Canadian Olympic bobsledder Kaillie Humphries speaks to media after being named to the bobsled team in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)
Canadian Olympic bobsledder Kaillie Humphries boasts more than 50,000 followers across her social media accounts, where she shares behind-the-scenes photos from the 2018 Games, videos of her training regimen and other posts — all closely watched by her current and potential future corporate sponsors.
“I think social media is something that’s become quite grand,” the 32-year-old Calgarian said in an interview ahead of this year’s Games.
Humphries and other Olympic athletes face not only the pressure to perform physically, but also to curate an online image and build social media followings to help attract often much-needed financial backing. It’s part of an athlete’s job that didn’t exist for past Olympians, though they also feel pressure to have social media presence to grow their post-sporting careers.
“Social media has become something that is not going away… and it’s something that needs to be represented in every athlete’s business,” said Humphries, adding a lot of her sponsors require she post frequently.
Team Canada’s ice-dance darlings Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir list five major sponsors on their website: Visa, General Mills, Lindt, Acura and Air Canada. Their Twitter and Instagram profiles, which boast a combined audience of roughly 261,500 followers, are full of posts highlighting their corporate partners.
“Can’t believe I forgot my wallet,” reads a caption below a photo of Virtue and Moir near a cash register. “Thankfully, when we’re on the go our sponsor (Visa Canada) is always with us.”
Another photo shows the pair in a plane cockpit at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. In the caption, Virtue thanks Air Canada “for sending us off feeling so supported (and safe — that is, as soon as we get out of the cockpit).”
Top performers — those who snag a gold medal, like the ice-dancing duo angling for a second in these Games– are often first in line for big corporate deals. But a strong social media presence can give those who didn’t stand atop the podium more negotiating power, said Yupin Yang, an associate professor of marketing at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business.
Athletes are a brand and they can use social media to help craft their image, she said. Companies want to align themselves with athletes who reflect similar values, like a love of the outdoors or environmentalism, and can see who fits the bill by their social media posts.
A loyal and active social media fan base also helps, especially if the company’s target audience uses those same platforms, Yupin said. It gives companies a different way to reach an engaged audience than traditional TV or print ads.
Of course, while the Olympics originated in ancient Greece, social media has only become a true force in the past decade.
A canvass of Team Canada members’ biographies on the team’s official site, which links to each athlete’s social media accounts, indicates athletes grew their social media presence from having a Twitter account during Vancouver’s 2010 Games to often the trio of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram by Pyeongchang.
Jon Montgomery became a household name after winning a 2010 Olympic gold medal in skeleton and embarking on a celebratory stroll through Whistler village — beer pitcher in hand.
That was only eight years ago, but back then, Montgomery didn’t have a Facebook or Twitter account (Instagram, mind you, wasn’t yet available).
Montgomery, who’s now the host of Amazing Race Canada, planned to post his first Instagram snap from Pyeongchang, where he’s working as a skeleton analyst for Canada’s national broadcaster during the Olympics.
He already uses Twitter and took over the administration of his Facebook fan page in late 2011.
Corporate sponsorships presented to Montgomery after he won a gold medal and became the Amazing Race Canada host all, in some way, require social media activity, he said.
“So if I’m not playing in this arena, if I’m not playing this game, I’m really shooting myself in the foot to generate revenues, to be a pitch person and to be an influencer in a paid capacity,” he said.
For today’s athletes, the reality is they need to have a strong social media presence if they want to have someone else pay for the experience and opportunity to represent their country at the national level, Montgomery said.
The online postings are part of an athlete’s management of their training regime now, he said.
“The active recovery, the actual work and preparation that you do in the gym and on the track and on the course … as well as the nutrition, as well as the sleep, now as well as the social media and marketing yourself.”