Social media provides college athletes with a powerful opportunity. Unlike previous generations, their message doesn’t have to be filtered through the media. They don’t have to wait until game-time to get in front of fans. With social, athletes can build their brands any place, any time.
Fans crave direct insight into their favorite programs and the day-to-day lives of these student-athletes. They want the exclusive connection to know what athletes are saying and doing on and off the field. Because of this first-person fandom, athletes have a massive opportunity to feed that hunger by consistently engaging their fans with quality, relevant content. By performing on the field and actively sharing on social, athletes stand to build massive, engaged audiences on their social channels.
Building these audiences means more than just bragging rights for the athletes. While in school, these audiences result in a bigger microphone. The athlete can share their message with more fans, becoming a powerful advocate for themselves, their teammates and their school.
But a stark opportunity exists following their collegiate career. The athlete’s personal brand and the audience they have built provide real value to any brand who wants access to it. Simply put: where audiences go, brands will follow. The athlete-driven media and marketing economy has already progressed from idea to reality — we reported that 5,000 athletes shared more than 6,000 sponsored tweets on behalf of brand partners in 2016 — and industry leaders expect the shift to only accelerate from here.
This year’s group of Heisman hopefuls is more savvy to this new reality than any before it. Players like 2016 Heisman-winner Lamar Jackson and this year’s favorite, Baker Mayfield, have embraced their influence, using their channels to communicate with their ever-growing audiences. Following their collegiate careers, Jackson and Mayfield will have the opportunity to continue building their brands with their new fan base, their alma mater, and the scores of brands who will see the value in gaining access to their highly engaged social audiences.
opendorse analyzed Twitter and Instagram data from the past year to rank the social brands of this year’s top Heisman hopefuls.
1. Lamar Jackson | QB | University of Louisville | ACC
2. Baker Mayfield | QB | University of Oklahoma | Big 12
Mayfield took an improbable road to Oklahoma, but has been unstoppable ever since. The odds-on favorite to take home this year’s Heisman, Mayfield’s social brand is second to only Jackson. The OU quarterback has fewer followers than Jackson, but engages his audience at a slightly higher rate on both Twitter (4.54% engagement rate) and Instagram (12.07% engagement rate). Much like his persona on the field, Mayfield isn’t one to mince words on social, standing up for his teammates and celebrating big wins. Mayfield even used Twitter to personally apologize for a recent sideline outburst at Kansas, resulting in his most engaging tweet of the year.
Hometown: Austin, TX
Accomplishments: 2X Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year (2013), All American, 2X First-Team All-Big 12, 2X Burlsworth Trophy, Sporting News Player of the Year (2015)
— Baker Mayfield (@baker_mayfield6) November 19, 2017
3. Saquon Barkley | RB | Penn State University | Big 10
The Penn State running back was high on Heisman lists early in 2017, but tailed off toward season’s end. While Barkley sticks mostly to retweets and well-wishes on Twitter, he maintains an active Instagram presence, where he topped our ranking with the platform’s highest engagement rate among Heisman hopefuls (28.32%).
Hometown: Bronx, NY
Accomplishments: 2X First-Team All-Big 10, 2x Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Second-Team All-Big 10 (2015), Freshman All-American (2015)
4. Kerryon Johnson | RB | University of Auburn | SEC
Johnson took the SEC by storm in 2017, posting a game-changing performance in the Iron Bowl before leaving with injury. Off the field, the Auburn running back is just as prolific. While he lacks the public profile and audience size of the top three Heisman hopefuls, Johnson leads the pack in posts-per-day and is quickly building a powerful brand. Johnson’s Twitter channel offers a truly personal look into his life, offering Netflix recommendations, frequently responding to his audience, and dropping the occasional Rihanna shoutout.
Hometown: Huntsville, AL
Accomplishments: SEC Offensive Player of the Year (2017), First-Team All-SEC (2017), USA Today HS All-American (2014)
Thank you crowd!!! I will be fine!!! Luv y’all https://t.co/pvE58nhXCb
— Kerryon Johnson (@AyeyoKEJO) November 26, 2017
5. Bryce Love | RB | Stanford University | Pac 12
The Cardinal back has put up huge numbers in 2017 and Stanford alumni aren’t afraid to tell you about. Richard Sherman and Michael Thomas have been vocal on social, helping to boost Love and Stanford’s #HeismanLove campaign. On his own channels, Love builds his audience with an Instagram presence that maintains the consistency of a professionally curated brand account.
Hometown: Raleigh, NC
Accomplishments: US Army All American Bowl, (2017 Pac 12 awards not yet announced)
6. Jonathan Taylor | RB | Wisconsin | Big 10
Jonathan Taylor has emerged as the next in Wisconsin’s long line of great running backs. The true freshman is just beginning to build his audience, but has taken the right steps to develop a strong brand with consistent posting and high quality Instagram visuals that his fans devour. In true Wisconsin football fashion, Taylor’s top tweet from the season is a highlight of his fullback clearing his path with a devastating lead block.
Hometown: Salem, NJ
Accomplishments: Big Ten Freshman of the Year (2017), First-Team All-Big 10 (2017)
Yessir ?? https://t.co/xL5T8HcHNT
— Jonathan Taylor (@23J_Taylor) November 12, 2017