Social Media

Social Media

Athlete marketing and the role of social media

Dr Christoph G. Grimmer

Posted: August 1, 2014

It is long ago that sport stars had to deliver a good performance on the pitch, the ice or the court. Nowadays, self-marketing of sport stars seems to be more important than ever before. With more than 81 million fans on Facebook and another 26 million followers on Twitter, Cristiano Ronaldo is high potential. The famous and not uncontroversial soccer star from Portugal is, on top of that, one of the best paid soccer stars. According to media reporting, he earns 18 million euro per annum (Focus, 2013).

Apart from the soccer business, only a small portion of professional athletes is highly-salaried. Lots of them are reliant on the support of third parties: family, sponsors or advertising partners. If the chance to distinguish oneself from competitors by sportive performance and success is hardly possible, the set-up of a positive image with reference groups gains in importance (cf. Suchy, 2011, p. 37).

Talking about communication for, and of, professional athletes, the field of personality PR has to be focused. Its goal is influencing the target audience’s attitude and behavior towards a distinct person (cf. Kotler et al., 2003, p. 625). Decisive factors for an efficient marketing are image, reputation and affection (cf. Suchy, 2011, p. 37). In the digital era, celebrities are no longer dependent on journalists as multipliers – instead they can interact directly with fans and public without any intermediate target group. Accordingly, Suchy (2011) names supporters as a specific “communication instrument” (p. 42; own translation). In the long run, every communication activity aims for controlling self-presentation and increasing one’s own advertising value.

Tailored to athletes PR in sports, the emotional connection between a sportsman or a sportswoman and his or her supporters respectively has to be strengthened. A high audience involvement stands for a dialogical configuration of PR efforts. In contrast to products or services, personality PR offers specific capabilities for personal communication. Various communication instruments offer different prospects of functional goals (cf. Zerfaß & Pfeil, 2012, p. 68-69):

Instrument Characterization Examples Function
Website Comprehensive presentation of the person Web page of a (sport) person Self-presentation, any time available presence; if necessary other functions like distribution of merchandise articles
E-Mail Newsletter Regular publication of novelties, target group-related presentation Fan newsletter, media newsletter Information for different reference groups
Microblogging Short news, often combined with links Twitter posts Teaser function, attention, if necessary set-up of proximity
Audio-/Video-Podcast Regular audio or video format Interviews Information and entertainment
Social Network Use of big or target group-related social networks Profiles, fan pages or groups in Facebook Presence in an existing community
Forum Structured discussions – often in the questions and answers format Forum area on the personal website Interlinking of reference groups, dialogue between person and the reference groups


Unlike traditional mass media, digital media enable a two-step-flow of communication. Mutual openness and understanding are the basis of a constructive dialogue (cf. Grunig & Hunt, 1984, p. 22). “In the sense of a professional sports PR, athletes should definitely invest time to communicate directly with their fans via the various social media tools like Twitter” (Suchy, 2011, p. 80; own translation). Engendered trust is valuable, especially in moments of crisis.

Independent of this, an overarching communication strategy has to be developed. Grimmer (2013) recommends eight rules for professional social media use and dialogue:

-First thinking, then acting: Spontaneity is good – but if the information is published, it is not possible to be recaptured.

-Individuality counts: Gearing to competitors can help – but requested is own creativity. Social media benefit from humanity.

-No spam: Whoever annoys, gets disliked. Always consider the utility value for users.

-Quick – but thorough: Information is like fruit, best when fresh. Nevertheless, care is important.

-Listen closely: Users are the most favorable evaluation – instead of expensive media analyses and member’s questionings, simply listen and take seriously reactions.

-Regularity: Stay in memory, instead of recall. Communicate continuously, but discreet.

-Act conscientiously: Freedom within the internet is extensive – however, contractual obligations, copyrights and personality rights must not be forgotten.

-Think strategically: Consistent communication is lasting. Formerly, content was linked cross-media – however, currently, strengthening purposes of every communication channel is trendy.

Up to now, the potential of social media “is used only partially in accordance with the ability” (Schierl, 2011, p. 80; own translation). Dialogic athletes PR include establishing and intensifying the relation between sport stars and their supporters. For these purposes, social media offer a cheap but efficient communication potential. Mutual communication offers the opportunity to develop the relation between an athlete and fans from a purely para-social to a symmetrical dialogic one.

And not only in sporting terms but, additionally, a digitally-successful athlete is attractive in marketing and sponsorship terms too. Testimonials often offer high credibility and are able to transfer their personal and professional characteristics to brands or products. Youthfulness, passion and dedication are three examples of innumerable aspects. In the mid-term and long run, monetizing communication effects is the goal of social media activities and PR communication of professional athletes. Enterprises pay for the attributes of the emotional field of sports – but, and this is the irony in a world that is ruled by money, in the first instance famous, successful and highly paid sport stars such as soccer players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic draw capital from their celebrity status, not professionals that rely on financial support. (2013, 16 September). Neuer Vertrag bringt Ronaldo 2982 Euro pro Stunde. Welt Online. Retrieved 31st May 2014 from [Link] />

IIGrimmer, C. G. (2013, 18 September). Customer-Relationship-Management im Sport – Tricks und Tücken im Umgang mit Social Media. Fachjournalist Online. Retrieved 14th May 2014 from [Link] />

IIIGrunig, J. E. & Hunt, T. T. (1984). Managing public relations. Fort Worth: Holt, Rinehart & Winston Inc.

IVKotler, P., Armstrong, G., Saunders, G. & Wong, V. (2003). Grundlagen des Marketing (3rd, revised edition). München: Pearson Studium.

VSchierl, T. (2011). ‚Der Star als Marke, die Marke als Star‘ – Anmerkungen zum Aufbau und zur Pflege von Sportlermarken. In T. Schierl & D. Schaaf (eds.), Sport und Werbung (S. 326-343). Köln: Herbert von Halem Verlag.

VISuchy, G. (2011). Public Relations im Sport. Basiswissen – Arbeitsfelder – Sport-PR und Social Media. Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag.

VIIZerfaß, A. & Pfeil, T. (2012). Strategische Kommunikation im Internet und Social Web. In A. Zerfaß & T. Pfeil (eds.), Handbuch Online-PR. Strategische Kommunikation im Internet und Social Web (S. 39-84). Konstanz: UVK Verlagsgesellschaft.

About Dr Christoph G. Grimmer

Dr. Christoph G. Grimmer is lecturer in the Institute of Sports Science – Department Sport Economics, Sport Management and Sport Media Research – at the University of Tübingen. From 2005 to 2009 he studied sports science with specialization in media & journalism at Hamburg University. Before his working in the Institute’s Bachelor program ‘Sports Journalism’ in Tübingen he was a research associate at the Macromedia University of Applied Sciences for Media and Communication. He has been working for the German News Agency dpa as a freelancer since 2007 and gained extensive media experience in numerous media fields (e.g. Kicker sports magazine, Sport Bild, Hamburger Abendblatt, NDR Fernsehen, Sky TV, Sport1 television).