Athletes Use Social Media to Bolster Their Personal Brands

By Harrison Brown '20

February 2019 Issue 


       In past years, an athlete’s reputation was shaped almost entirely by their performance on the field, the court, or the ice. Today, social media plays an important role in allowing athletes to develop a “personal brand” that leads to more lucrative contracts, endorsement deals, and acclaim.

       Having an active presence on Instagram, Twitter, or other social media sites allows fans to see what the athletes are doing when they’re not practicing or playing. Social media has something for everybody regardless of whether or not they like to watch sports. They might like to see what an athlete’s kids or pets are doing, where they are traveling or going out to dinner, or how they spend their time in the off-season. Athletes, meanwhile, can use social media to highlight their charitable activities or to promote products.

       Soccer superstar Ronaldo has over 148 million followers on Instagram -- that’s more people that live in almost every country in the world. That statistic is even more impressive when you consider that Instagram has 1 billion users, meaning almost 15% of all users follow Ronaldo.

       The NHL’s Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin is one of the best goal scorers of his generation (640 career goals), but he’s also known to non-sports fans for his raucous celebrations after winning the Stanley Cup last summer. Ovechkin’s 1.3 million Instagram followers got to see him celebrate the victory, but his celebrations were captured by hundreds of ordinary people who posted Ovechkin swimming in fountains in Georgetown, drinking Champagne out of the Cup with his teammates, and doing “Cup stands” (his unique variation of a keg stand) with Jimmy Fallon, among others.

       SSSAS Boy’s Athletic Director Jeff Walrich said “There are many athletes that are trying to do things more than just their sport. With athletes able to play for so long, [they] do remarkable things that go onto social media or endorse products, which are posted on social media, especially if the athlete has a lot of followers.”

        “I think the U.S. places a high emphasis on entertainment and for [athletes’] own brand, social media helps them,” he noted.


“I think with the platforms, they’re so huge that they have to be on social media to grow their personal brand.”

       Walrich also says SSSAS uses social media to highlight teams and athletes. “I think social media here is about building the brand and highlighting athletes in our programs in a positive light,” he said. “We try to tell our own story and not other peoples’. Whether it’s recap or spotlight graphics...our plan is to strengthen our brand and promote student-athletes and we want to bring a sense of belonging to everyone with purposeful media content.”

       Tommy Dyson ‘19 thinks that it should not matter who is on the visual, but he acknowledged “If it’s a top athlete on the team, it definitely appeals.” He said that athletes on social media are “absolutely” going to be more well-known “because you can promote your brand through social media rather than games. It’s a stronger outreach.”

       The math makes it clear Dyson is right. In the case of Ovechkin, Capital One Arena holds just over 18,000 fans for hockey. And maybe a few hundred thousand fans might watch one of their more important games. But that seems less impressive in comparison to his 1.3 million followers on Instagram.

       Regardless of whether or not they are focused on their performance on the field or they’re off of it, it’s important to remember that “athletes are normal too,” said Dyson. “Generally, they’re regarded on the field but we’re all the same.”

       Lexie Jordan ‘22 feels like athletes are known more for what they do on the athletic field but acknowledges, “Many people are interested with the drama surrounding them. Once athletes get popular, they tend to have more drama, and that just elevates their popularity.” She notices that people say that appearance is more important for women’s athletics rather than men’s but when you are talking to someone about a famous athlete you normally talk about their amazing record or ‘that one game.”

      “Once an athlete becomes known [for having a good record], most advertising companies will choose to use them because they are trying to appeal to a group of people that are interested in that player or the sport,” said Jordan. “For example, Papa Johns uses Peyton [Manning] as an advertising technique because they are trying to get football fans to buy pizza for game day. And that popularity is based on the players' athletic ability...However, there are certain cases where athletes are chosen based on what they stand for and believe in,” citing Colin Kaepernick as an example, when he decided to kneel to protest “respectively” against police shootings against blacks.

      Olympic gold-medal-winning tennis player Serena Williams started a brand for women’s clothing and puts a link to it on her social media to spread the word about it. Having your own brand as an athlete is another way to get more fans as well since athletes share what they like and wear with their fans.

For most athletes, their performance in their sport launches their fame, but for many, their social media presence allows them to expand their reputation and “personal brand” far beyond their core fan base.