Player Social Media in the NFL: Catching up with Zach Royse of the Minnesota Vikings

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The NFL captures the attention of audiences across the country every Sunday. On the television broadcast, fans are glued to the 11 athletes on the field, but each team is filled with 53 personalities. And on social media, each player has an opportunity to grow their personal brand. 

In recent years, big-name NFL players have established large, valuable audiences using social media. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cam Newton, Odell Beckham Jr, and Tom Brady are a few that come to mind. 

Each of these athletes have their own social habits and strategies, many of them broadcasting the “behind-the-scenes” moments from their personal lives. They connect with fans through a combination of on-field performance and relatability. The top performers often showcase highlights and hype videos in addition to their activities with friends and families beyond their sport.

Being a professional athlete comes with a rigorous schedule. However, athletes have fun and play in an environment where there is a wide range of personalities in the locker room. So, why aren’t more players capitalizing on sharing these moments from their professional and personal lives? 

To understand the challenges athletes face, and how NFL clubs can help athletes build their brands, we caught up with Minnesota Vikings Social Media Manager, Zach Royse. In eight seasons with the Vikings, Zach has experienced social media’s evolution at the NFL level.

“I think players are still trying to get over the stigma of individual-versus-team and how they balance that on social media. You certainly see the guys that have bought in and you see the success they have when they do it,” Royse said.

The majority of players who have bought into social media are among the younger generation in the league. This year’s rookies fall into the Gen-Z category, having grown up in the social media era. Social has been built into their DNA throughout their young adulthood.

Many have been using Twitter and Instagram from their time in the recruiting process in high school, and are more comfortable branding themselves online. They are accustomed to using social media to connect with friends, family, and most prevalently, fans.

“We see that with the younger athletes, they understand the value in what social media brings to them. On our end, we see the value that it brings to the organization and the brand. That’s why we encourage players the best way we can.” 

Players often need to see the value and success possible to understand the why behind social. During the NFL draft, the Vikings send their draftees a team-branded photo and video of themselves, allowing the players to introduce themselves to the fan base. Zach and his team track how these posts perform, and track follower growth for each player. 

“Every year we pull numbers from the draft to see their growth on social media. We’ve seen guys that enter draft weekend with X number of followers, but their engagement is X plus something. They’re getting more engagement than they have followers. I think that’s when they start to realize what social media can do for them.”

Despite seeing the value in social media, athletes have crazy schedules and many struggle to find time to plan and post. This is where the Opendorse comes into play for teams and players by providing a platform to make it easy for athletes to publish posts from their organization. 

“Once you get through this , it’s super easy. We’ve seen guys that struggle and wanted to give up, but now they download literally every photo we give them from a game. They’re now part of the process and it’s super easy.” 

Zach and his team recognize players’ posting habits and what types of content they want to post to their personal channels. The Vikings use Opendorse to make it easy for athletes to keep their feeds active and engaged. Sharing high-quality media for players to post with a single tap helps the athletes build their personal brands, while strengthening the Vikings’ connection and engagement with their fans on various channels.

“We have veteran players that are a bit more unfamiliar and social might not be their biggest priority or realize the value in it. So, we try to tailor those messages we send them and give them a heads up. It’s something they appreciate. We have the capability in house, so they don’t have to go and find somebody on their own. We’re a resource for them and they can ask us questions.” 

This process is becoming even easier for the Vikings as more athletes enter the organization having already used Opendorse while in college. 

“It helps having the younger players who go through the process in college, because that feeds right into us. What we’ve realized after talking to Blake ; colleges are going to be our feeder program in a way. We saw more guys from this year’s draft class that were signed up and ready to use the platform than we had signed up on our roster then. We’re hoping to continue to see that, it takes that transition process away from us and makes things easier.” 

The NFL and other leagues are ever-changing. Players move teams throughout their careers and find ways to connect with new fan bases. The game also ends at some point for every athlete. Not every NFL player is going to have a 24-season career like Adam Vinatieri. The value associated with a personal brand on social media is built to last beyond a players’ on-field career. It can make these changes more seamless for athletes to continue to connect with fans and earn income via endorsement deals at any phase in their career. 

“Individual stories carry more weight from team to team. Their stuff is going to be on social forever.” 

For example, Brian Robison had a digital series on the Vikings website where he interviewed players in the locker room. When he retired, fans appeared to miss watching his web show as much as they missed watching him on the field. He was a starter who played over 150 games and ranked in the top ten in the franchise for career sacks. That response from fans shows the power of personal branding and how providing a platform for a player’s personality to shine can go a long way. 

Social media is increasingly important to the success of athletes beyond the field. To meet this ever-evolving need, we’re here to help athletes, teams, and leagues grow together. Because when athletes are connected with content from their teams and league… Everybody wins.

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