Which Athletes are Bigger Than Their Teams on Social Media?

January 28, 2016

Written by NewsWhip
Communications and PR

Everyone loves a star, and athletes are our modern Herculean heroes. Check out how teams can drive their sports engagement through champions. 

mike trout angels
(photo courtesy of Keith Allison)

When we dove into the NBA’s most engaging videos and content trends of 2015, we found something interesting. Individual players propelled traffic as much as the brands. LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kobe Bryant all lead their team’s social spikes.

Not only that, but these athletes’ fan bases on social media were as large as their respective teams. And in the case of LeBron James, he actually outranked his team’s combined Facebook and Twitter followers by 8.68 times over.

We used Forbes to help us identify some of the top players on social media, and cross-referenced their followers against their team’s.

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Much like a mascot, people can form stronger connections when there is a face to the team. Influencers and word-of-mouth are powerful methods of encouraging engagement. This is a tactic marketers have known for ages, even in the world of sports–who can’t remember the popularity of Air Jordans?
As sports leagues have joined traditional brands in the social stratosphere, they’re seeing enormous engagement around their star players.

Which sports have strong social from their athletes?

This trend appears to happen with sports like basketball and soccer, which rely more on the individual player. In hockey, baseball, and football, the teams are more of a cohesive unit where victories come down to collective efforts.
Basketball and soccer stars are dynamite on social media. Over on Spike, we explored the engagement in the past month for both the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James on their Facebook pages.

LeBron’s engagement on his Facebook page nearly doubles the Cavaliers’, and the Cavs’ top posts all feature LeBron, riding the coattails of his fame.
If we shift to the world of global soccer, Cristiano Ronaldo was the only player to have both bigger Facebook and Twitter fan bases than his team. Neymar, Mesut Ozil, and Wayne Rooney all had bigger Twitter followings than their teams.
When we dove into the other sports, none of the athletes we looked at had a bigger Facebook fan base than their team, but some trumped their team on Twitter.
In the MLB, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper were the two players we identified with a bigger Twitter fan base than their teams. NFL’s Drew Brees, JJ Watt, and Aaron Rodgers all had bigger Twitter accounts than their teams.

In hockey, there were only a handful of players with truly substantial followings. Alex Ovechkin has five times the amount of Twitter followers than the Washington Capitals, and Henrik Lundqvist just edges out the New York Rangers. And when sports worlds collide, like in the above tweet, both athletes and teams can see multiplied engagement. 
Interestingly, some of the biggest names in sports don’t have personal Twitter accounts: Derek Jeter, Peyton Manning, David Beckham, and Tom Brady.

Tweets let fans into athletes’ minds

Twitter is bigger for many of our star athletes than their team’s own account. Team’s Twitters are generally managed by a social media team, while players tend to pen their own tweets.
A player on Twitter has more freedom to say what they want, while the team has to make sure they’re in-line with their brand’s voice and image. Twitter gives a direct line to the thoughts and insights of fans’ favorite players.
[bctt tweet=”Unleash the sass – sports teams can build engagement through their most vocal players on social” via=”no”]
Baseball’s Mike Trout usurped the Los Angeles Angels’ Twitter by over 300%. Like Stephen Curry, Trout is well on his way to being an all-time great. In his short career, he’s already been named as a four-time All-Star, two-time All Star Game MVP, and the American League 2014 MVP.
mike trout tweets
The 24-year-old center fielder’s tweets are enthusiastic and genuine. He regularly tweets back and forth with fellow athletes, fans, and his partner. Trout is vivacious and fervent about baseball across all his social channels. His love of the game and gregarious nature keeps his fan base engaged.
A player’s Twitter account is a snapshot into the inner workings of his or her mind, both about the game and outside of it. It turns the athlete from a figure on the TV screen into an actual person fans can connect with.

Reddit engages already devoted fans

Despite hockey players not having the biggest fan bases, Darren McCarty earned serious engagement when he hosted an Ask Me Anything (AMA) thread on the Detroit Red Wings subreddit. And in football, Julian Edelman of the New England Patriots has also been known to do these on a regular basis, the most recent this past October.

Julian Edelman’s answers range from team insights to silly banter with football fans

Julian Edelman’s answers range from team insights to silly banter with football fans

With over 202 million monthly unique visits, Reddit has an incredible reach. Its niche communities are a center for fan-generated content and buzz. Athletes such as Eli Manning, Adrian Peterson, Russell Westbrook, and more have used the platform to hold open forums with fans in real-time.
[bctt tweet=”Athletes can boost support for their teams with Q&As on social media #sportsmarketing”]
Reddit allows athletes to build an authentic, personal connection with fans. AMAs satiate curiosity of fans whose questions vary from inside scoops to what the athlete likes for breakfast. AMAs are an organic way for an athlete to reach their community and followers. A list of athlete AMAs can be found here.

Don’t leave it up to players

Both Twitter and Reddit allow fans to hear directly from players, when in the past fans may have only learned about their favorites from mainstream media. But athletes and teams can work together to keep fans buzzing on social.
A team can drum up the engagement around their team heroes through a variety of tactics.  We’ve seen great social reaction around giveaways to meet star players or win personalized sports swag (auctioning off Chicago Blackhawks Andrew Shaw’s stitches was one of our favorites).
Scandals are another way to build fan camaraderie and confidence when a team stands with their player. During the recent Patriots’ ‘Deflategate’ scandal, the Patriots took to social media to show their support for Tom Brady.
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Of course, just using mainstream social trends also works. The Golden State Warriors are savvy to the fervor around their star point guard. On their content with Stephen Curry, they’re quick to use sharable, catchy hashtags like #StephGonnaSteph.

Athletes and the future of social

As social media changes, the rules around athletes using these platforms may change too. The NHL already has a gag rule for tweeting before, during, and after games.
Having celebrity ambassadors isn’t a new practice, but on social it achieves strong results. With new technologies like Periscope, GoPro, and Snapchat being tested by brands, athletes will only continue to expand their massive audiences.
These channels allow athletes to show their personality out of the game, to tremendous fanfare from the devotees who hang on their every word. Teams and sports marketers can ride the coattails of these sports heroes to rev up those social media wins.

What’s Next:

1) Find the trending content about your favorite athlete with a free trial of Spike


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