Is Social Media Damaging Athletes’ Public Image?

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In this feature, Harvey Clare will be looking at the advantages and disadvantages of an athlete having public social media accounts.

Social media is evidently harder to avoid year by year as mega giants like Facebook are too big to overlook. Facebook’s investor’s page suggests that there are 1.74 billion mobile active users for December 2016 which is an increase of 21% year-over-year.

As crazy as this sounds, one in seven people in the world now have an active Facebook account. This statistic shows you that the temptation in creating a social media can be too big even for professional athletes to ignore.

Social Media Negativity

Alex Iwobi is a professional footballer for Arsenal Football Club, at the young at of 20, this first team squad member has his entire life ahead of him and like a true millennial, the Nigerian is on every social media platform possible. When the day job is going well and the player is on form, Iwobi keeps his followers in the loop about how great his life is on and off the pitch, however, things can quickly change in this fragile minded sport.

When the team or player isn’t performing well, with the help of modern day technology, fans are quicker than ever to express their feeling and personal thoughts off their chest and the negativity rather than the positivity shines through via social media.

Iwobi doesn’t do himself any favors, if the team loses the game or he personally has a bad performance, instead of staying off social media for a while to let the steam of the angry supporters dimmer down, you’ll see Iwobi on Snapchat driving away in his expensive car blasting out music, giving his audience the impression that he doesn’t care about the result or what’s just happened. Something as simple as this can hurt the players public imagine with the fans and can influence Iwobi’s relationship with them.

Alongside this, it’s easier than ever for athletes to get racially abused, something that Iwobi himself has had to deal with. Football’s governing body, FIFA, have been boasting over the last few years on how racism is on the decline in their sport yet stats disprove this as football’s anti-discrimination organisation Kick It Out says that “A report into the racial abuse of footballers on social media and other online platforms found 134,440 discriminatory posts had been made from August 2014 to March 2015.”

Racism and online criticism can have major effects on athletes, they might be too afraid to be themselves next time they’re on the field as they wouldn’t want to make a mistake as that could lead to more hatred criticism.

Turning Posts Into Money

Cristiano Ronaldo is more than a footballer. He’s done something that any professional athlete would want to do and that’s to turn into a brand. Ronaldo became the first athlete to reach 200 million combined followers across the platforms Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Ronaldo is arguably the greatest footballer in the world and following him on social media would be a great insight into what he gets up to daily.

However, his social media pages can be seen as dull and lifeless. Ronaldo has over 50 million people following him on Twitter so you’ll understand why he’ll promote products or events ever so often but when you see that every single one of his tweets is from something he’s sponsored by, it can get boring. You’ll never see him tweet about something topical or controversial as it could potentially hurt his brand.

Online, Ronaldo’s more of a product than an actual person on social media as he uses Twitter as a marketing tool rather than a social one and there’s no life in that for his followers, the likelihood is that he probably doesn’t even run his accounts, which isn’t an unheard of in this day and age.

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Public imagines go, Ronaldo has one of the best teams around him, now on his Twitter account he’ll rarely tweet about football or keep it to a minimum, maximizing more space for product branded tweets as there is more money to be made in that than tweeting out a photo of him in Real Madrid’ training sessions.

Marketing Genius

Hookit is a company that tracks sponsorship value in social and digital media, they suggest that Ronaldo is a marketing genius as all his partners got a total of $176 million in media value from his promotional work on social platforms within 2015. Hookit reports that “Ronaldo generated $36 million in value for Nike on social media alone via his own accounts through 59 posts over the last 12 months”

Marketers are looking at athletes’ social media pages more often now to identify the right person to promote their brand. Hootkit co-founder Scott Tilton says that “Guys who are doing Facebook and Instagram right are driving a lot of value there.” In 2015, Irishman Rory McIlroy offered to give away five pairs of custom headphones by his sponsor Bose ahead of the Masters tournament, that post generated 525,000 shares and $4 million in media value for Bose.

Media Fines

On January the 2nd 2017 Manchester City full back (at the time) Bacary Sagna was fined £40,000 for posting “10 against 12” on his social media account, Instagram. The Frenchman made the remark after his side’s 2-1 Premier League win over Burnley, during the game City were reduced to 10 men which instigated the comment as Sagna felt that the referee wasn’t treating the game fairly.

The reasoning behind the fine was because the FA felt that the post “questioned the integrity of the match official”. To an extent, players and managers can criticize a referee’s performance or their decision, but must not imply bias or question the official’s integrity.

The fine on Sagna was incredibly harsh taking in the fact that had admitted he was wrong for the post and that he deleted it within an hour of posting.

Joey’s Side

In an interview, a player can come off or look a certain way depending on how it is edited together, however this isn’t the case with social media as you can express your personality without others interfering. Footballer Joey Barton, who’s recognised as ‘the bad boy of football’ has realised this as he said “After years of interviews, it became clear that no journalist was willing to tell my tale. Anything I said, anything I did, was given an angle to fit in with the bad-boy image.” (Hutchins and Rowe, 2013).

Social media allows the projection of a players voice being heard without the interference of public imagine coming into play. If you’re an unlikable person in the public’s eye, you’re less likely to get out of that whelm as press are more likely to talk to someone who’s got a good public imagine, such as Ronaldo. Barton recognises this “They projected someone who was not the real me: it was the me that the press wanted to project. No longer would I let journalistic interpretation to run wild without any accountability. I didn’t have many choices. I decided to tweet!” (Hutchins and Rowe, 2013)

There’s many advantages and disadvantages for an athlete having a social media account, from viewing racist comments daily, expanding your brand via social media and earning millions in the meantime to cutting out the middle man and telling the public your options without the mass media twisting the story.

In conclusion, I believe that social media is killing athletes’ freedom of speech as they’re too afraid to speak their mind in case they get fined by their respective clubs, athletes are slowly turning into lifeless forms that will lack creativity to not affect their important growing public imagine.