The rise of athlete influencers & why it’s time NGBs jumped on the bandwagon

Updated: Jul 10, 2018

Within this blog we discuss the power of athlete influencers during the rise of social media, and why National Governing Bodies can no longer afford to miss out on this type of marketing.

The use of athletes as a marketing tool is far from new; one of the earliest examples we ever saw of this was as early as in 1905, when Johannes Peter ‘Honus’ Wagner, an American baseball player of the Pittsburgh Pirates partnered up with the J.F. Hillerich & Son Company to have his name written on their bats. Since then the popularity of influencers has grown rapidly, with both companies and celebrities increasingly not being able to afford missing the clear benefits. As the trend has grown in more recent years, we’ve had athlete influencers promote all sorts of brands, and whilst some of them have been sports related, such as Tiger Woods being endorsed by the sports label Nike, other partnerships seem to have lacked much relevance whatsoever, with athletes endorsing everything from fast-food chains to brands of alcohol.

Regardless of the legitimacy of the link between the athlete and the product, there are considerable advantages of the partnerships for both the companies and athletes. In terms of branding, using an athlete brings a level of influence that other stars don’t necessarily offer. This is for a number of reasons, one being that whilst other celebrities may be famous for being famous, e.g. reality TV stars or presenters, the fame of athletes is simply a by-product of their athletic capabilities, and presumably not their main focus or goal. This means that the promotion of a product or brand comes across as much more genuine. Add this to the fact that athletes are uber-successful people, so consumers have it in black and white that they must be doing something right. Finally, they are rarely seen as controversial or provoking people, but rather often gain the image of being the ideal role models who work hard to represent our nation and make us proud of where we’re from.

These factors build a level of trust between the consumer and the company; something that is invaluable to the selling of products. Add to this the multi-million social media fan base of many athletes and you can see how athlete influencers have become the perfect outward face of companies. The rise of social media fills a gap where consumers might have previously felt less connected to their favourite athletes. Twitter and Instagram have become the means to peek in to the world of elite athletes and experience a bit-sized chunk of their lives.

Tennis player Serena Williams is renowned for her openness and honesty on social media. Photo credit:

Social media platforms have also allowed the health and fitness trend to flourish, with sport nutrition now dominating the mainstream market. 2017 has been the year where the ‘strong is the new skinny’ slogan has had the chance to thrive, and a study earlier this year reported that the Nordic countries of Finland and Sweden are currently the largest sports nutrition markets when measuring per capita consumption, with the UK being the fastest growing nation. As consumers are looking for athlete-style diets and workout regimes, this for companies means a higher incentive than ever to partner up with athlete influencers for maximum recognition. A study published in the journal Paediatrics suggests that people are more likely to consider that a food item is healthy if it is promoted by an athlete than by any other kind of celebrity, meaning that using athletes is adding to the sales of the health industry, and is expected to continue doing so for years to come.

Given that we are living in the era of social media and there is a nationwide passion for sports and health, it seems inevitable for big brands to use a ‘face’ or ‘image’ to stand out and gain attraction within the sporting industry. What I’m wondering however, is why Governing Bodies of Sport have been slow to take up this trend for themselves? It seems almost ironic to me that brands which have absolutely nothing to do with sports, such as McDonalds or Papa John’s, have been making millions off the success of athletes such as Michael Jordan and Peyton Manning for years, whilst the organisations that support these stars throughout their careers, aren’t utilising the benefits to nearly the same extent.

The reason millions of pounds of public money is devoted to the running of National Governing Bodies (NGBs) is to ensure these organisations can deliver and support programmes that encourage participation in sport across the country. The Government sees investment in these organisations as important because it ultimately benefits the health of the nation and positively impacts on other public services in the long run. From this, we know that one of the main goals of NGBs is to engage more people in their sport in order to demonstrate their worth. Of course, when comparing this to the aims of brands, NGBs are measured on sporting participation and success rather than on the sale of a product. Having said that, the benefits of using athlete influencers for NGBs seem extremely obvious.

Some NGBs are tapping into this source, however on a much smaller scale compared to the private sector, and often using the wrong platforms. A clear example that seems to suggest the benefits of athlete influencers for NGBs is the case of Amber Hill and British Shooting. With a Twitter fan base of nearly 14K followers at the age of 20, Amber Hill is starting to grow a brand that transcends the sport of shooting. Compare this to the official Twitter page of British Shooting, with only 9K followers, and we can already see that the NGB is missing out on a significant opportunity to increase their exposure through not effectively utilising a partnership with one of their own athletes. Furthermore, Hill uses her Twitter to share her everyday life with her followers, with a balanced mixture of shooting-related activities and posts on make-up and holiday photos. By building her brand based on other interests and personality traits than just her shooting persona, she is engaging people to a much wider extent than the NGB would be able to single-handedly. By posting about things that are not related to sport, she attracts a wider audience of followers who may originally visit her page for other reasons, but then start to take an interest in the sport of shooting. Hill also offers a more personable insight into what the life of an athlete actually entails, rather than the limited image that NGBs tend to project about their athletes. British Shooting should take note that she is showing that shooting is an inclusive and accessible and sport, by incorporating it into her day-to-day life. This is a vital part of increasing participation with sports that are less commonly known and won’t necessarily be taught to us during our up-bringing through school or by our parents.

Social media accounts such as these offer a level of exposure that NGBs simply cannot afford to miss out on, and Amber Hill and British Shooting is just one example. Athlete influencers hold the potential for NGBs to gain widespread exposure and even tap in to markets that have been unexplored in the past. If utilised properly, the knock-on effect is that the sport gains greater public attention, which can lead to increased engagement and participation.

The rise of influencers, and athlete influencers in particular, a trend with no sign of slowing down in the foreseeable future. In a society where technology is thriving to make everything more and more accessible to audiences, the lives of celebrities are no exception, and the value that influencers bring to brands is only growing stronger. Considering this, there certainly seems to be a huge opportunity for NGBs to engage more with athletes and invest in public exposure. By utilising social media accounts, PR and media involvement, the NGBs would be guaranteed to reach more people, which would ultimately lead to more people playing sport. At the end of the day, whether we like it or not, influencers are dominating the sport marketing industry more than ever before, and it’s about time NGBs jumped on the bandwagon.