How Social Media Changed Sports

Ever wondered what Twitter looked like about 10 years ago? You might have seen this recent tweet from tech entrepreneur Andy Baio which lets you go back a decade to see what your timeline looked like.

I decided to give it a go, and it was, underwhelming, to say the least. No images, no video content, no sponsored posts, and also all the sports stars I follow were noticeably absent.

This post examines how important social media now is in sports and will feature some examples of athletes who have done very well from social media.

Fast forward to today. The biggest stars, like Ronaldo, LeBron James et al, have huge and ever-growing followings, which means increased marketability (and of course money) not only for them but also their teams.

In my last post, I focused on a report from KPMG on the world’s most valuable clubs. Why I mention this is because one part of this report I didn’t focus on, was KPMG’s assessment of how important social media now is for football clubs.

The report states:

Clubs no longer regard these channels as just communication tools to push out messages, they also realize their underlying commercial value, allowing them to reach new audiences on an unprecedented scale.

Although overall income from digital activities is still negligible, monetising the inherent value in social media is crucial for clubs in order to stay competitive and to enhance their profitability.

What has been interesting, not just inside the football world is how if a star athlete joins a team, he or she brings their own sizeable fan base with them and that this can have a knock-on effect for their new team’s performance on social media. As KPMG highlights, Neymar’s world record transfer to Paris Saint-Germain FC, meant that the club’s online followership skyrocketed by 22% after Neymar joined the team.

Meanwhile, a study revealed how much stars can earn from social media, for sponsored posts and estimated that Ronaldo earns a simply incredible £308,000 per post (thanks to his 100+ million followers on Instagram). In a separate story, it is estimated that Ronaldo earned his sponsored partners north of $1 billion in total in a year from sponsored posts on social media.

However, another interesting development, thanks to the ubiquity of social media now, has been how lower level athletes have also been able to market themselves.

Take Coventry FC’s striker Marc McNulty for example. He finished joint top goal scorer in League Two this past season (2017-18) with 25 goals. Despite playing in the lowest professional league in English football, he boasts an impressive 18,000 followers on Twitter, while boasting over 10,000 Instagram followers. In McNulty’s case, he doesn’t post sponsored content either.

Another example, outside of team sports is rising Irish boxer Ray Moylette, boasting over 2,000 followers on both Instagram and Twitter. By contrast, Moylette does post what appears to be sponsored content and generates very decent engagement, all to his own benefit in a particularly tough sport, where every Euro earned is crucial given the dangers involved in the sport.

While examples like McNulty and Moylette are lower down the food chain, main top stars now have their own social media managers, which they use to pump out sponsors’ content. This was embarassingly illustrated by football player Jermiane Defoe in 2015 when he advertised for a “24/7 PA“. One part of the role was to “create a global brand for the Jermain Defoe name, growing his online database on his website, Twitter, Facebook and other social networking platforms.”

However, some sports are far behind the social media gravy train. You might have read one of my posts from 2017 about how Formula One was purchased by Liberty Media and the deep challenges facing the sport. Before Liberty took over the sport had an extremely restrictive policy towards social media, while also having alarming declines in viewership figures.

One of the new owner’s first actions was to bin this and it saw immediate dividends with the sport outperforming all others in terms of adding new followers on its social feeds. However, despite this, it is still nowhere near other sports in terms of social media output or follower numbers, however, it shows the importance that guardians of sports are putting on social media performance.

Another great example of an organisation putting social media at the heart of its operations is Italian side AS Roma. The club is across the biggest social media platforms, and some of the more unknown ones, while also providing language-specific accounts too. Take a look at Roma’s 37 different channels here, it is an amazing feat which is paying off the club hugely. As is the way they have approached content creation for these channels too (read more here about that).


How “King” James Rules Social Media

LeBron James is an example of how important social media now is to brand building for athletes and also sports teams.

He is the undoubted king of the modern day NBA, thanks to his immense talent, and also marketability as an athlete. His roster of sponsors includes Nike, Coca-Cola, and Beats and critical to this success is his traction on social media too.

Currently, he has over 41 million Twitter followers and over 37 million followers on Instagram too. It is estimated he can make at least $120,000 for one sponsored post alone.

Not only does James do the usual endorsement of products on his social channels, he also applies a “less is more” approach.

During the NBA playoffs, he bans himself from using social media, calling it “Zero Dark Thirty” (see an example post here), which he began in 2012 (see this report from Yahoo for more background).

However, in quite a smart move this year, James has turned his Instagram account over to handpicked people to raise awareness of certain issues (see this story for more background from USA Today),

However, one word of caution for brands. Not everything James says or does will fit in with their values. He is an outspoken athlete on a host of social issues (see here for more on this), including criticising current US President Donald Trump.


When did social media really become so important for sports stars? I’ve done a lot of research in trying to pinpoint an exact year, however, this has proved challenging to find.

Yet, I would argue that within the last five years this is when we’ve really seen the rise in importance of social media for athletes.

My reasons are as follows:

  1. Technology: Smartphones have gotten better and better, as have apps. This means accessibility for both athletes and fans to this technology has become much easier, hence its huge growth.
  2. Platforms: As illustrated by Andy Biao, social media was quite functional ten years ago. Today, branded content has grown hugely, imagery and video are now critical for success too. Social media platforms have grown leaps and bounds in functionality (think Instagram Stories as illustrated by the LeBron example above), meaning the ability to market yourself has become much easier.
  3. Athletes: A really simple fact is that the majority of athletes actually like using social media (see boxer Billy Joe Saunders as an example) and see huge value in it. As highlighted by the Defoe example, many are now employing Social Media Managers to make sure their social output is as good as possible. Their image matters that much now.
  4. Teams: Arguably, teams have been slower to adopt social media to their core functions. However, this has now changed. Take Bayern Munich as an example, a humorous post about a cat taking a selfie with the first team became the team’s highest performing social media post ever.

As a sports fan, do you think the impact of social media has been good or bad for sports?

Also, if you’d like to know how brands pick athletes to endorse see this previous post from BusinessOfSport, which mentions how social media is now a key component of this endorsement mix.

Dave Claxton

I'm a PR professional and journalist for SportTechie. I'm blogging about how business is increasingly impacting sports in this ever connecting world.

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