In the world of social media, a majority of athletes have built an organic following made up of fans that support their career, sport, team, or lifestyle. Athletes have taken over the social media space allowing them to create business opportunities outside of athletics. Most find themselves in high demand when it comes to brand ambassador partnerships and sponsorships alike. These business ventures are not only useful to athletes but the companies as well who benefit in multiple different sectors. Not only can a business gain exposure through athlete partnerships but they can leverage them to increase SEO. 

The simplest way for a business to analyze success from an athlete partnership is by tracking web traffic and sales each time they are highlighted via the athletes’ social channels. What factor aids this increase in organic traffic, lead conversions, and eventually SEO rank? The answer is content!

Search Engine Optimization improves website traffic by making your site more visible, which in turn increases sales. When improving SEO, the first step is to begin building a strong link profile. This is achieved by creating internal links and backlinks. When working with athletes, they will often create content that links back to the brand’s site generating multiple high-quality backlinks. Their content establishes an extensive link profile while also increasing organic search traffic.

For a business to reap the full effects of athlete partnerships, it must examine both the company and the athletes’ audience. The most effective way for a company to drive SEO via athletes is by choosing those who have a complementary brand yet a unique audience. If a business can broaden its reach within a target audience, there will be a natural increase in brand engagement.

Many companies have used influencer and athlete marketing to expedite their audience exposure, SEO, and eventually sales. 

The watch company MVMT, has risen in the SEO ranks by working with small and large influencers and athletes. By marketing almost solely on social media, MVMT now competes as one of the most visible watch brands online today. 

Leading cooler and drinkware company, YETI, has also used athlete ambassadors to increase their SEO rank further. Although YETI did not begin their SEO development with athletes and influencers like MVMT, they have still been able to capitalize on similar partnerships. The company started off in the ranch and rodeo industry and has expanded its reach by working with athletes like rock climber Beth Rodden and waterwoman Lauren Spalding.

Fitness drink company, Celsius has combined working with athletes and influencers to take over the industry. They’ve partnered with influencers like Chantel Jeffries and athletes such as Alexa Score, Zane Schweitzer, and Paddy Mack. By utilizing such relationships, Celsius has assembled a powerful social media presence and SEO strategy. 

Just as a business can use athlete partnerships to improve its SEO, athletes should be looking to do the same. But why is it important for athletes to focus on SEO rank? 

A strong SEO strategy can help build long-term success. If athletes spend time building an SEO campaign, they can help ensure future audience growth without investing in paid advertising. 

Not only does SEO help in the long run, but it aids present endeavors. A main aspect of SEO is establishing credibility. If athletes can build site credibility, they will also present their brand in a more professional manner. 

SEO directly affects engagement as well. When an athlete shows professionalism and long-term growth, their engagement will also spike. High engagement will attract brands to athletes since many use the numbers to prospect and measure campaign success. 

All in all, athletes can help businesses build their link profile, create unique content, and increase engagement which directly drives a brand’s SEO rank. Likewise, brand partnerships can also help athletes improve their personal rank in order to increase professionalism, engagement, and future audience growth.



Athletes are increasingly monetizing their social media channels. Portuguese football star Cristiano Ronaldo, who currently has the most Instagram followers at 254 million, can make $1.5 million per Instagram post (GQ, 2019). While most athletes cannot compete with Ronaldo’s digital following, the ability to incorporate this lucrative supplemental revenue stream in addition to league contracts is not uncommon. However, despite the abundance of sponsored posts and partnership related income, athletes have largely failed to consistently disclose their financial relationships with the brands they are paid to promote. Thus, fans are led to believe that their favorite athletes are not commercially tied to these brands and are instead posting about them because they genuinely like the products and services that they offer. In many countries in the world, some laws prevent consumers from being taken advantage of in such a manner, however, few pieces of legislation directly address social media advertising. This allows athletes and their marketing teams to disregard the general consumer protection laws. The described relationship between brands, influencers, and consumers is known as surreptitious advertising.

Surreptitious advertising seeks to change a consumer’s perception of a particular brand. As social media activity continues to boom across several different platforms worldwide, brands are increasing their advertising budgets to take advantage of these mediums. The amount of money circulating through the digital ecosystem has made being a social media influencer a viable profession. Anuja Arora, a professor at the Jaypee Institute of Information Technology, describes social media influencers as “an individual who has established credibility within a specific field” (Arora, 2019). Consumers will listen and react according to what influencers have to say because they trust that influencers genuinely know what they are talking about. To maximize the returns of an advertising campaign, many brands are now partnering with social media influencers to help promote their products. However, by not disclosing partnership deals within sponsored posts, social media influencers are pretending to be consumers when they are in fact paid carriers for advertisements. Such an act breaks the trust that consumers have with influences and is why countries around the world are beginning to pass legislation to inhibit this exploitation.

Why do brands and influencers use surreptitious advertising?

The transition from traditional advertising platforms to social media outlets is the result of a shift in consumer brand perception. Consumers are now more likely to trust the opinions of other consumers than the information that companies feed to them about their products. In response to this shift, companies targeted social media influencers to become advertising middlemen. Influencers are uniquely capable of inciting the benefits of word of mouth advertising without disclosing their financial associations with brands. It is only when a consumer is already knowledgeable on either advertising techniques or on the product itself that they can pick up on surreptitious advertising. These phenomena are known as persuasion knowledge and resistance. Persuasion knowledge is a consumer’s ability to recognize an advertisement as an advertisement while resistance is a negative response generated from this recognition. Consumers are likely to increase their persuasion knowledge when a brand visibly discloses their advertisement. Furthermore, should a consumer recognize an advertisement that was not disclosed by a brand, their resistance to the advertisement would grow as well.

Surreptitious advertising exists to circumvent a consumer’s resistance to traditional forms of advertising. While an advertisement may at first seem like a genuine display of product affinity by an influencer, it is generally a fabrication aiming to maintain or enhance consumer engagement while generating revenue for the influencer and moving sales for a brand. Essentially, surreptitious advertising seeks to remove resistance from the equation entirely. Surreptitious advertising can prevent consumers from reacting negatively to an ad as it is only when the consumer gains knowledge of the persuasion that they can resist it. The intensity of resistance increases when consumers discover an undisclosed advertisement. But resistance is also present even when an advertisement is properly communicated. This zero-sum game is why brands utilize surreptitious advertising as it provides them with the best opportunity to preserve a positive brand attitude and get value out of their investment in influencers.

The implications of surreptitious advertising and how to become compliant with surreptitious advertising laws

Athletes and brands that currently have financial agreements must become compliant in the near future to avoid any potential lawsuits. Most countries lack social media-specific advertising laws but because social media is a relatively new platform for advertising, legislation on this medium should be expected to grow with time. Thus, as social media ages, it will become imperative that athletes and brands rework their marketing strategies to be compliant with emerging surreptitious advertising laws. The high rate of surreptitious advertising suggests that branding on social media will require a major overhaul in the future. Athletes, regardless of their following, must become proactive by learning to post branded content that is compliant before they are faced with legal consequences.

There are three ways that social media influences can be compliant with typical surreptitious advertising legislation. The first is to describe the nature of the partnership within the caption of the post. If done correctly, this can even improve the reaction that consumers have to an advertisement.

The next way to become compliant is to use the “paid promotion” feature that Instagram has. Instagram is the platform where surreptitious advertising takes place at the highest rate due to the visually focused content that the networking service lends itself to. The “paid promotion” function adds an additional layer of transparency to branded social media posts that do not distract from the content of the post.

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Lastly, influencers can insert a “#ad” tag within the caption of a post. For posts with longer captions, it is best to have the tag before the description so that viewers do not have to click on “More…” to see that the post is indeed an advertisement. Any of these three methods will make a post compliant with surreptitious advertising law. These best practices may only take a few seconds, but the implications of the influencer-brand-consumer relationship can be significant.

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  1. Arora, A. (2019). Measuring social media influencer index-insights from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 49, 86–101, DOI: 10.1016/j.jretconser.2019.03.012
  2. N.a. (2019). This is how much the world’s richest athletes are earning per Instagram post in 2019. GQ. Retrieved from:,%241.4%20million%20per%20Instagram%20post.

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