Casey Harwood | Why the age of the influencer bodes well for sports stars

Casey Harwood, commercial director at digital engagement agency Engage Digital Partners, looks at how brands are adapting their communications strategies to harness influencers as assets and make them more relatable to audiences.

Casey Harwood

Even before the advent of fake news, late night chat shows – thanks to their blend of humour and truth – were becoming the news agency of choice for many Americans.

Given their parents no longer trusted formal news portals, is it unsurprising that Gen Zs have put so much faith in influencers and what they see online? With 1.2 trillion video views delivered by sports influencers alone over the past year – the same number as all other publishers combined – brands are rethinking their comms, so it’s no wonder that a new influencer era is dawning.

Current influencers conjure up a very specific image – good-looking, gym-buffed young people operating on a paid-to-promote basis, however this is very different from what to expect going forward. There may always be a role for the frivolously famous-for-being-famous Youtubers or Instagrammers but media-savvy Gen Zs aren’t going to sleepwalk into taking everything they see as read. New-era influencers are those who have earned their peers’ respect, either through talent or cause-related belief.

Sports people fit this profile perfectly; they are largely photogenic, honest about their challenges, come from a variety of backgrounds and increasingly speak out about causes that matter to them.

No one is pretending that Colin Kaepernick, the NFL athlete who led the ‘take the knee’ movement, will improve his chances of an extended playing career any more than Dina Asher Smith will win more golds by discussing on social media how she alters her training around her periods. What they are achieving is a highly relatable public profile that speaks meaningfully to audiences and, in enhancing their ‘listenership’, they are adding significantly to the clout of their personal brand.

Sports rights-holders are waking up to two key aspects of the digital age; firstly, bad news, such as the wrong score line, can’t ignored and if you don’t own the agenda, fan channels or the Bleacher Report will. Secondly, where many owners and teams once restricted or gagged athlete social opinion, sports brands now see the influencer power of players and athletes so are harnessing them as assets.

The most obvious case in point is Ronaldo, currently the world’s highest paid Twitter-poster. Any club signing him understands that as well as huge on-field impact, he is a significant marketing asset too – and influencers help brands make bank. Virat Kohli is India’s most influential sports personality who has, thanks to his 51 million Instagram followers, contributed 10 per cent to Puma India’s 2019 sales, helping the German brand achieve 23-per-cent in-country revenue growth.

Also prevalent, especially in India, is the esports’ trend of seeing crossover between sectors with Bollywood celebrities collaborating with rights-holders. Two such examples are Ranveer Singh, India’s most popular actor, being a Premier League brand ambassador in India, whilst Arjun Kapoor hosts a monthly digital fan talk show series for Chelsea FC.

Aspiring traditional sports influencers can learn a lot from established market players in two ways – streaming and evolving.

Esports stars are comfortable live streaming and thereby talking directly to fans. Ninja, the popular Fortnite player, is one the biggest influencers in the world with fans willing to watch hours of his live streams daily, which provides a much deeper connection than just an Instagram. Current non-sports influencers are wising up to the power of sport so are evolving their proposition; the KSI v Logan fight achieved 1.3 million pay-per-view purchases, earned £10m and became the largest non-professional boxing match ever.

A phrase much-associated with influence is ‘authenticity’ and increasingly this means relating meaningfully to a cause. Gen Zs aren’t simply passionate about topics such as gender equality, the environment and mental health. They use these topics, along with cultural forces such as music, to define themselves. Many sports people naturally align with a cause for highly personal reasons and, in so doing, garner fans who love them as much for their sport as their beliefs.

It is worth noting that just because a subject is serious, content creation can be humorous; the touchstone for Gen Zs is: ‘Does it engage me?’ Creative execution doesn’t always have to be tasteful or sophisticated but ultimately needs to be respectful.

Consequently, whilst TV remains very a powerful platform, and the Information Age turns into the Entertainment Age, it faces significant competition from social and digital. Central to these channels are marketing and advertising which young consumers will buy into as content if it is done well, otherwise they reject as inauthentic or boring if done badly.

A figure like Greta Thunberg would have been as unthinkable a decade ago as a ‘body positive’ Barbie doll, but as attitudes change and authenticity, talent and belief start to replace vacuous, vague associations. This is pivotal for the next era of influencer and is a massive consideration for the sport brands which work with them. The days of badging and ‘pay to promote’ are pretty much over, as evidenced by charges of ‘sports washing’ or ‘arts washing’ being leveraged at brands who are seen simply to sponsor.

The agency world is adapting their skillbase for this and can look to an increasing array of examples that are starting to define an approach that will in turn define a decade.