Terrence Burns: Something’s Happening Here…

Terrence Burns, executive vice-president, global sports at Engine Shop takes a look at 'athlete activism', and how social media is playing a pivotal role in giving sportsmen and women a louder voice than ever before.

terrence_burns.jpgQuoting a few lines from a 1966 Buffalo Springfield song may not be the most obvious means to address to the incredible changes happening in athlete endorsement, but it’s my column and I’ve always liked the song. So here goes:

There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear… You know the rest.

About the only thing that is clear is that the game has changed (pun intended) for athlete marketing and promotion. And the field of play is called social media and the currency of this new world order is activism.

There was a time when brands used athletes as “endorsers” by using their images or likeness in advertising and personal appearances. That was about it. And honestly, the jury has always been out on the efficacy of this type of promotion. Yet, it was one of the boxes that marketers usually checked when creating and activating a “sports strategy”.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum (again, pun intended). Athletes found their own voices and social media gave them their very own private media channels, which by the way, have proven to be infinitely more effective to delivering messaging to the fans than most brands.

Consider these statistics from a recent study. Athletes’ social channels reach more people (1.7 billion) than publishers (361 million) and properties (894 million) combined. You read that right. It is reasonable to suggest that the most valuable fan-athlete relationship in sports is the social media connectivity driven by athletes’ own channels.

This is reasonable because the same study also measured that most elusive of all social media metrics, engagement. The overwhelming conclusion is that athletes’ social media activity is many times more engaging at 3.36 per cent, than properties at 0.3 per cent, and publishers at 0.51 per cent.

So, the real question is given this newfound power, how will athletes use it? To benefit their own personal brands or to benefit the brands with whom they have marketing or promotional affiliations? The answer is obviously both.

The challenges are not small. Even the IOC’s Rule 40, which was created to protect official Olympic sponsors is not immune. Rule 40, in effect, prohibited Olympic athletes from letting non-Olympic sponsor brands from using the Olympian’s image or likeness in advertising or promotional activities during an Olympic Games.

This all changed, perhaps coincidentally or perhaps not, with the rise of social media. Many Olympians, although heroes all, are most likely never to be heard from again. They struggle, train, and sacrifice or years for one shot at glory at the Games. Why should they be prevented from this one opportunity to capitalize financially, albeit short-term and minimal in context?

The IOC listened to this argument (led at the grassroots level by athletes) and agreed, in principle. Rule 40 guidelines have been adjusted (relaxed) to allow more latitude for athletes at the Games to interact with and promote (slightly and with significant guard rails) non-sponsor brands who support them.

Athletes have also found their voices for causes beyond marketing. Perhaps it started in Mexico City in 1968 with Tommy Smith and John Carlos’ fists raised in the air on the podium. Imagine if they’d had Twitter accounts? But now athletes do.

The most recent and most courageous example of athlete activism is Allyson Felix, the most decorated US female track and field athlete of all time. When Allyson became pregnant, one of her sponsors, Nike, attempted to reduce Allyson’s fee structure by 70 per cent.

Allyson decided to use her voice to address what she felt was injustice. The rest is history. The response to her message was overwhelming. In July of this year she signed a multi-year apparel sponsorship contract with Athleta – and it includes a clause offering “full protection during maternity”.

Well done, Allyson. But with this new “power” comes responsibility, and the simple fact is that most of us in our late teens or early twenties (the sweet spot for most Olympic athletes) rarely possess the judgement to speak unfiltered to the universe. Yet that is precisely why social media is so impactful – it is unfiltered. That gives it authenticity.

The reality is that the athlete-fan connectivity will only grow stronger and more intimate. The key for brands wishing to play in the sand box is to be very careful about which athletes with whom they wish to align and then “let them be them”. Otherwise, it’s just another scripted, forgettable personal appearance adapted to a Tweet.

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