Athletes will lead the Community Creator Economy

Jul 8, 2021 8 min read

This past week, many organizations jumped into action given recent NCAA rule changes, but what does this mean for the future of the community creator economy?

For those of you not following the rule change: the NCAA recently made it so college athletes can now partake in sponsorship deals, and make money off of their own likeness and image. For many reasons, I’m optimistic about this rule change, but cautiously so — looking back to my own D1 NCAA days and my own long-term body dysmorphia from it, I’m concerned about what this means for the future.

Given recent rule changes, athletes will pioneer the next wave of the community creator economy, moving it into mainstream culture through the existing critical mass, known fandom behaviors and low barrier of entry. I’ll be breaking down these areas, brands and individuals to watch, as well as explain how you can tap into this trend.

Our evolving global perception’s impact on athletes as creators

For most of the world, sports and athletics mark one of the largest fan cultures. They break time zones, geographic barriers — even language and cultural barriers. This is especially the case during an Olympic year — sports fans of all ages turn into armchair commentators while enrollment in youth sports often spikes up.

Children often look up to athletes as role models. I remember dressing up as an Olympic swimmer for Halloween in the third grade and parading my state meet medals around my neck for a day, dreaming of one day being the next Natalie Coughlin or Katinka Hossu. Even before the “Olympic Swimmer” Halloween, there was the “Olympic Figure Skater” birthday party — where I distinctly remember racing anyone who wanted to race across the rink and poorly executing turns.

While many theorized that we’d see a dip in sports participation and fandom due to changing tastes and the global pandemic, that hasn’t quite been the case. While there may be a dip in streaming, we’re seeing increased participation and engagement in sports online — partly because there’s so many different ways that one can participate in the sports world these days. In a year where we’ve experienced so much struggle, we’ve simultaneously experienced the joy of gathering in ways we previously wouldn’t think was the norm.

“Sports have a unique way of uniting people,” quoted Dr. Juanita Cheung Sinting from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the South China Morning Post. Dr. Sinting was referring to the power that sports has to bring people together — especially young people in the Western world.

“Having a sports event that everyone can talk about unites people,” continued Dr. Sinting. “The lively atmosphere that comes with watching sports can make them feel less lonely.”

This heavy emphasis on sports as a way of uniting folks and tapping into a larger culture leads sports to remain a central component of our lives — and now we are no longer just limited towards watching them on TV. Brands, commercial sponsorships, and even the new NCAA ruling and eligibility opens up a whole new way to participate in the larger fandom of the sports world.

In one research study by Theodore Charles Greener from the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, the wider sports fandom benefits by providing more venues for folks to not only participate in the NCAA sports world, but increase their understanding and cognition of the industry as a whole.

To sum things up in a “why-I’m-excited-as-a-community-builder” sort of fashion — it comes down to lowering the barrier to participation. I’ve largely believed that one of your key jobs as a community builder is to actively work towards lifting your entire community up and providing opportunities to learn, grow and make money.

Given recent tools, business models, and rule changes, athletes are now uniquely poised to lead the community creator economy by activating their own unique fandoms largely subsidized by not only their larger sports world, but also through whatever existing franchise, university or brand that they play for these days.

Athletics already has the bought-in critical mass. If I mention teams like the New York Yankees, Oakland Raiders, Manchester United, the LA Lakers, or even individual athletes like  Lance Armstrong, Tanya Harding, Tony Hawk, Sha’Carri Richardson or Michael Phelps, you’ll likely recognize at least one name, franchise or identifying trait about the above. Much like creators, athletes can tap into this larger fandom to create their own community.

Athletic fandoms come pre-built in with their own rituals — athletes make those rituals their own.

I’d be lying if the sound of a good jock jam didn’t get me fired up a bit, if the seventh inning stretch didn’t make me grin like an idiot, or if I didn’t get a little emotional hearing the Law of the Jungle — my university's own pre-game tradition — before every college meet.

If we’re talking in terms of fandom or community behaviors, it’s important to recognize the power of a ritual. While sports fans may be harder to reach than ever, as noted in a paper written by Brandon Mastromartino, James J. Zhang, and Wen-Hao Winston Chou from the University of Georgia, once someone has bought into the sports fandom, a fan is likely to bring significant economic and culture impact.

Through understanding larger sports rituals and how communities at large tap into their fandoms, along with seeing the nuances that are carried out throughout the different levels of fandoms, we can see how the next generation of athletes are using this to tap into their own communities.

Sports fandoms are largely driven by socialization — ask anyone why they follow a team, and they tend to drop a geographic location to where they first started participating. In one study completed in 1976 by Barry D. McPherson, it was found that sports fandom is largely socialized by one’s family, peers, school, and community.

I think of my own sports socializations — I follow the Chicago Cubs because of my dad, the Seattle Mariners because of my grandmother, Kansas City Royals because of my husband, and New York Yankees and Mets because I live in New York. I participated in the swim and triathlon community because of friends I met through swimming at a young age.

This socialization can transcend online behaviors as well — oftentimes even just scrolling through someone’s twitter feed or catching a glimpse of their instagram stories, you’ll find who’s watching what game and when. These interactions online — ranging from the athletes themselves, the teams, and even entire sports outlets as a whole — have allowed some to tap into these followings, building both connections with followers andfan-to-fan relationships. For some, they create rituals, habits and routines that drive revenue.

Coming from the world of swimming, I’m reminded of the ventures of Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Katinka Hossu. These three individuals tapped into their own communities to build communities and brands around their fandoms.
Visit Michael Phelps’s website and you’ll see offers to join his swim team (insiders community), purchase his product, or even see a video from Phelps himself asking you to join his test team.

Ryan Lochte, often described as swimming’s all-American bad boy (fashionista, attempted clothing designer, reality tv celebrity and grill-wearing wild card), has probably grown even larger than Phelps in some ways with regards to brand deals. He currently appears to be represented by ProPlayer sports and while he’s no longer chasing his Olympic dreams, he’s made it clear that his affiliation with the sport is far from over. His website is covered in brand endorsements, and he’s already on his way to tapping into his fans and his personality as an ambassador for the Global Swim Series, Race the Legends event series — all with the mission to get more individuals interested in the sport of swimming.

Katinka Hossu, the Iron Lady to many — someone who’s been through her own personal struggles as well — is tapping into her community to build out a fully-fledged clothing brand, a documentary, produced and starred in an Iron Nation anthem and even has a comic book all about her brand, Iron Lady Arcanum.

Hossu, one of the most all time decorated female athletes in the sport of swimming (specifically in those events athletes consider more as punishment rather than enjoyment), recognized the power of community early on. She built out the IronNetwork YouTube channel to a tune of 13.5K subscribers, documenting her training process, sharing content and events, and in what I consider to be a very smart move: owning her own channels and brand where she can, choosing to self publish and create rather than relying on external brands validations.

While the above examples are great, they’re a limited subsection of the potential that we see — Phelps is more of a TalkSpace influencer now than an athlete, and both Phelps and Lochte had to choose between swimming in college or making money by swimming. With recent advancements in culture, tech, and even rule changes — this no longer is the norm.

The next iteration of athlete-creator

Through breaking down the rule foreboding NCAA athletes from profiting off of their likeness, young athletes have already started jet setting around the world to sign contracts and start cashing in on their budding fandoms, some of which have already led to significant value to the individual athlete.

Take, for example, twin sisters Hanna and Haley Cavinder — profiled in this piece on ESPN — who are playing volleyball for Fresno State. They have amassed 3.3M followers on TikTok and became the first people to take advantage of the rule change.

In one article — there’s now an estimated 400,000 NCAA athletes that are now available for brand deals, monetization, licensing and promotion.
This rule change won’t only have an impact on the major, mainstream-level D1 stars that are often funneled right into a professional program, but also those at smaller schools, or university towns.

Another example: Jackson State’s defensive end, Antwan Owens. Deadspin covered his story in an article about the NLI changes and impacts on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, highlighting the fact that most athletes who will be benefiting from this policy change are minorities.

I’m optimistic about it — however, much like many other things — I’m also concerned. Mental health among student athletes is often a debated topic. With one in five student-athletes demonstrating signs of clinical depression and the recent number of creators who have come out struggling with mental health — I'm concerned about further exploitation of student athletes, not just by the school, but by brands as well (heck, student athletes apparently can’t even make the Olympics these days without stressing about a paper).

As one article in Sports Illustrated puts it: ‘It’s going to be a Clusterf---.” Compliance staff hasn’t been trained, there’s discrepancies between various laws in individual states, oh — and we haven’t decided who’s enforcing this all.

We’re in a new, wild frontier — one that we could have really prepared ourselves for, but as history shows, sometimes institutions are just unwilling to change their ways until they’re forced to.

Acting fast, a la Barstool Athletes, will give some an early leg up on the game, but that doesn't always bring the best end result.

So you’re curious to learn more about this?

Here’s a few folks I’m keeping my eyes on as the community creator economy I’m predicting will only continue to explode, this time specifically for so many young athletes.

I’m a student-athlete in this space / wanting to work with student-athletes in this space, what should I know?

  • Read the contract! (then read it again and have someone else read it too!)
  • Build on your own, owned channels where you can, platforms are great but especially in nascent industries you never know what could happen
  • Establish your own personal boundaries: what will you share publicly, what won’t you?
  • Protect yourself online — here’s a guide to protecting yourself from being doxxed.
  • Learn the basics of community building, establish rituals and habits — how are you engaging your community, even if it’s just a small one at the moment.
  • It’s okay to monetize, heck it’s great if you can monetize something, but be mindful of how you’re monetizing something.
  • Be kind, be transparent, be human, spread joy, lift others up where you can.
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