Pro Athletes and the Rise of Social Media
As funding becomes harder to secure, many elite runners have become sophisticated at harnessing social media to generate income
Forbetter or worse, i nfluencer culture has shifted the market and changed how companies va lue at hletes. “Some shoe companies are more interested in supporting an influencer than an athlete,” says Canadian 8k record holder Natasha Wodak. Many runners who’ve watched the landscape evolve over the past decade share this feeling. Sponsorship opportunities used to come i n neat and tidy shoe-company packages and were largely based on ( and maintained by) strong performances. The largest portion of an athlete’s worth came from their times on the track, with little emphasis placed on things like community engagement or work outside the sport.
Nowadays, a contract with a shoe company is no longer the only way to profit from the sport, and beyond that, many shoe contracts now have social-media clauses. The relatively cut-and-dried formula of “run fast, get sponsored” has changed. Some athletes long for the days when running fast was enough to make a living, while others who are socialmedia savvy find themselves profiting from this shift—making significantly more money from their engagement online than they could possibly earn on the track.
Very few Canadian athletes have been as successful at both as Sage Watson, the Canadian 400m hurdles record holder and one of Canada’s most-fol lowed ath letes. Between Instagram and TikTok, Watson has nearly 250,000 followers, with certain posts garnering over seven million views. While content creation and social media
“The days of Haile and Kenenisa and those people being paid well, those days are gone” —Jos Hermens
posts were never explicitly required by her shoe sponsors, Watson understands the content her following responds to and is a firm believer in profiting from her platforms. “Now, companies are interested not only in how you’re doing on the track, but also in your reach,” she says. “Companies noticed my reach, and I’ve gained most of my sponsorships because I have a big presence on Instagram and TikTok. Ultimately, I’ve made more money through social media posts than I have through a shoe contract. I’ve made over six figures in a year solely through social media.”
Watson says she treats her social media activity as a business: “I have a track agent, but I also have an agent with more of an influencer lean. I’ve always wanted my money to come from more than just a shoe contract.”
For athletes, having multiple sources of income is a great way to create job security through bouts of injury or a difficult season. Social media has also increased the number of dollars spent on track and field. With more opportunities for product placement and promotion, there are more sponsorships up for grabs, and more athletes with a viable shot at making money in a sport that’s struggling to maintain a fan base. Micha Powell, a 2016 Olympian in the 4x400m relay, says, “We can’t put a million sponsors on our singlet when we run—we’re not nascar. But we can promote companies through social media.”
Georgia Ellenwood, 2020 Olympian i n the heptathlon, has 600,000 followers on Instagram alone, and a contact with Under Armour that requires her to post on social media. But beyond her shoe contract, she has also started exploring Twitch, a livestreaming platform primarily used by gamers, which pays a per-view rate (and which she uses to live-stream herself doing things she typically does every night, like cooking or playing video games). Ellenwood also has contracts with HelloFresh and Transitions Eyewear, which she promotes on Instagram. Her rate is between $5,000 and $7,000 for an in-feed Instagram post and $1,500 for a threeframe story. It’s all part of a media package that she has put together with her agent.
But it took a while to build up to this rate. “Before I even had an agent, I worked with a trading card company,” says Ellenwood. “They sent me a bunch of different cards with my picture on them, and I signed 2,000 of them, and it was a dollar per, so I made $2,000, which felt like a ton of money at the time.” (In late February, while attempting to qualify for the World Indoor Championships in the pentathlon, Ellenwood ruptured her Achilles tendon, requiring surgery.)
While social media can act as a backup plan or a source of supplementary income, there are disadvantages. Few runners understand this like Watson: at the 2016 Olympics, a camera followed her throughout the first round of her Olympic experience. Like it or not, she “blew up.” It made her one of Canada’s most-followed track and field athletes, but it came with its share of negativity. “In Rio, because they featured me a lot on TV, within an hour I gained over 20,000 followers,” she says. “There were nice comments, but there were also hateful comments. I have seen the negatives of social media, and I’ve taken breaks. You can get too consumed in what you’re posting and start to build your life around something that’s fake. I’ve learned that the user needs to set their own boundaries.” Watson and Nike parted ways following the Tokyo Olympics, but ultimately, Watson’s social media partnerships are so lucrative that she’s able to support herself without a shoe brand, which has given her a new freedom to run for, and support, causes she believes in.
Powell feels that public perception of social media is changing. “In the past, it was something that felt frowned upon,” she says. “But, now, I feel like it’s the opposite. There’s lots of legitimacy in using social media. You need to be selective in who you choose to partner with, but when you’re promoting a product that can genuinely help people, it’s a win-win.”
Powell says her social media presence doesn’t cover all of her expenses, but it certainly helps. “It covers my basics, and having an extra few hundred dollars in my pocket at the end of the month is huge,” she adds. Powell currently has partnerships with three companies—one of which (ReLiv Organics) is local, Black-owned and femalerun, which is important to her. “These days,” she says, “athletes don’t just represent brands, they are brands.”
While everyone’s approach to social media is different, Wodak, Ellenwood and Watson all acknowledge that it’s a viable, if not integral, aspect of elite running today. Wodak’s advice: “I do like social media, but I always want to keep it real, be original and be authentic. I don’t bullshit and I don’t promote products I don’t believe in.”