The long tail of athlete brands

Mark Middlemas on the strategic marketing decisions facing professional athletes


The hat-trick combination of content, technology and data means athletes can flex their personal brand muscles like never before.

The estimated 30k professional athletes in the UK plying their trade are asserting much more control of the sports they train for, play in, love unconditionally and dedicate their lives to. 

Smart, digitally-savvy athletes that are building off the pitch ‘exposure’ into their everyday routines and the rewards can be huge for the athletes and conversely for their sports.

There are 3 key drivers:


1.  Storytelling

Athletes are bypassing many of the traditional media platforms to tell stories on their own terms without editorial interference or the primal fear of being misquoted by a journalist.

Players’ Tribune in the US and the brilliant PlayersVoice in Australia are great examples of new technology platforms are giving professional athletes their own publishing voice in sport and effectively ‘coaching’ athletes to tell the most powerful and emotional stories.  



A great recent example is Raheem Sterling who after a difficult period with the UK’s media ‘re-branded’ with an exclusive interview with the US-led Players Tribune just before the 2018 Football World Cup.  Sterling’s emotional interview worked because it was counterintuitive revealing a side to the player that hadn’t ever been shown through the media’s coverage of him - that gap between the image and the real person. This showed extraordinary self-awareness on the part of the athlete/his team and is a great example of personal brand strategy executed perfectly that other athletes can learn from.



2.  Content Magic 

Content is opening up new avenues and audiences for athletes.

Professional athletes are increasingly using their own digital skills to change the perceptions of their own, often less well-known sports for the better.  

In rugby the brilliant Women’s Rugby Hub is showcasing the talent, dedication and joy within the women’s game and is just one of several high quality online channels helping to grow the popularity of women’s rugby. It has an impressive 4,100 Instagram followers and its multi-media content informs fans and new audiences in ways that wouldn’t have been possible even 5 years ago.

Then there's gymnast Nile Wilson. The 2016 Olympic bronze medal-winning gymnast in the parallel bars, is on a mission is to make gymnastics as popular as football.  He uses insanely entertaining gymnastic moves to entertain his hundreds of thousands of social media followers and bring new fans into the sport. A triple somersault into a pair of y-fronts filmed with fellow gymnasts recently had 1.1m YouTube views so he is doing a lot right.


Content is also travelling across different sports for mutual benefit. To push the collective power of women’s sport in the UK and respective World Cups on home soil national teams in hockey, cricket and netball joined forces in late 2016 to promote themselves and each other in a campaign called TeamUp. A great example of a big idea leading to fresh content distributed socially via the powerful, collective voice of athletes.


3.  Sporting Revolution 

Many elite athletes have also become frustrated by how their sport is run and marketed.  Armed with success, passion, ideas, empathy and huge reach these athletes are fighting back to bring their sports into the 21stCentury.

In rugby union International Rugby Players is the new global representative body on issues of importance for professional rugby players. This athlete union, that includes Kieran Reed and Owen Farrell, was recently created to lobby World Rugby about player burn-out and the excessive demands of international rugby.  

In snooker, the mercurial Ronnie O’Sullivan is challenging the status quo in snooker. He is passionate about wanting to bring more ‘razzamattaz’ and excitement to the sport and has actively used the UK media to campaign for change, much to snooker kingpin Barry Hearn’s disdain.

However, the best example for me is in swimming where GB Double Olympic champion Adam Peaty has channelled his dissatisfaction with global governing body, FINA, into changing his sport for the better.


Thanks to his and other swimmers’ actions, in November 2019 a new global swimming league will start with 6 teams from around the world competing for millions of pounds in prize money.  

If you’re one of the c. 30,000 elite athletes in the UK, what route are you going to take? Before you start telling your story you need to make sure you’ve done your personal brand groundwork, so your brand is sustainable beyond the initial ‘origin story’. If you do that, you’ll help boost the ‘athletes are brands too’ revolution.


Mark Middlemas is CEO & Founder of The Athlete Media Group

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