Updated: Aug 31, 2019
Cristiano Ronaldo’s Instagram is your typical social media account in many ways. There are family photos, vacation shots with friends, trips to the gym and selfies in the sun. But Instagram isn’t just fun and games for the global soccer icon. He has more followers—177 million—than any other person on the planet, and companies pay Ronaldo $44 million a year to pitch their wares, in part because of his massive social presence, which is flooded with ad promotions for his sponsors’ brands.
“Athletes have a bigger influence than ever because of their social media platforms,” says John Kernan, a footwear and apparel analyst at Cowen. “The content creation ability for these athletes is incredible right now. They are very monetizable.”
Take Ronaldo’s longtime rival Lionel Messi. His 215 million social media followers, second only to Ronaldo among athletes, touch every corner of the globe. Messi’s 49 posts featuring Adidas produced 150 million interactions and $6.9 million in ad value for the brand, according to metrics developed by the social media analytics firm Hookit. The 10-second video clip below highlights the global “No Fakers. Creators Only.” Adidas campaign and has 13.4 million Instagram views already for Messi, the world’s highest-paid athlete this year.
To gauge who’s winning on social media, Hookit looked at the athletes in ten sports who had the highest total interactions or engagement on their social media accounts during the first six months of 2019. Interactions include likes, comments and shares on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Of the three major social media platforms, engagement is typically much higher on Instagram than on Twitter or Facebook, says Roger Breum, Hookit’s marketing head. Instagram represented 46 of the top 50 accounts with the highest engagement rates.
Soccer players dominate the online conversation, thanks largely to the global nature of the sport. Of the 14 athletes with at least 100 million interactions, nine were soccer players, including the top four.
Baseball badly lags its peers. Recently traded pitcher Marcus Stroman (3.5 million interactions) is the only active baseball player in the top 500 based on total interactions. He ranks No. 495. It’s another indicator of the marketing problem facing baseball and its biggest stars.
In addition to their endorsement partners, athletes are increasingly using their social platforms to promote their own businesses. Serena Williams broadcast videos of her entourage eating Daily Harvest meals ahead of the Met Gala on Instagram. The healthy-food delivery service is an early investment in her fledgling venture fund. Blaze Pizza benefits from promotion from LeBron James to his 116 million followers. James is an investor in the fast-casual pizza business and owns 21 franchises.
James is the clear leader on social media among his NBA peers, but he has some new competition in his own house. His son, Bronny, who is a top-rated 14-year-old basketball player, opened an Instagram account in late May. He racked up 2.9 million followers in two months.
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