pro sports career, social media can be a key lever to pull. No matter what an athlete may want to do after their playing career, an audience has value. And if athletes play their cards right during that special window of time, they can accrue a lot of capital.

    “I think that their digital presence plays a role. I think that the ability to network and find other people, other careers, kind of like the exploratory phase of career development could really help them in their next phase in life,” said Mezzy, who also runs an athlete transition practice, Grit and Glue.

    “[Retirement] is an ongoing process because the minute you get drafted or signed and you’re on a team, it’s inevitable that you are going to retire…

    “So at that point, when you know it’s an ongoing process, there are different things that you could be doing along the way. A lot of that could be digital-focused. You build up this audience so that when you do retire that you have an audience that you could [activate].”

    There’s a phrase that entered the lexicon in recent years, a phrase that Mezzy and I talked about — more than an athlete. When you think others see you only as a pro athlete, it’s natural to get wrapped up in that identity. Many of us non-athletes can relate, too — to the point where it’s difficult to separate one’s identity from their job — but most of our jobs don’t have such an early expiration date. So it’s up to athletes to appreciate and work to cultivate their own ‘more than.’

    “They don’t lead with [being a former athlete], and I think that’s the thing,” said Mezzy, talking about how ex-athletes represent themselves in their more white-collar post-playing careers. “Because we always talk about identity and it’s what you do, not who you are. I think if you don’t lead with it and you’re like, ‘This is the value I bring here,’ that’s great.

    “I’m thinking of all these different players as we’re talking about it, because that player I’m talking [about that works in] financial and wealth management, is gonna be posting about how to manage your taxes for the upcoming season. Or ‘if you’re an MLB player who just got drafted, this is what you should do with your first paycheck.’ So he’s looking at it from both lenses — ‘I manage wealth and finances, but I also come at it from I was a former baseball player.'”

    All this is moot if athletes don’t buy in. If they keep that tunnel vision — which helped them reach that elite level — at the expense of an uncertain career and future. And they have to be willing to ask and answer the tough questions, about what care about or want to put time into after their playing days are through. Because, as Mezzy said, “The minute you get drafted or signed and you’re on a team, it’s inevitable that you are going to retire.” There’s an identity, a skillset, and strengths that transcend the court or playing field. There’s a fully formed person beyond a name, number, and roster listing.

    “When I talk to these baseball players and I say this stuff, they get to a point where like, ‘All I know is baseball,’ and that’s not true,” Mezzy said, with conviction. “That’s all you think you know, because that’s what you’ve done, but what can we talk about things that you’ve learned during baseball that will spread it and then we could open them up or dive into those little pieces of fabric to really find out who you are as a person?”

    Athletes may not be able to play their sport forever. But if they play their cards right, they can set themselves up for life.


    How NIL Has Transformed College Athletes into Businesses and Brand Builders — and How Schools Can and Should Help Them

      Brands used to have all the power. This was true in just about every industry. That’s not to say individuals didn’t matter — there were celebrity spokespeople and other ‘stars’ that received acclaim, often in third-party media. But that all began to change, gradually, as the creator economy arose and social media was more about individuals than brands.

      And even in college athletics, where we’re not all that far removed from team-wide social media “bans,” the convergence of the power of the individual was always an inevitability.

      And, just like that, decades-old paradigms in college athletics were transformed — student-athletes on social media wasn’t a distraction or a risk, but the next big thing in the arms race we call recruiting.

      “Texas (Longhorns Athletics) really got behind the opportunity for athletes to make the most of their time there and be representatives of the university,” said Marc Jordan, who worked in social media at the University of Texas Athletics before joining NIL platform INFLCR. “I think as soon as the recruiting part of it caught up where they recognized that recruits were following their athletes and that the more active and the more available and the more that their athletes were on social, the better it was for recruiting.”

      There was a positive correlation between athletes posting on social media and schools getting exposure for their programs to the audience that matters most to coaches — recruits. Even while athletes were barred from monetizing their burgeoning social media brands, there was still value in growing their followers and accounts for a potential future payoff. The mutual benefits meant future recruits could be enticed by seeing not just cool content on athletes’ Stories, but also by the prospect of getting access to such cool content themselves when they played there. Water slides and barber shops only go so far for a generation that virtually worships top social media creators.

      Then NIL monetization came and the floodgates appeared ready to open. For Jordan and his Texas colleagues at the time, they knew many student-athletes would be ready to dive in. But these were just kids; 18-21 year-olds that had spent their lives mastering their sport and their bodies, but with little to no experience managing a potentially professional social media presence.

      “We would work with different teams and we would work with different departments to prepare their athletes, get them onto a better posting cadence, have them understand what’s good and what’s bad, the difference between editorial and commercial content, and reasons why you focus more on that editorial,” said Jordan, who now works with schools across the country that utilize the INFLCR platform. “[We were] making sure that they didn’t just become the NASCAR of Instagram where there are just logos everywhere and there’s no value behind it.”

      It’s all easier said than done. There may be colleges with decades or centuries of experience teaching kids traditional academics and decades of time in teaching student-athletes about sports performance — but they never had to worry much about teaching a diverse set of hundreds of athletes of different backgrounds and experience what it meant to build, monetize, and manage their name, image, and likeness. That’s why many have turned to a number of technology and services platforms that have rapidly arisen to serve this need, most notably INFLCR and Opendorse, which together work with hundreds of colleges across the US to help athletes monetize and build their NILs. For Jordan at INFLCR, he’s found an important part of helping athletes is to create a learning system that will actually work for them.

      “I think in the past I’ve been naive to think that we could give athletes, you know, here are 20 steps to NIL success. No one’s gonna go through 20 steps. No athlete is going to go through and do that,” said Jordan. “We’ve offered some online courses that are quick, that have allowed athletes to learn very quickly — but breaking it down to here are four steps that you can do, here are the things that you could do in the next five minutes that will help you down the road, and then letting them learn as they go; adding more as they do the initial steps, but not trying to overload them too quickly, because there’s one thing these athletes don’t have [is] time.”

      Athletes (and, well, students in general) may not get too excited about their chemistry or English lit class (some do!), but when you start to talk about making money from their NIL, ears perk up. This is when the fun starts, when athletes go from potential pitchmen for their sports programs to start-up businesses in their own right — the business of being them. Just like they work with a team dietitian to break down their nutrition, a strength coach for muscle, and a position coach for their sport — it only makes sense for athletes to get down to the food-log and film-study level of developing a strategy to make their NIL the best it can be. This is the kind of analytical work athletes can get behind, because success can be life-changing. But it’s not easy. Jordan starts at the foundation, discussing who the athlete’s social media audience is and how that changes the day they commit to the school and step on campus.

      “We talk to [the athletes] about [brand] and we also break down kind of their audience because we [approach it] for what [their audience] is that day,” Jordan explained. “So let’s say they want to build their brand in a certain area, we talk to them a little bit about, ‘Okay, well, think about your social media now.”

      Jordan went on to explain the different segments that often comprise an athlete’s audience, from their childhood communities to fans of their high school team, fans of their college team, and everyone in between and beyond. But as athletes get more intentional about their soon-to-be professional brands and who they want to be, it can be a challenging balance to serve the various buckets of their social media audience while also evolving themselves as a person and a brand.

      “As you are figuring out content and as you’re figuring out brand building, [you need to understand] that when you post things and when you want to get interaction, you have to at least satisfy one of those buckets or groups,” said Jordan. “But the more of them that you can get interested in that type of content, the better and higher engagement it’s gonna have.

      “So as you’re adding in different things — like, if you’re interested in music in fashion — understand that those are gonna be harder things to build early on because you’re adding a new type of audience into your current following…We want to make sure that they are setting up their audience to care about them for when they aren’t competing anymore, and for when they do go in [and] enter the workforce or they retire and sail off into the sunset — we just wanna make sure that that audience sticks with them.”

      As these NIL initiatives evolve — and boy are they evolving quickly — they will gain more tentacles. A water slide or a lazy lagoon or other quirky amenities constructed to woo recruits requires little upkeep, let alone department-wide integration, compared to NIL programs. There are parts of college football programs, for example, that exist in a virtual silo, almost completely removed from the rest of athletics. But NIL practices — they work best when everybody is on board, focusing on making the flowery promises of their press releases come to fruition.

      “The only way for these programs and these things to work is for them to have substance,” said Jordan. “The recruit will be able to see right through any cute announcement or any branded program if there isn’t any substance behind it…

      “We need this symbiosis between [INFLCR] and the athletics department.”

      College athletics programs are no longer just fostering student-athletes. There’s an influencer-like, brand-building, NIL developing practice that’s part of the program, as well. And it’s only getting bigger. The recruiting pitch will be less about the novel amenities the program has and more about case studies on how they’ve helped student-athletes make money and build a valuable brand. For many student-athletes, their four years of college sports could be among the most lucrative of their lives, monetarily and otherwise. That time presents an opportunity — it’s the responsibility of their institutions to ensure they’re able to make the most of it.


      The Key to Successful Athlete-Brand Partnerships

      The sports sponsorship and advertising space is evolving in multiple directions. In some ways, analytics and marketplaces and automation can make partnerships like mathematical transactions, no different than the NBA Trade Machine on ESPN.com. But then there are true partnerships — with each side banking on the other, entering into a mutually beneficial agreement with upside; the whole greater than the sum of their parts.

      That sounds good on paper, but what does it look like in practice? While massive athletes and organizations can play the upper hand, the up-and-coming or niche athletes and organizations face a more level playing field. And it’s in those scenarios where the partner in partnerships is even more integral.

      It is at this intersection where Andrew Stallings and Athelo Group are flourishing, with brands investing in athletes and vice-versa, both rising together. Stallings and his team work with some athletes on the rise, others that are at or near the top of their sport, even if their sport is not among those typically shown on SportsCenter every night or debated on First Take. For Stallings’s clients, it’s showing why they’re a great investment — why they’re valuable and how their value is only growing (so invest now!).

      “(These athletes) need somebody to be constantly upselling, showing how I can bring more value, how this is growing, [how] that’s growing,” said Stallings, who is Founder and President of Athelo Group. “If my TikTok’s not working, my email newsletter is. If my email newsletter isn’t working, guess what? We’re starting a subscription box service in the next three months. They just want us to be constantly in that person’s ear to help build them.” 

      Stallings added that the athlete should show that same interest in learning about the goals, values, and opportunities of their brand partners, too. “They should learn, they should be able to understand the brand,” he said, “the company, the morals, the people that they’re working with and representing; because [then] social content, messaging, and really explaining to their own audience why they work with a brand is gonna come second to none. It’s not gonna be just hashtag ad.”

      The opportunity is boundless for athletes as the creator economy builds out more avenues for activation, as Stallings alluded to above. The most appealing partners in the sports space, in any space, are offering not just ad space, but a platform; a platform built around them. The savvy athletes are dipping their toes, if not diving all the way, into a number of tributaries that can activate their brand and engage their fans — and present new avenues for partners to come along for the ride. Stallings talked about the partnership marketing piece to athlete sponsorships; while a select few superstars may have deals thrown at them like scripts to a movie star, for most of the sports world, there’s a marketing, buy-and-sell aspect.

      “(Brands) want to converse with agencies and teams and athletes and influencers that have a diverse portfolio of assets for them to activate against,” explained Stallings, whose Athelo Group has formed and activated marketing partnerships with athletes and brands since 2018. “They don’t all need to be built out. You don’t need to have a million followers across every single platform you work with. You don’t need to have audiences with massive buying power.

      “What you do need to show is that you’re working towards and you’re trying and you’re steadily building and finding the success to be able to provide case studies to these brands of what is working, what can work, and what can be better with their help…They’re looking at how can this individual or how can this agency bring forth more assets to complement existing campaigns, further brand’s activation ideas and stuff that we have — how can they complement and be a supplemental resource to us?”

      There’s a different feel when both parties are on the same side of table. There’s a desire, and even instinct, to not plan to execute the minimum requirement combined with the least necessary effort. Instead, the sense of teamwork and genuine connection can entrust and empower each side to optimize how they put the partner’s campaign into action. There is a positive feedback loop at play — the more believable the athlete activation, the more their authenticity and appeal to fans increases, thereby adding to the athlete’s value as a partner. Pretty cool, huh? Stallings calls it the “good stuff” and goes into detail about the realistic, ideal scenario.

      “(You) find the authenticity, find the pivot, and be prepared when things don’t perform the way that the brand is expecting them to, be prepared to offer up alternatives, be able to give more and more before you’re just sending over that invoice,” he said. “Because that’s the good stuff, right? Like, you might be educating them by saying ‘Hey, if this is just an Instagram campaign, I get that you want to carousel, but I’ve been seeing great value with Reels. Do you mind if, for you, on the house, I just experiment by mixing your product in on this Reels post and let’s see how it goes?’

      “A lot of people won’t do that. But if you’re one of those more lesser-known creators with value and upside, take the risk. What’s it gonna do? It’s gonna be an extra hour of work for you and you know what? You might have gotten yourself three more campaigns because of it. So you have to always be willing to overdeliver a little bit.”

      In order to deliver (and overdeliver) and optimize, it’s essential to understand what success means for each side. That goes back to understanding objectives and strategies, to be sure, but the KPIs presented can also expose a bit about the relationship. There are transactional, immediate and visible ‘ROI’ partnerships, and then there are those may include more long-term, penetrating partnerships that expect to last a long time. Both types, and those in between, can be seen all over, but Stallings knows the type he likes to look for for Athelo’s clients.

      “For some people [ROI means] big numbers, that’s all they want. Other people they’re like, man, we want signups. We want link clicks. We want sales,” said Stallings, who worked at Octagon, among other stops, before founding Athelo. “I think the worst nightmare you can ever have when working with a brand or an agency or anybody is if they are 100% sales-driven and nothing else, [it’s] probably best for you to walk away because they are not seeing the bigger picture of the authenticity of a relationship and they probably haven’t done the homework on your audience.”

      Athletes thrive when working as part of a team. They want to be versatile, multi-tool players. And they will study and adjust and do what it takes to win. That all sounds like a winning formula for their competitive endeavors and well beyond.


      If Everything Matters in the Process for Coaches and Athletes, Social Media Does Too

      It wasn’t that long ago that social media was anathema for college athletics.

      For high-level college coaches, social media was at best a distraction for their student-athletes and at worst was a place the athletes could get themselves or their school in trouble; let alone be exposed to toxic vitriol from fans. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

      Slowly but surely, coaches realized the power of those platforms and how a new era had arrived for not just their student-athletes, but themselves, too. Alex Cervasio was among the early sherpas showing many high-level coaches the way. He helped them see the opportunity this new era presented for them.

      “I think before the internet and social media really, coaches were at the mercy, so to speak, of the gatekeepers; and a lot of those gatekeepers were beat writers and the newspaper people before them, or the SIDs at the university,” said Cervasio, who heads up CVAS Consulting and co-founded The Daily Coach. “I think first and foremost, it was controlling that message. Not letting the gatekeepers dictate what is said about you and what you’re saying or what people think about you.”

      Outsized coach personalities of decades past were ultimately built through beat writer stories, postgame interviews, and press conferences. So now, more than ever, coaches, athletes, executives — all these public individuals — already had the notoriety; now they get to frame it. Cervasio said it’s authentic intention that forms the core of an effective approach. Find what makes you naturally stand out and activate it.

      “(It’s) really leaning into every coach’s uniqueness,” Cervasio explained. “What is different about [them]? What is that coach’s niche that differentiates them that no one else can copy? That is something that’s going to appeal to the decision-maker, whether it’s the student-athlete themselves or in their family or in their circle to get them on campus.

      “The coaches that are successful are the ones that are authentic, that do not try to imitate or copy someone else.”

      That authenticity is so key because if a coach portrays themselves one way publicly and acts another way privately, well, word gets out. It’s too easy these days — word always gets out. And all of a sudden the story coaches are telling to recruits and donors isn’t so credible. Those stakes are everything for coaches, trustworthiness is everything for any leader.

      “If you make it your own, just like any creator, any person out there — if you’re putting something out there, you have to own it. (Otherwise) people see through that, especially nowadays,” Cervasio asserted. “It has to be raw and it has to be true, and it has to be the same person that they see on social media that they’re going to see if you’re sitting in the living room and you’re offering [recruits] scholarships to come play for you.”

      Coaches now appreciate more than ever the power, benevolent or not, of social media platforms. And they see what it can mean for their student-athletes, too. Whether the players have professional careers ahead of them or (more likely) have four years to spend in the spotlight sports presents — coaches have a responsibility to help them make the most of those four years. Now with athletes able to monetize their name-image-likeness (NIL). And while there are risks to regularly engaging on social media, the mindset is shifting from abstinence to responsible use.

      “I think coaches — you’re seeing it now — there’s educational components in the offseason, making sure [players] know the do’s and the don’ts the best practices of how to leverage that,” said Cervasio. “Some are better than others. Some athletic departments and schools are better than others, but I think everyone’s cognizant that this thing is not going anywhere.

      “Let’s embrace it. Let’s educate everyone on how to best utilize it. And let’s be honest with ourselves that if we do it correctly, there are going to be some wins and, you know, unfortunately, there’s always going to be a negative connotation in the shadow and you just have to ignore those focus on what you can control.”

      The positives outweigh the negatives by a country mile. Many players can change their lives through their notoriety as student-athletes. For some, it’ll mean spending money for food and leisure or rent money for families; for others, proactively building a brand can set them up for life well beyond the playing field. Because it’s not just about followers, it’s about taking advantage of that limited time when perhaps more doors are open than they ever will be for the rest of their lives, Cervasio posited.

      “(Student-athletes) are building a brand on campus,” he said. “I say it all the time — when you’re on, let’s just say University of Oregon’s campus for four years, you can pick up the phone…and a major booster, a major donor will take your phone call because you are playing football for Oregon or basketball for Oregon. The minute you step off campus, unless you have that relationship or that one-to-one or maybe you won the national title or whatnot, it’s a lot harder for you to get in those doors and those phone calls and meetings.”

      For athletes, for coaches, for executives — for anyone, really — the low-hanging fruit may be to just lean into what earned the notoriety in the first place. But this goes back to Cervasio’s earlier point about being different. If everyone is a football player, everyone is the same. Cervasio said each student-athlete, or whomever, should figure out what they love outside of their primary occupation/sport. Because it’s not about ‘constructing’ a brand or persona, it’s just being yourself and indulging it. Remember, people don’t engage with ‘brands’ quite so much, they engage with people.

      “I always go back to what is your passion? You know, what gets you up in the morning besides when you’re playing (your sport)?” Cervasio said. “Do you read books, do you play video games, do you want to design golf courses in your free time? Whatever it might be, everyone has something unique that is maybe a little quirky or that they don’t share enough, but you got to lean into what makes you [different].

      “So you need to be strategic about what you’re doing and what you’re trying to shape and who you are because at the end day — I always go back to you gotta be honest; what they see out there they need to see on social media, in person, on the playing field, in the interviews, all that. Otherwise, the engagement won’t be there.”

      It’s easier to be honest and genuine when you’re in control. And if there is one thing that unites all these individuals that have achieved to an elite level in their chosen occupation or sport, it’s that they seek to control what they can control, give 110%, and insert your other favorite sports cliches. Social media and personal brand are part of that. For coaches, mastering social media is one more ingredient for a successful recruiting recipe. Cervasio hammers home to those he works with that it’s all important to the process.

      “Everything matters,” he said. “If you don’t treat everything as the most important thing to success, then you’re going to miss something that could have helped you do something. People always say I don’t have time for social media, I don’t have time to do this video, I don’t have time to do all of that. You make the time…Everything matters.”

      If you’re gonna do something, do it right. Because it’s all connected. The best coaches and the best athletes tend to be the best at building their brand. That’s no coincidence. Many adhere to their ‘process,’ and social media is now part of it. And we’re all better for it.


      20 Quick Sports Business and Social Media Nuggets, Insights, and Takeaways from the 2021 Hashtag Sports Conference

      The worst parts of the pandemic appear to be over and sports are gradually returning to normalcy. Games are being played in front of packed venues and there is more than enough live sports programming to satisfy any fan’s appetite. But there have been and will be lasting effects of 2020 for the sports industry — new platforms, new fan behaviors, new opportunities and necessities. These themes permeated much of the conversation at the 2021 Hashtag Sports Virtual Conference this past June, one of many great industry events that Hashtag Sports holds.

      I recommend you check out all the panels (they’re available on demand). You’ll digest some thought-provoking ideas and key learnings from the panels — here I present some of mine in the following 20 nuggets: 

      1. Don’t chase numbers, accomplish goals. In a conversation between STN Digital’s David Brickley and Shareablee’s Tania Yuki, a key point was to establish objectives and KPIs for social media strategy and campaigns and focus on those metrics as measures of success. Depending on the goals, there are successful scenarios in which the vanity metrics do not go up.  
      1. “Too much time is spent on finding the wins.” This quote came from Yuki, who noted there is a ton of insight to come from looking at the ‘losers’ among social media posts as there are the winners; perhaps even more. 
      1. On one of the panels, the moderator asked each speaker to name their favorite social media platform and why. For Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Gallup, notably, it was Facebook. Why? It’s because it’s THE place for him and his partner brands to reach families. “Grandparents, aunts & uncles, (family) – you got everybody on there…” said Gallup.
      2. We see influencers partner and collaborate on platforms like TikTok and teammates often pairing up for podcasts for videos. But Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekelter talked about his initiatives uniting athletes across sports for causes, collaborations, organizations, and events like Twitch streams and tournaments. If athletes across sports start working together more, the possibilities are endless…
      1. In discussing the last year and recent priorities, both Jared Harding (Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche) and Nick Monroe (Milwaukee Bucks) named YouTube as an area of focus. They touted YouTube as a good way to reach new and broader audiences, so they’re programming for YouTube strategically.
      2. Greg Mize, Senior Marketing & Innovation Director with the Atlanta Braves, discussed the three criteria he and his team use when evaluating new digital/social platforms. There is the business case (how can this benefit the business?), the audience there (who can we reach?), and the resources required for success on the platform.
      1. In articulating his thoughts about TikTok, Mize characterized the content there with a thoughtful quote: “It’s the micro-highlight…It’s the highlight within the highlight.” A sharp summation about content like the bat flip and high-five resonating more than the actual home run (my line, not his).
      1. Portland Trail Blazers Director of Content Aaron Grossman talked about gleaning insights early on new platforms by getting feedback from the audience. “They say don’t read the comments, but with a new channel it’s important to [do so], to learn (what the audience likes).” The audience will often point to where you’re going right and where you’re going wrong.
      2. Grossman also cited the growth rate of the brand/account’s audience on a new platform as a key KPI to know if the team’s content is resonating and to evaluate the viability of the platform for the team overall.
      3. In discussing how teams can look at the ROI of social media, the Braves’s Mize talked about the long tail of fandom. “We believe firmly that creating engagement on social media will eventually have a long-tail impact on monetization…(We need to) build fandom through engagement.”
      4. Joe Carr, the CEO of Thrill One Sports and Entertainment (Nitro Circus, among other brands) talked about the company’s success with UGC, particularly during the pandemic. But Carr cautioned that it’s important to not saturate the brand’s feed with UGC and to be mindful of the type of UGC they’re sharing. Thrill One is cognizant to maintain brand integrity amidst the UGC strategy, he said.
      1. The Sacramento Kings have had a tough time on the court, but they operate at an all-pro level on social media. A key for them, according to Kings Social Media Manager Sydney Zuelke is to have fun on social media. That’s why the team has embraced a light, playful tone that is mimicked in their engaging content. If you have fun then fans will, too — win or lose.
      1. How pervasive is gaming (not to be confused, necessarily, with esports) among Gen Z? According to Hollister Director of Brand Marketing Jacee Scoular, 90% of their Gen Z consumers consider themselves a gamer (!). A stat that explains why the brand has entered the gaming space for various campaigns.
      1. Twitch Regional Vice President Nathan Lindberg was on a panel alongside Scoular and made an interesting comparison that esports fans are a bit like NASCAR fans. By that he means they genuinely appreciate the partners supporting their favorite drivers (or gamers) and sport — and therefore are undyingly loyal to those sponsor brands.
      1. Speaking of appreciating sponsors and being loyal (even evangelical) to those partners, Scotiabank’s Lisa Ferkul said this level of proselytizing fidelity has been very much the effect her brand has seen from their sponsorship of women’s sport. To underscore the opportunity (and dearth) for sponsorship of women’s sports, Ferkul cited an eye-popping stat — just 0.4% of sports sponsorship revenue. It’s just about all with men’s sports. Wow.
      1. Instagram’s Head of Sports Dev Sethi is always thoughtful on these conference panels and here he spoke about Instagram’s objective (for sports organizations to heed) of helping fans express themselves [and driving/helping them to do so by posting content to IG]. “How do you encourage fans to express themselves?” Sethi succinctly stated.
      1. Sethi also recommended organizations think ‘holistically’ about their Instagram strategy. To utilize all of the platform’s offerings in a cohesive manner — Feed, Stories, Reels, Shopping, IGTV, and Live. 
      1. Kaitee Daley runs social media for ESPN, so she knows all too well the frequent ideas and opinions expressed by everyday social media users (including coworkers) that aren’t social media professionals. It’s an experience to which many can relate, but Daley encouraged social pros to not let ‘backseat social media drivers’ get them down. Said Daley: “Driving your car every day doesn’t make you an expert in cars just like using social media every day doesn’t make you an expert in social. So trust your experts…”
      1. Jack Settleman, the brains behind leading Snapchat [and general social media] sports media brand Snapback Sports gave a thoughtful panel and talked about how he actually planned to go viral (and did) at the Super Bowl. How? He knew every year there’s a big hullabaloo about the color of Gatorade that would be dumped on the winning coach (also always a popular sports betting prop). So he made sure he had a good shot of the moment and got the video out there while the main broadcast wasn’t as focused on the Gatorade pouring moment. You can’t manufacture virality, but you sure can anticipate opportunities that present viral moments.
      1. Settleman also confirmed what many had suspected — hot takes and polarizing stances drive engagement with sports fans. There’s a reason the Skip Baylesses of the world drive engagement and reaction with their polarizing takes on TV and social media. Settleman said taking such stances and then letting the fans argue away has been a key ingredient in their engagement strategy.

      There are far more nuggets of insight from the Hashtag Sports Virtual Conference that I could not get close to covering in the short list above. I recommend you check out the on-demand videos for further enlightenment.

      If there’s one thing sports business professionals can count on, it’s that the engagement and activation strategies that prevail today won’t be the same next year, perhaps even next week. While we must follow the money and the metrics oftentimes, it’s important to never stop asking questions. To tackle challenges, to question the meaningfulness of the best and the worst ‘results’, to never get complacent, and to follow our instinct as fans at heart.  

      How Sports Business Looks in Summer 2020: Industry Insights from the Hashtag Sports Virtual Conference

      The sports and social media world is not afraid of change. The social platforms and the sports industry as a whole are constantly evolving, but it’s been a few years since something really transformational has happened in the biz.

      After hearing several industry leaders discuss their strategies, insights, and observations about the current state of the sports business, social media, sponsorship, and fan engagement at the recent Hashtag Sports conference, it seems there could be paradigm changes coming out of the stay-at-home period from the pandemic.

      Many athletes have seen the light of social media, corporate partnerships have been reimagined in a world without games, everybody has taken a closer look at esports, the social platforms themselves were utilized in different ways, and all the digital and social engagement has only reinforced the pathways of data collection to personalization.


      • When the games stopped, fans’ desire to see and engage with athletes certainly did not. Yahoo Sports’s Sarah Crennan said she would’ve liked to have had more working relationships with athletes with whom to co-create content. Meanwhile, NBC Sports’s Lyndsay Signor noted that the move to mobile productions and all remote appearances meant working on content with athletes was less challenging than it had been pre-pandemic. What could this mean moving forward? Will sports media businesses make it a point to establish relationships with athletes, even after the stay-at-home orders are lifted and sports return in some form? And will media companies be more comfortable connecting with an athlete via his/her phone even if it’s not as polished as their more produced content?


      • Many athletes during the pandemic posted first-person content on social media for the first time, or participated in live or mobile interviews. Coming out of this quarantine, many more athletes will be comfortable creating their own content, according to Bleacher Report’s Beckley Mason. Adding to that insight, Colleen Garrity of Excel Management pointed out that a lot of athletes tried and learned new things during this period, whether that was jumping on IG Live for the first time or streaming on Twitch. They’ll now have those abilities in their back pocket. When athletes are serving as their own directors and producers, it won’t be perfect, but that’s okay, and fans, publishers, and partners will learn to value it, said B/R’s Mason. It’s more authentic that way, anyway.

      Content production

      • Sponsors may have been skeptical at first of seeing their dollars and branding go into content that looked less-than-polished. But numbers and performance don’t lie and as more results come in, less-produced content can prove its value. And it has and will continue to, suggested Bleacher Report’s Beckley Mason. The new normal that has prevailed for the past several months, when more amateur-looking content was not just tolerated but welcomed, means brands can be more nimble and more open to experimentation, according to Octagon’s Meredith Kinsman. When they’re not spending a ton on an on-location shoot with a full crew, there’s less risk involved and more creative trialing possible.


      • Social media managers working for teams or leagues have recognized the value of raw content captured on mobile devices for years. But even while COVID forced a lot more original content to be less-produced, especially involving coaches and athletes, there remains a place for both produced content and raw content. This point was reinforced by Oregon State’s Kylie Murphy, who noted there’s time and place for both, and it can depend on context, listening to the data, considering the platform, and learning by trial and error.


      • It’s an understatement to say the last few months have been the golden era of archived content on social media. Twenty years ago, even ten years ago, a lot of archived content may have been stuck on VHS tapes and DVD’s. But digitization has made it easier to access, produce from, and use to engage fans across platforms. There has proven to be a lot of potential, and maybe more to come, with historical content, said Octagon’s Kinsman, and this sports hiatus has only reinforced that value proposition.


      • Meanwhile, a company like Overtime has been able to double-down on its original content efforts in the absence of live sports. The mobile-first sports media company has seen more and more content consumption happening for longer average sessions. They’ve also seen a lot of YouTube viewing happening on smart TV’s and larger screens, not confined to merely mobile devices. Fans are willing to binge sports content, just like they are a series on Netflix or Hulu, and there’s an opportunity for sports to earn more and more of that screen time outside of live games.


      • The coronavirus pandemic along with the period of social unrest catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd has obligated every brand to prove themselves worthy of consumers, to show they are adding value to society at such a challenging time. This applies to sports-related sponsorships, too, where partnerships are being scrutinized to ensure authenticity more than ever. Rakuten’s Kristen Gambetta talked about wanting to make sure players with whom they partner are aligned with their values, while Dairy Management International’s Darcy Nichols, who oversees the company’s NFL sponsorship, said they look at players’s social media posts to make sure they represent a brand with whom they want to partner. Nichols also noted she wants players who aren’t just going through the motions, but those who actively believe in the message and brand they’re endorsing, and want to be there.


      • Dairy Management International’s Nichols also reiterated a prevailing point in sponsorship — that the operative term is ‘partnership;’ it shouldn’t be a transactional relationship between brand and league/team/athlete. Wasserman’s Anup Daji made a similar point stating that the best partnerships include those in which both parties accomplish objectives. Rakuten’s Gambetta gave a good example of this in action, describing the e-commerce brand’s activation with the Golden State Warriors. Rakuten and the Warriors offered fans cash back when they purchased merchandise at games, in partnership with Rakuten, who promotes their own cash back system for purchases made on their online shopping platform.


      • With no live events with which to activate, any and all sponsorships in sports became digital and social-focused. This only increases the value for a publisher like Bleacher Report, suggested Mason, as they can help a brand activate around a major sports event with a social-first campaign. And they can do it even if neither is participating as an official rights holder or partner.


      • Social media is less a throw-in these days compared to years past and partners now expect a campaign to be activated across channels. The New York Giants’ Katie Carew described this framework, offering the team’s activation with Stop and Shop as an example. It included physical and digital elements and resulted in content coming out of the campaign to allow for an effective social extension. AT&T’s Shiz Suzuki described her company’s viral ‘Pose with the Pros’ augmented reality onsite activation with the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium, which provided not just a demonstration of their 5G technology, but also produced socially share-able content.


      Esports and gambling

      • 2020 was supposed to be the year that sports gambling saw massive growth in the US. It still can be, but it perhaps won’t reach the peaks once projected. As sports brands look to capitalize on gambling, they’re increasingly cognizant of the best way to ease fans into becoming bettors. Prop betting seems to be an answer, with Bleacher Report’s Stefanie Rapp identifying prop betting as an entry point for sports betting. B/R has seen huge growth the last several months in its betting content, too, with its betting stream content in the B/R app growing 300% faster than any of their other streams. Fans that engage in this content and sports betting, in general, have stronger retention metrics, too.


      • While many continue to eye gaming as an opportunity, the pandemic led to more interest than ever in esports, which were only mildly affected by the public health crisis. Turner/ELEAGUE’S Seth Ladetsky recognized the opportunity for esports, especially when their competitions get airtime on linear TV. An important consideration, he said, as esports looks to capitalize on these opportunities is to recognize the audience and the platform, and produce a presentation that is optimized for each. Because an avid esports audience is different from the casual and curious community checking it out.


      • More sponsors started to gravitate to esports, too, seeing an opportunity to reach and engage fans viewing live events. ESL’s Paul Brewer said the most common way brands are measuring their esports sponsorships now are brand sentiment and share of voice. Brands are still learning the space and AT&T’s Suzuki noted how important it is to do the research of the fan base first and to always be thinking of how a sponsorship can produce additive value for esports fans. Brewer also pointed out how esports is starting to also look for ways it can mimic the traditional sports sponsorship activations menu to which brands are accustomed, such as corporate hospitality and experiential opportunities.


      • It’s no secret that TikTok has enjoyed explosive growth across the board during this stay-at-home period, including sports, athletes, and sports fans gravitating more and more to the social network. TikTok’s Harish Sharma presented the platform’s POV when it comes to sports, suggesting that TikTok is a place for teams and athletes to share about themselves away from the field. Sharma also recommended activating around ‘exclusive moments’ and ‘seminal moments.’


      • Facebook facilitated and even unveiled a lot of new features or behaviors and opportunities on its platforms during this period. They’ve long been focused on developing Groups and this feature remains a strong and growing part of the platform. Facebook Sports’ Nick Marquez talked about the engagement and data collection potential with Groups. He also lent a little inspiration calling Group members potential ‘ambassadors’ for the brand.


      • Facebook (as well as Instagram) saw a lot of creative usage of its Live capability, including archived content and virtual watch parties, during the sports shutdown. Digital-first content overall picked up by necessity, with no live games and accompanying highlights, and in their place Marquez pointed out how sports teams have been able to build up digital content franchises that then become valuable sponsorship assets and entitlement opportunities. Sports teams and leagues are digital publishers, Marquez said, that happen to play sports. He also enumerated four buckets of content where sports found a lot of success during the shutdown, including archive (as noted above), fitness, cooking, and gaming. One last feature to keep an eye on are Facebook Messenger Rooms, a product many saw as an answer to the usage of Zoom during the pandemic for social interacting.


      • Instagram has also been an essential part of sports organizations’ fan engagement strategies for the last few game-less months. Usage of IG Live has grown a lot — in case you somehow haven’t noticed — and Instagram has been working with sports organizations on monetizing the platform. Instagram Sports’s Will Yoder identified three ways sports biz has been monetizing IG: Branded content (which is treated the same as organic content in their feed algorithm, Yoder noted), shoppable posts, and Instagram ads, including direct response ads.


      • The NBA’s Jorge Urrutia del Pozo talked about their efforts to build a ‘golden record’ for each fan, by collecting data strategically. The key concerns for them are a) utilizing data to deepen fan engagement and b) determine the next best action or step for each fan to take to drive optimized lifetime value.


      • Both the NBA’s Urrutia del Pozo and the NHL’s Heidi Browning noted that collecting fan data has to deliver value back for the fan. The NBA collects information from fans progressively, delivering something back to fans at each step; this so-called ‘zero party data’ is valuable for the league in its efforts to personalize and enhance fan experiences. The NHL’s Browning called out the league’s ‘learning campaigns,’ which similarly asked fans for information while delivering tangible value back to the fan at each step. That exchange of value is vital.



      The past few months have felt like a year passing and the sports industry has evolved at a similar rate. Thanks to Hashtag Sports for putting on a great event! Subscribe to their newsletter, follow them on social media, and attend their future events.

      Will the ‘Lasting Legacy’ of the COVID Sports Shutdown Be Athletes’ Embrace of their Platforms?

      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.

      Coronavirus: Obama joins Stephen Curry's talk with Dr. Fauci - Los ...

      “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.”

      Pro Athletes on Social Media: A Difficult Dichotomy - SMW Toronto 2019

      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)