Athletes and Social Media: Why Sports is Ripe for Tech Disruption

Digital transformation is changing the way athletes and fans interact.

As a sports fan, think about the last time you had an interaction with a pro athlete. More likely than not, the encounter was brief. Maybe you ran into your favorite MLS team’s goalkeeper at a doughnut shop in the city and took a selfie. Perhaps you waited outside the team bus or stadium exit two hours after the game ended and were lucky enough to catch a glimpse or better yet an autograph from your favorite NHL defenseman.

These moments are quick and fleeting. But the rush and sense of inspiration from meeting an elite athlete can mean everything to a fan — especially a young aspiring athlete. It’s what we all love about sports, and it brings us back to those moments growing up when we pretended to be our favorite athletes in the backyard or on the frozen pond.

Meeting those heroes can make our sports dreams seem real. I can still remember the way I felt the first time I saw my idol, NHL legend Ray Bourque, in person. I couldn’t get back to the garage to start shooting pucks fast enough.

With the explosion of social media, fans have a different avenue to engage with their favorite athletes. A star player might acknowledge a fan’s comment during an Instagram Live session or respond to a complimentary tweet after a hat trick.

The combination of athletes and social media means there’s more potential than ever for a fan to have a direct interaction with their favorite player. But we can do better than a passing moment or a tweet reply. There’s a better way for a fan to feel connected to their favorite athlete.

Changes in Sports Consumption

The way that fans consume sports is rapidly changing. Games are streamed from phones, apps give play-by-play scores and highlights in real-time, and virtual reality is becoming a viable part of the fan experience. Companies such as Barstool Sports are live-streaming fans watching games, and you can watch them watch the game and feel like you’re with your friends. Never mind the way DraftKings and gambling companies will affect the sports landscape.

Despite these changes, the way that fans access and interact with athletes is still very static. But there are signs of movement in this area.

The first change happening now in sports is the way athletes can create content directly for the consumer, on their terms.  Look no further than LeBron James and Maverick Carter and what they are doing with their production company, SpringHill Entertainment, and its portfolio of brands including Uninterrupted. This changes the way athletes share their stories with consumers.

The next change coming to sports consumption involves a shift in the way sports stars and fans interact digitally, going beyond the typical engagement we see with athletes and social media. There’s potential to form more authentic relationships. We just need to find a more personal way to link everyone involved. Between blockchain, VeeFriends, non-fungible tokens, and everything else happening in the world of tech, it’s not a matter of if it all changes, but when.

The Good and the Bad of Athletes and Social Media

Social media represents the first battering ram to breaking down barriers between athletes and fans. Back in the day, if Jerry Rice, Wayne Gretzky, or Larry Bird wanted to get a message out with their fans, they had to dial up one of the big television networks and set up a press conference. Even then, the athlete didn’t have full control over their message or how it would translate after they walked away from the podium.

Twitter, Instagram, and other social media apps changed the game. Suddenly, athletes could communicate directly with their fans in ways we’d never expected before. But for athletes, social media can also be a minefield. A misspelled caption or cringe-worthy photo from a celebrity can prompt a massive pile-on from the internet. It’s an intimidating world, and it might be enough for some athletes to stop posting altogether. It’s very different than a nobody becoming a TikTok star; these athletes have more to lose by not managing their personal and digital brands effectively. They also have a built-in starting point to develop their brands and grow their followings, which most regular people don’t.

Empowering Athletes with Storytelling Tools

To rise above the sometimes negative side of social media, athletes have to feel confident in the messages they are putting out. They need a framework, strategy, and a game plan they trust.

Fans now have a taste of what it’s like to “know” their favorite athletes on a new level. The next, even deeper level is a platform that provides this framework, strategy, and game plan.

To truly tell their stories and inspire the next generation, athletes need more than just a space to post their content. They need a plan to build a focused audience based on the things they care about. They then need the tools and education to be empowered to tell their stories the way they want them to be told, and to share their learnings and keys to success.

Athletes, fans, and brands are interacting all the time in the sports world. Their interactions, however, are often disjointed and lack clarity. The key is getting all three parties on the same page — and it’s starting to happen. Look no further than Pat Maroon of the Tampa Bay Lightning activating a personal endorsement on the ice after winning the Stanley Cup.  That’s the future starting to shine through.

What Might the Future Look Like?

Athletes need a place where they can produce authentic content for their fans.

Fans — including young aspiring athletes, plus their coaches and parents — want to consume genuine content from athletes to feel more connected than ever.

Brands want to align with athletes who show off products that they enjoy and believe in for the right reasons.

The future looks like a world in which fans can discover brands and products they never knew before and feel deeper connections to their favorite athletes — for example, by using Charlie McAvoy’s stick or eating Kacey Bellamy’s favorite pregame protein bar.