Posted on: 4/17/2023

Player Power and Social Media

A new era of digital marketing 


Player power has always been a draw in professional sport for casual and dedicated fans alike, however the influence of players themselves has never been more noticeable than now. Sir Alex Ferguson made the statement, “No player is bigger than the club,”. No player is bigger than the manager. No player can demand more than the club can demand.  

So, what happens when the player generates more than the club does across revenue streams and in the competition for eyeballs and ‘bums on seats’? At what point does the increasing popularity of players’ personal social channels become a barrier to the successful marketing of a club, or does it present a new opportunity? According to the Johan Cruyff Institute, 90% of the world’s population with internet access use social media every day for 2 hours and 25 minutes with the average user accessing eight social media accounts. 

The impact of a player’s own personal following cannot be denied in the new wave of social media management and social media empires. Cristiano Ronaldo alone has more followers than any other individual on the planet and generates USD $47m every year. The impact of players such as this upon a club’s base line is immediately measurable. In the wake of Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer to Juventus, the club sold $60m worth of jerseys in the first day of production. 

This phenomenon is not localized to the European football market. Players in Southern Hemisphere Sporting Arenas generate their own nexus events. Prominent New Zealand Rugby star Ardie Savea currently uses his own 330k following to build out his own YKTR clothing and apparel brand, while AFL superstar Bailey Smith generates enormous awareness for sponsors through his own 350k following. These stars are not alone in their reach through social media, however comparative to the clubs they represent; the Hurricanes (265k followers) and the Western Bulldogs (178k followers), they have a greater level of market penetration and immediate impact potential.  

So how then, do clubs effectively manage and promote their own stars and combine efforts to generate game awareness, monetary opportunity, and marketing impact?  

Across the sports landscape, the transition of marketing engagement to a predominantly digital model requires a dynamic and proactive Communications and Marketing function to ensure extensive market penetration across what has become an extremely crowded online world. Loretta Johns, Executive General Manager of Marketing & Communications at the Sydney Swans, believes that consumer engagement and fan engagement has risen drastically across two key areas: User Generated Content and Behind-the-Scenes Content.  

The incorporation of Behind-the-Scenes footage for fans has enabled the regular individual to gain an insight into the secret world of their heroes and a better understanding of their player base. This type of fan engagement supplies a new level of depth to marketing campaigns and fan reach. Ben Foster, goalkeeper for Wrexham United in the National Division of English Football, was renowned for his YouTube channel boasting 1.3m followers viewing GoPro footage of his saves in real matches. 

User Generated Content has become the most effective way for traditional marketing campaigns to reach the regular consumer, with footage captured on social media of key events. Loretta cites the fan footage of Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin’s 1000th goal in the AFL as an example. This footage of fans rushing the field after the successful kick has become featured across Swans’ marketing campaigns to ensure fans feel they are a vital part of the business and game. No other marketing effort can recreate the match day experience for a fan better than that. In this way, the Swans managed to utilize their marquee players’ following to ensure greater fan engagement through incorporating access and fan footage. 

The marketability of players has become an advancement to the club’s marketing, used in such rare quantities to increase the effect of selected messaging and select campaigns. While certain players like Franklin have a greater online footprint than the Sydney Swans on social media, the club can utilise key platforms like TikTok. Partnerships with prominent influencer OlanTekkers (395.5k followers and boasting over 20m liked posts) ensures a wider dispersal of club marketing campaigns. These partnerships build the reach of the Swans, not only across more viewers but also to access more diverse ranges of fans across socio-economic locations, languages, and sports interests.  

For clubs and sporting organizations to maximize the effect of their marketing campaigns and ensure they manage the rise of personal online followings for marquee players effectively, Loretta believes that these groups should be mindful of several key areas.  

  1. Their channel mix – where do their key fans tend to spend the most time across social channels, considering the range of available platforms grows daily?  
  1. Engaging content – Ensuring content is daring, engaging, and platform-based is paramount. With particularly younger viewers scrolling through content regularly, sound-bite campaigns must engage from the outset.  
  1. Combining content types – A combination of campaign-based marketing efforts and entertainment-based content creation within the community has resonated greatly with fan and player engagement, building a far more popular brand. 

The creation of a brand voice and a cohesive brand strategy sends a stronger message to the market. Empowering athletes with a direct-to-audience voice drops the wall between fans and club engagement, allowing a greater level of market penetration and potential commercial upside. Bringing fans further into the game experience through closer engagement with stars – be it through fan engagement meets or behind-the-scenes marketing content – combined with a stronger digital footprint, ensures that clubs can maximize the effect of their game as well as their players.  


Declan Fitzpatrick

Consultant - Sport, Entertainment and Media, Technology