How social media has changed the game – for better and worse
Kiwi sports stars now can connect directly to their fans but some of their content is simply marketing and the ‘old media’ is still needed to ask the hard questions, reports Olivia Caldwell.
Kiwi sports personalities are sharing everything in the digital media – from engagements, weddings, holidays, births, eating dos and don’ts, fashion dos and don’ts, apologies and retirements.
Social media is having an increasing influence on the way we now see sporting star’s habits, milestones and personal lives every day on our phones.
At no cost, we are now savvy to a glimpse of the day in the life of a sporting superstar along with millions of other avid followers on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook
But don’t be fooled into thinking it is all just superficial. Social media is having a profound effect on the role of traditional media too. Athletes are effectively trying to cut them out of communication with supporters, yet when it comes to asking the hard questions that is a role still best served by journalists.
University of Auckland media sport lecturer Dr Margaret Henley said it is now easier than ever for fans to engage with their sports heroes, which helps promote their brand and make them money.
‘‘Fans wish to have a connection with their favourite athlete where they feel they are being included and invited to a glimpse of their personal/non-professional life.
‘‘There is a sense of recognition and identification here that these fans gain significant pleasure from feeling as though they are part of it all. The sense that this virtual closeness is authentic is reinforced by the seemingly direct nature of this fan/athlete contact as it is not filtered through traditional journalistic practices.’’
As far as social media ratings go, Kiwi ‘‘superstars’’ have far fewer followers than their international counterparts.
Footballer Cristiano Ronaldo has 61.1 million followers on Twitter alone and a further 113 million Instagram admirers.
To put this in perspective, the football sensation has 20 million more followers on Twitter than US President Donald Trump.
Former All Black first-five and World Cup winner Dan Carter cleans out any other Kiwi sports star with 608,000 Twitter followers and 808,000 Instagram fans who sign up to see Carter’s posts on life abroad, playing for French rugby club Racing 92 and his travels around the globe.
All Black Sonny Bill Williams has more Twitter followers than Carter with 718,000 but less on Instagram with 270,000 after taking a brief hiatus from the photo medium. The proud husband and father of two, as it reads on his profile, often posts photos of his family, wife, team-mates on tour and various charity work he supports.
Carter has posted ten times the amount than SBW on Instagram reaching his French, Kiwi and global fan base.
Authentic or branding?
Henley said while some athletes may appear to be just feeding their ego with posts on their social media pages, they are actually carefully calculated. They are promoting a particular brand and are often advised by professional media managers.
‘‘You have to also consider the way in which social is used to build a brand for a high ranking elite athlete. Many of them have the assistance of a media manager who manages their client brand and marketing strategies. Their social media pages are part of their branding and marketing.
‘‘Authenticity is very important for athletes – they are not pretending to be athletes – they are athletes. They are not Kardashians.’’
Henley said the heavy and light use of social media is not an indication of the athlete’s ego. For example, Ronaldo’s regular updates compared with former All Black Captain Richie McCaw’s non-use of social media is more down to cultural differences and age. McCaw’s Facebook account has 517,000 followers.
‘‘They may be very different personalities, but they are also culturally very different but crucially, they are of a different generation. McCaw was not born texting or tweeting and he did come through the Graham Henry era, which viewed all media with deep suspicion.
‘‘There is also the commercial dimension to this as elite athletes use the analytics of their social media following to promote their commercial worth to potential sponsors and extend employment options beyond their active playing life.’’
Henley said many athletes choose social media over traditional media conferences or press releases as it avoids being under direct scrutiny of journalists who press issues further with hard questions they often don’t want to answer.
She said there was an increasing drive for sports bodies such as New Zealand Rugby to control the production of content which is linked into their commercial and marketing strategies.
‘‘Huge sports empires such as Man U [Manchester United] with their sophisticated broadcasting and live-streaming and mobile delivery systems are effectively controlling the medium and the message.
‘‘Toyota controlled significant aspects of the production of content and access to Team New Zealand personnel and the team compound at the recent America’s Cup. This is a good example of the way in which major sponsors and sports organisations are making it very difficult for mainstream media to gain first-hand access at a major sporting event – even when they have media accreditation and are reporting for the New Zealand public.’’
The journalist’s role
Athletes today can often ‘‘cut’’ journalists out of the equation altogether through using social media more regularly and prominently.
Henley said such initiatives from sports bodies and athletes alike constantly reinforces a sense of mistrust in the established media.
‘‘What these [social] sites offer is fan access to high-profile athletes at a time when thought-provoking feature articles are becoming rarer in traditional media.
‘‘Old media’’ is in a constant state of change as it adjusts and adapts itself to the introduction and practices of social media.’’
Henley said traditional sports media and journalists need to keep working on strategies which reinforce public trust and respect and also champion their fourth estate role of asking the hard questions.
‘‘They [established media] are not compromised by being primarily a fan or an insider with a commercial conflict of interest and therefore can ask the hard questions which need to be asked and to provide comment on tough issues that those on the inside either do not see or wish to discuss.
‘‘Being relegated to chasing the stories via social media postings from outside the perimeter fence is not sustainable or desirable.’’
There are countless announcements from sports personalities in social media first and in the news media second. Valerie Adams and Serena Williams announced their pregnancies on their social accounts and again showed the first photos of their new-borns the same way.
Carter apologised for his drink driving charge in Paris and All Black Ben Smith announced his resigning with New Zealand Rugby. These announcements can be as low key as an Instagram post that needs no further explaining – making expensive and timely public announcements a thing of the past.
Massey University school of sport lecturer Dr Ashleigh-Jane Thompson agreed that with social media, the power is now more than ever in the hands of the athlete rather than the journalist.
‘‘In terms of following these athletes on social media, the technology has brought fans closer to their sporting idols/heroes. Studies have revealed that sports fans appear to be largely motivated by interaction, information, and enjoyment. Fans [and brands] want to see the real people, and not just their sporting persona.
‘‘Sport fans are also interested in getting a ‘peak behind the closed curtain’, or getting access to content that they wouldn’t have been privy to previously. Athletes providing this type of behind-the-scenes content has been likened to the notion of getting an all-access pass.’’
‘‘Getting a like, share, retweet or a reply on one of the various social platforms is the new autograph for fans. It’s a contemporary form of acknowledgement and recognition.’’
Thompson said social media use with sports athletes has progressed from the the early days when it was simply about followers and likes to now having ‘‘genuine and sustained engagement’’ with fans to build their brand.
‘‘More recently we are seeing athletes using social media as a platform to speak about social causes and philanthropic endeavours.
‘‘Providing them with opportunities to bypass traditional media and communicate directly to audiences, and in so doing providing them with opportunities to craft the narrative.’’
Many of them have the assistance of a media manager who manages their client brand. Dr Margaret Henley
Dan Carter, right, with David Beckham. Carter uses his social media channels to allow fans a glimpse into his lifestyle - the best bits at least.
Sonny Bill Williams.