Much has changed since the 80s, when John McEnroe never lost sleep over internet trolls, and Michael Jordan never agonized over an unflattering Instagram Reel. It’s 2023 now, and for better or worse, the media landscape has changed dramatically. With social media pressure at an all-time high, athletes must now juggle both their performances on the field and online. Some athletes greet social media’s explosivity with open arms, while others set boundaries to maintain steadiness on the field. Let's explore different ways athletes tackle social media branding and its impact on their careers.
After experiencing negativity online, athletes like Naomi Osaka now strike a balance between cultivating an inspirational brand identity and keeping social media at a distance. Osaka is an Australian Open and U.S. Open champion who shares a complicated relationship with the press. Osaka describes herself as “naturally introverted,” and admits she does not “court the spotlight.” Given these traits, fame can prove challenging, especially if the spotlight draws negative attention. After pulling out of the 2021 French Open to focus on her mental health, Osaka received backlash from sports fans around the world. Hundreds spammed Osaka’s Twitter and Instagram pages with hateful, abusive comments. In response, Osaka shut them out and temporarily deleted all her social media accounts. Naomi would later write an op-ed piece for Time, admitting to the world that in that moment, she “was not okay.” Naomi’s words highlighted her vulnerability and courage after enduring such a difficult experience. Her candidness transformed her image from a gifted tennis player into a relatable figure willing to speak the unspeakable. Her since-reopened Instagram profile encapsulates this reclaimed image.
Osaka’s new chapter on Instagram is an authentic one. She utilizes the platform to showcase her personality and style, highlighting important projects and brand partnerships that matter. One post features her new children’s book, The Way Champs Play, and another depicts her modeling for Victoria’s Secret’s new body-positive rebrand. And, of course, there are photos of her dominating on the tennis court. Through Instagram, Osaka shows the world she’s multifaceted and the author of her own story. Her brand can’t be boxed in. As a result, Osaka’s 2.7 million followers– spanning across a wide range of demographics– all find various reasons to identify and relate to her experience on a human level.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi
For world soccer icons Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, Instagram is about expanding their fan base and elevating their image. Both opt to capitalize on their social media presences, creating ultra-lucrative brand deals along the way. Cristiano Ronaldo’s 536 million followers makes him the most followed man in the world. At 421 million, Messi is not far behind. Brands recognize that a partnership with these athletes is a worthy investment that maximizes exposure and reach.
Before the World Cup, Ronaldo possessed the greatest worldwide reach. He used Instagram to monetize this influence, making more money on the platform in 2022 than he did on the field. His sponsorships span far and wide: from the Free Fire mobile game and the LiveScore app to Herbalife, Therabody, Nike, and Binance. Compared to Ronaldo, the World Cup catalyzed Messi’s follower count the most; it made him Ronaldo’s contender both on and off the field. With the game’s worldwide exposure, Messi saw his followers jump by over 25M across the globe. His Instagram is more monetizable than ever with his Adidas-sponsored posts generating 150 million impressions and nearly $7 million in ad value. And while both players’ Instagrams let fans in on personal moments with family and friends, it’s not their main objective on the platform. Depicting brand deals and career achievements like Messi’s most-liked World Cup post are priority #1.
Athletes like Dani Speegle use social media unapologetically, sending followers a message that promotes female empowerment and authenticity. Speegle is one of the top CrossFit athletes in the world and has competed in 4 CrossFit World Games. With over 2M Instagram followers, she’s built a platform to express herself and market her #GirlsWhoEat brand. Speegle’s Instagram experienced a boom last year through a viral moment at the Rogue Invitational. Wearing her signature Girls Who Eat tee, she successfully lifted a 215 pound log overhead and smiled for the camera. Her Instagram following grew overnight from its already impressive status. Since then, she’s gained enough social media momentum to launch her #GirlsWhoEat clothing line.
Despite her broadening fanbase, Dani curates her Instagram with the same attitude she’s held from the start. She tells others: “you can’t please everybody,” and that when creating a brand, “you have to go on and be authentic and be happy with what you produce.” Speegle’s mindset has led to Instagram success, and brands are taking notice. She currently promotes protein brand Dymatize and meal-prep service, Trifecta. One Dymatize post garnered over 100K impressions. Like other athletes in the branding world, when Dani wins, the brands she partners with win, too.
No matter what route athletes take on Instagram, their performance on the field is paramount. They first set out to dominate in their respective sport, not necessarily to become a social media star. But as social media becomes the new norm, the value of an Instagram following is undeniable. Athletes recognize this changing landscape and find ways to capitalize. They channel their career success into an Instagram brand that boosts sponsorships and name recognition. And if you take a look at their sponsorship deals, one thing’s for sure. . . brands love to see it.