Social Media For Athletes: Friend or Foe As Branding Essential?

Having lived as a professional athlete and now coach to young athletes, I know all too well the role social media plays in building one’s brand. Or tearing it down. Like so much in life, it depends on your planning and strategies. The pluses are obvious. A fledgling athlete can jumpstart a core base of recognition quickly to consistently build on. For younger prospective athletes, it’s a fast growth spurt but one rife with potential pitfalls that could easily derail a career.

Take a kid who is 11 or 12 years old with 100,000 social media followers. He/she feels empowered; their athletic ability is being validated. But what happens when that same kid caps out at the youth level and isn’t sustaining his/her athletic goals? What happens when they aren’t getting any “likes” or they are getting negative feedback telling the world that they are a bust, a failure? Working day to day with ambitious and talented young athletes, I have seen too many crumpled kids who tried to build their brand too fast, either themselves or by their parents. A brief taste of glory on the playing field should not be a signal for an unbridled, overly aggressive social media campaign.

But that doesn’t mean making brand building a lower priority. An individual’s brand can be a magnet for positive action as well as for predators seeking to exploit athletes at all levels — youth, high school or college. Recognizing this is all the more reason for the young athletes to manage their social media in a smart way, and not let social media dictate who they are. It gets even more complicated once these kids start playing in college. There’s a whole new set of rules and the NCAA basically owns you. Since college athletes have more social media followers than the university or coaches, the NCAA now insists that the athletes always represent the college. For all intents and purposes, the student athlete becomes the property of the university and the NCAA.

A perfect, personal example was while I was in college at USC. I began creating my brand with YouTube videos and gaining a healthy following. Although now many athletes do this and get paid, at the time the NCAA let me know that I was not allowed to post anymore videos until my college athletic career was over. Some players have been kicked out of universities since it is an NCAA violation for athletes to build their own brands through social media. There are exceptions – if there’s a tie-in or something that reflects positively on the university.

One could argue that the university is generating exposure and revenue from the students’ videos and, assuming the college brand is not tarnished, shouldn’t the student athlete be able to participate?

The answer is, you have to pick your battles.

Another instance reaffirming the value of building one’s brand was when, a college athlete, I gave all my teammates T-shirts displaying the brand I was developing, Winner Circle Athletics — now the brand for my charter school for training student athletes. At USC, we all wore them for workouts and pre-game warmups in front of 100,000 people. I did not think anything about it; we all just liked the shirts (biased though I was, since this was my first business!). Next thing I knew, everyone was ordering the shirts. Eventually, the university put an end to this, making it mandatory to work out only in USC gear. At the end of the day, I had been able to use the university’s platform to build my own brand.

My cautionary advice to student athletes when discussing social media as a tool in brand building: it’s invaluable in today’s world but it’s not as easy as it seems. There are minefields along the way and it’s on you individually to navigate carefully, thoughtfully and with a plan.


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