Athletes can be powerful and inspiring role models whose stories motivate your audience to embrace your brand – which is why they’re so often brought on as brand ambassadors and influencers. But what happens when your star influencer goes off the rails? Here’s what you need to know.

Influencers Are People Too

Just like you, me, and all the people on social you hope to reach with your influencer campaigns, athletes are human beings. They’re flawed and fallible and this is part of their appeal. The more “real” an influencer is, the more successful they’ll be.

Sure, social audiences love the rich, famous, beautiful, and talented – the powerful, virile, and strong. But at the end of the day they want their record-setting pitchers, quarterbacks, etc. to be accessible, with common goals and struggles they can relate to on some level.

This is one reason The Rock is such a mega-influencer on Instagram. Despite his rigorous fitness training and work schedules, he’s a family man who treats himself to a weekly cheat meal every Sunday. Who can’t relate to that?

Athlete influencers often walk that line between superhero and regular Joe/Jane, which makes them a great fit to endorse any number of brands and products that align with their professional and personal lives.

Pro surfer Filipe Toledo for Stance Socks

Using social listening, you can identify athletes whose personal passions match up with those of various audience segments – making those connections even more powerful.

But because athletes are people, they can make mistakes. The problem is, their mistakes are very public – and if they’re connected to your brand, you just might go down with the ship.

Social Monitoring for Athletic Influencers

No matter how carefully you vet athletes before making them a face of your brand, you can’t predict the future. Though some athletes seem to find trouble wherever they go, others end up embroiled in controversy you couldn’t have seen coming.

Consider Hope Solo, the former U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team star who was suspended from the sport, and ultimately lost her contract after unsportsmanlike comments about another team.

Solo, “who was arrested in 2014 on charges of assaulting two family members and served a 30-day ban last year after her husband was arrested on drunken-driving charges while he and Solo were in a borrowed team van,” couldn’t seem to stay out of the negative spotlight.

In a recent interview, Solo said: “I’ve lost out on endorsements because I’m an adversary to U.S. soccer. I’ve lost out on broadcasting opportunities because I’m an adversary to U.S. soccer. So these things are real.”

Things are also very real for the brands that look to popular athletes for added visibility and revenue as a result of influencer and brand ambassador partnerships. You can’t take the chance of working with someone who will send consumers away from your brand.

Continuous, real-time social monitoring is necessary to keep yourself informed of any spikes in sentiment or troublesome keywords.

Sentiment Is a Crucial Metric

However, it’s worth noting that controversy isn’t an automatic indicator that an influencer won’t work. It depends on your brand’s mission, your goals, and how your audience views both your chosen influencers, and your reason for working with them.

The most obvious example is Nike’s partnership with Colin Kaepernick for their ad campaign in September 2018. Though many fans disapproved of the brand’s choice – burning their Nike gear in protest – other fans supported Nike’s stance of celebrating an underdog and social activist to boot.

Nike saw a $6 billion dollar increase in September alone. And even if part of that might have been attributable to the U.S. Open and the start of the NFL season – which coincided with the ad – the fracas and calls for boycotts didn’t detract from those other revenue bumps either.

This just drives home the need for due diligence via careful sentiment analysis when making influencer choices. And for vigilant social monitoring throughout influencer partnerships. If there are any issues, you want to be the first to know – before they pick up social steam – so you can react accordingly.

Perhaps Nike was gambling by working with Kaepernick, crossing their fingers that the tide would turn in their favor. Or maybe they knew their audience well enough to know the majority of consumers would love them more for standing up for something many in their audience believe in.

It’s perhaps for this reason Ultimate Fighting champ Conor McGregor is being given a chance by brands that might otherwise have steered clear after several incidents at UFC matches. Though it was predicted he could lose millions in sponsorships, he is doing just fine in that regard.

In April of last year, Conrad Wiacek, head of sponsorship at sports market intelligence company Sportcal, weighed in on the potential for McGregor’s then recent arrest to affect his reputation and sponsorship deals: “I wouldn’t be surprised to see the slightly more ‘conservative’  corporate brands walking away immediately, but others will no doubt see this as an opportunity to step in to exploit the controversy.”

And that’s another point worth noting – it’s perfectly fine to embrace controversial influencers if their antics are working for you and not against you. But you need to be sure, and have solid metrics to back it up – and that requires faith in the accuracy of your analytics. Tools enhanced by Next Generation Artificial Intelligence offer that peace of mind.

In McGregor’s case, it doesn’t hurt that he started his own Irish whiskey distiller Proper No. Twelve, which has sold more than 200,000 since last year’s launch.

He’s clearly succeeding as his own brand, which only helps prove the case to sponsors like Reebok and Monster Energy – which both renewed deals with him in October of 2018 as he was returning to the UFC ring.

How History Saves the Present

In both McGregor’s and Kaepernick’s case their success as influencers was helped by their backstories and history. Kaepernick in particular had a lot of social sentiment on his side throughout his career as he knelt for his beliefs at every NFL game. That’s not to say there wasn’t negative sentiment too.

Both sides were passionate in their stances, actually – but Nike as a brand is passionate about certain beliefs as well. Thus, the Kaepernick backstory was one that helped their campaign, and their desire to showcase certain brand values. Though not as succinct as “Just do it,” the Kaepernick tagline, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” is very Nike.

Similarly, McGregor’s return to the ring meant giving fans what they’d been asking for. And perhaps his latest antics are more of the same. In April he shocked everyone by announcing his retirement from fighting. But a tweet 10 days later seemed to indicate otherwise:

If McGregor’s fans are as addicted to the drama outside the ring as inside, it makes sense that brands would want to capitalize on his volatile personality. Unless/until he takes it too far…

As long as social sentiment indicates your audience is still on board, influencer backstories make a great safety net. Because stories are everything.

Beyond that you want to be sure the content and conversations your influencers share are on point as well, of course. But that’s exactly why you have social analytics tools in the first place. To track all that data and more – to keep your brand in the spotlight, on your terms, for as long as you can.

Want to see how influencer analytics look with AI-enhanced tools? Reach out and we’ll give you a customized demo!


Premier social media analytics platform

Expand your social platform with LexisNexis news media

Power of social analytics for your entire team

Media analytics and market intelligence platform

Enrich your media analytics with social data

Media coverage for historical & real-time monitoring

Data streams & custom KPIs for advanced data science

AI, Image Analytics, Reporting Tools & more

Out-of-the-box integration with other data sources