The changing of the guard for SportsPro’s 50 Most Marketable Athletes (50MM) in 2021 is surprising in some ways, but taking a step back, it makes a lot of sense.
For the past 18 months, people haven’t been connecting in person, and digital channels have replaced that in-person contact. We’ve gravitated towards authenticity during this time — connecting not with brands or teams but with people who are natural storytellers and who are brave enough to share what’s happening in their lives.
That’s why Simone Biles is number one — she’s a tremendously gifted athlete who can perform routines that no other human can. At the same time, she’s extremely well-spoken, unusually self-aware and has an extraordinary sense of purpose. She is direct, open and sincere when she communicates, and people love her for all of those qualities.
What do marketable athletes mean for leagues? The answer isn’t as easily found as it is for clubs and teams. Most leagues don’t work directly with athletes, they organise and promote events, tournaments and competitions as well as manage media rights on behalf of teams or clubs.
Forward-thinking teams and clubs are looking to support their players as they seek to grow their personal brands. Athletes need the support of their team to do this. Clubs (and national associations) are also taking advantage of their athletes’ reach and engagement to increase sponsorship value. When they include logo exposure metrics on their athletes’ social media channels in addition to the team’s official social media channels, we’ve seen exposure grow by two times to 100 times or more. That’s a ton of extra, unexpected value for every sponsor.
Leagues or associations that aren’t coordinating teams but events for individual athletes (tennis, golf, triathlons, etc.) can similarly benefit from these dynamics. Helping athletes grow their social brands leads to increased engagement and exposure with fans, and that benefits the athlete and the league. Sponsorship exposure grows exponentially, and the fanbase grows. Smaller sports can start telecasting, and both large and small leagues can attract more fans, build fan loyalty, and sell more tickets and merchandise. But engagement on social media starts with people — the athletes. They’re not only the league’s most valuable assets, they are also their most valuable marketing partners.
With team sports, leagues have generally preferred to be more hands off with direct athlete contact. That’s definitely changed over the past three years and we will see this trend grow. Leagues are reimagining their roles, and some have made significant changes in how they promote themselves — with the help of their partners. Leagues have recognised the impact and importance of social media and are reorganising operations around ‘live’ and ‘non-live’ media. The importance of non-live media is increasing more rapidly than many expected and requires the same attention and investment that went into live media broadcasting.
We have been working with a few of the fastest-growing and some of the biggest leagues in the world. Major League Baseball (MLB), along with the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA), recognised the value of social media for players a few years ago.
The MLB pioneered two separate programmes that have seen enormous success and expansion and can be seen as a model for the management of non-live media flow. Their live content capture programme puts one or more live content creators in every stadium, at every game, with the goal of capturing photos and videos that make fans at home feel like they’re in the stadium. The 'Player Social' programme distributes these thousands of assets directly to the mobile phones of players and their publicists. Content is classified, sorted and distributed automatically. So when players are leaving the locker room, they have a personalised gallery of their highlights from the game, and they always have media to share on social. We’ve now seen the fruit of that programme, with more MLB players on the 50MM list than ever.
German soccer's top-flight Bundesliga has also developed a media capture programme, embedding creators at every league match. Rather than directly supporting players with social media, the German Football League (DFL) is helping its primary partners — the 50 global broadcast partners — and providing them with social-ready assets. It takes less than two minutes for the DFL to get the content from the field to the broadcaster to use on their own social feed or integrate into their live broadcast. Before and after matches, this content is used for promotion in each local market, driving awareness and tune-in.
At broadcasters like Canal+ Sports, this content is distributed directly to show hosts and announcers, enabling each TV personality to share highlights and special moments with their own social audiences. In the same way athletes are now the face of sports teams, hosts are the face of broadcasters, and their personal brand and social media banter continue to engage viewers around the clock.
Smaller but rapidly growing leagues like the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL) have fully embraced the importance of non-live media as the way to engage with fans. With a more limited TV schedule, including broadcast and over-the-top (OTT), ensuring all matches are streamed on digital channels is key for fans and sponsors. With social media, there’s a worldwide audience who might never attend a game, but who might love to participate in the action. The PLL is truly a digital-first league, and from their first year, they have ensured their digital media flows continuously to players, staff, teams and their sponsors.
To drive an even higher activation rate, PLL sponsor Hyperice, an athletic performance brand, was able to work directly — but remotely — with all PLL players. Hyperice gave the league and players guidance on what they wanted to accomplish and then let the players do their thing, their way. When Hyperice asked players to post photos of themselves using Hyperice products to social media, they had the players use Greenfly to submit those photos back to the brand’s marketing team, too. Hyperice was not only getting value from player social media posts, they received personal, authentic videos and photos to publish on their brand’s digital channels.
Many leagues have evolved their relationships with athletes, sponsors and broadcasters, and are now working with them as marketing partners. With the singular goal of seeing the league succeed, each partner is able to help with promotion, awareness and increasing fan loyalty. The leagues that recognise they can grow stronger and larger by working with all of their partners are increasing collaboration on all digital initiatives. Ensuring that all partners have the short-form digital assets they need, when they need them, is ensuring their success through organic digital growth.