The Case For Athlete Influence

athletes most influential among sports fans


1. the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behaviors, options, etc. of others.

In the mid-2000s, as Twitter was adopted by the masses and blogging moved to the mainstream, influencer marketing became a buzzword, falling in line with disruption, synergy, and *sigh* brain dump. Fast forward to 2016 and influencer marketing is no longer a buzzword or niche strategy: it is marketing.

Over time, the best and most popular users throughout the world have grown to own more online influence than the major brands that are now employing them. After all, wouldn’t you be more likely to trust and engage with a human than a corporate brand?

The data backs up what marketers have come to accept: influencers can provide brands with enormous value. A recent study conducted by Twitter and Annalect found the following:

+ Nearly 40% of Twitter users say they’ve made a purchase as a direct result of a tweet from an influencer.
+ 5.2X increase in purchase intent when users are exposed to both brand and influencer tweets.
+ 49% of users rely on recommendations from influencers on Twitter, second only to relying on recommendations from friends (56%).
+ 20% of users say a Tweet from an influencer inspired them to share a product recommendation.

Brands and their marketers have come to embrace this new reality of online influence. They are commissioning influencers of all types to assist in reaching and influencing their desired audiences.

But a persistent question remains: which influencers are best?

How They Stack Up

Traditional Influence | Celebrities & Athletes

Athletes, actors, and musicians make up the original influencers and continue to have the broadest reach on Twitter, according to the study. As success in their trade grows, so does their fan base, and thus, their influence. These influencers are household names, and their audiences range from super-to-casual fans.

Their influence stretches far beyond social media, adding instant credibility and affinity to any campaign they are involved in. Due to their high-profile status and passionate fans, marketers tend to work with celebrities and athletes to amplify campaigns by reaching large, engaged audiences, while affiliating their brand with the affinity the audience already feels for the influencer.

The Challenge

As fame provides a built-in audience, athletes and celebrities have never (or rarely) been tasked with creating high-quality content. Because of this, careless campaigns can be perceived as inauthentic and actually turn off the audience. To maximize the massive reach and influence that these influencers possess, marketers need to place authenticity and content creation at the forefront of their influencer social media campaign.

New Influence | Creators

From Vine stars to mommy bloggers, social media celebrities have hit the mainstream in recent years. They are essentially social media marketers, marketing their own personal media and its worth. These creators have established large and engaged audiences by creating entertaining online content, with some even finding their own level of celebrity.

By and large, creators find their influence and value through their ability to reach the focused, highly targeted audiences of their fans and followers. Their ability to entertain their audience has established the trust that enables them to share recommendations and endorsements of various products and brands. According to Twitter, one-third of users said they followed and engaged online with these social media celebrities.

The Challenge

Unlike celebrities and athletes, creators already know how to create great content—that’s why they became influencers! While they can help marketers create effective campaign content, the results tend to land on a smaller target than traditional influencers. Creators provide a great resource for engaging niche, focused audiences, but most lack the broad audience that many large sponsors seek when amplifying a large-scale campaign or sponsorship. These influencers tend to find success with long-term campaigns, allowing the influencer and their audience’s relationship with the brand to develop.

The Case For Athletes

While athletes can be grouped in with celebrities, we feel they deserve a subset of their own. Athletes—and the way they build their audiences—are unique. When a high school athlete signs to play college football at a school, they instantly gain fans from said school’s fan base. Depending on the player’s level of success, they stand to gain even more fans from the school’s fan base and even nationally, mostly depending on their on-field accomplishments. Good enough to get drafted? Adopted by yet another fan base, and so on.

Once an athlete has reached professional status, they will have established a very large, and constantly growing, social media audience. If, on top of their on-field success, the athlete shares great content, their followings will grow even larger and more engaged.

Athletes like Conor McGregor and Rob Gronkowski are illustrations of how athletes can grow and monetize their social audience by sharing high-quality, personality-infused content. While they may be outliers in terms of popularity and audience size, the duo claims a massive combined audience of just under 10 million followers on Twitter and Instagram.


The audiences of professional athletes are so huge that they significantly outpace the followings of the teams and leagues that employ them. On social, athletes have become the most influential entities in sports media. More importantly, these audiences have one thing in common that brands and sponsors find especially attractive: they consist almost entirely of sports fans.

Simply put: Athletes provide brands and sponsors the most effective way to reach sports fans on social media. 

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