How Social Media affects Brands involved in Sports

Author: Benjamin Prodinger


There is no denying that social media has become a massive part of today’s society with there being over 2 billion active social media accounts in 2015 (Kemp, 2015). And those numbers are continuing to grow: from January 2014 to January 2015 the number of active social media accounts increased by 12%, while the number of active internet users rose by 21% (Kemp, 2015). This creates an opportunity for businesses to take advantage of a massive new and growing market in the world wide web.

Sports sponsoring brands are no exception to this rule and are actually very active in their social media marketing. Companies like Nike and Adidas spend millions of dollars on their sports sponsoring activities. As an example, Adidas is a main partner of FC Bayern Munich, Germany’s most successful soccer club, meaning that their jerseys are all branded with the Adidas logo. The reasons for them spending 60 million Euros a year (Ashelm, 2015) for this sponsoring are the desired image transfer and a huge reach. Jerome Boateng is a player under contract with the Adidas sponsored club FC Bayern Munich. So when he posts pictures of himself wearing Nike clothes and advertises his new Nike football boots on Facebook and Instagram it is understandable that Adidas may react negatively. In this case the athlete has a personal interest in using social media that differs from that of the team and its sponsor.

This shows the open nature of social media and the difficulties brands and businesses face in controlling and regulating the message. Without proper regulations and governance in place these companies may not be able to use social media to its fullest potential and instead suffer losses to their image.


Analytic Framework: Process and Policy

The problem being examined in this analysis are the opportunities and threats social media usage has on the image of sports sponsoring brands. The first step in this analysis is to describe and explain the processes involved: how and why sports sponsoring brands use social media. Then, evidence from the field regarding the effects of social media will be analyzed. Afterwards policies that should be put in place to manage and regulate social media will be discussed.


Definitions: Social Media, Sports Sponsoring Brands, Athletes

Before going further into this topic, however, some keywords will be defined in the following section.

Social Media can be defined as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content” (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010). Since this definition is based off the concepts of Web 2.0 and user-generated content, these need to be defined as well.

User-generated content can be defined as “any form of content such as blogs, wikis, discussion forums, posts, chats, tweets, podcasts, digital images, video, audio files, advertisements and other forms of media that was created by users of an online system or service, often made available via social media websites” (Moens, Li & Chua, 2014)

Web 2.0 describes the “second generation of the World Wide Web that is focused on the ability for people to collaborate and share information online. It refers to the transition from static Web pages to a more dynamic Web” (Beal, n.d.)

The concept of sports sponsoring brands can be defined by looking at the definitions of the components “sports sponsoring” and “brands”. IEG defines sponsorship in sports as a “cash and/or in-kind fee paid to a property in sports in return for access to the exploitable commercial potential associated with that property” (“Sponsorship Lexicon and Glossary – Sponsorship Resources”, n.d.). A brand is “a distinguishing name and/or symbol such as a logo, trademark, or package design intended to identify the goods or services of either one seller or a group of sellers, and to differentiate those goods or services from those of competitors” (Ghodeswar, 2008).

Therefore, sports sponsoring brands can be defined as companies that spend money on using the commercial value of a property in sport (e.g. an athlete or a team), in order to manifest their own name and/or symbol in the minds of the public and differentiate themselves from the competition.

When considering how social media influences sports brands athletes play a big part. An athlete is defined as someone who is “proficient in sports and other forms of physical exercise” (“definition of athlete”, n.d.). Over the last few decades, sports have been commercialized with the increasing influence by the media. With the increasing sums being earned by sports leagues and their teams through selling media rights (Randerath, 2014), athletes have become millionaires. For this reason, this analysis looks at athletes as personal sports brands, which Carter (2011) defines as “the positioning of athletes as personal brands to convey life stories, values, charisma, authenticity, believability and athletic prowess into significant revenue” (Carter, 2011). In other words, athletes have their own interests in how they want to be perceived in traditional media and social media alike.


Why and how sports sponsoring brands use social media

Social media has changed how people connect and converse with corporations and each other (Scott & Jacka, 2011). The graph below, created by Search Engine Journal, shows just how rapidly the growth of social media is occurring. Facebook, one of the most mature social media platforms has grown from one million users in 2004 to more than one billion people using the service in 2013.


Figure 1: Social media platforms’ growth from 2004 to 2013. Retrieved from Search Engine Journal

Over 2 billion active social media accounts with an ongoing growth rate in the double digits every year (Kemp, 2015) make a strong case for the validity of social media as a marketing platform for brands. According to a Boniversum study 30% of businesses in Germany stated social media as a marketing platform to be the main reason for their social media activities (“Social Media – Gründe der Nutzung Umfrage”, 2015).

Social media platforms also allow the brands to effectively reach their target audience by customizing their message to the specific interest group. In traditional media, like TV advertisements it is unclear how much of the brands target audience can be reached effectively. Social media on the other hand allows the brand to direct a message to a specific group of people that follow or like a certain page or account. As an example, Adidas sees their target audience as young people with an interest in sports. For the Adidas Sport Performance sub-brand, selling high performance football boots, the key target group has been defined as 14 to 19 year olds, as they are seen as the most influential consumer group (“Adidas Group – Business Report”, 2014). With Adidas’ heavy sponsorship involvement in FC Bayern Munich and the German national team it makes sense to post content involving these teams to reach these 14 to 19 year olds. Using athletes to endorse a product has also worked well using social media. Thomas Mueller, who plays for both FC Bayern and the national team is under a personal sponsoring contract with Adidas. He posts pictures of himself with his new Adidas boots relatively frequently, using his own celebrity sportsman status to benefit Adidas.

Mueller.pngFigure 2: Mueller endorsing Adidas boots on Facebook

With his reach of more than 9 million followers on Facebook he is able to grow Adidas’ brand awareness, image and sales revenue by simply posting a picture on a social media platform. This marketing tactic using testimonials works well due to their ability to influence the public’s buying behavior. People tend to believe an athlete over a big company. Sports brands try to take advantage of this by transferring the athlete’s image onto their product. However, this may only be the case when the message comes across as authentic.

Sports sponsoring brands use social media to increase their brand awareness and brand recognition. With the daily average time spent on social media platforms rising yearly it makes sense for businesses to use this to their advantage. The daily average time spent on social media rose from 1.61 hours a day in 2012 to 1.72 hours per day in 2014 (Mander, 2015). Seeing as this is just another way for companies to reach consumers, it is easy to increase visibility, making the brand more accessible to customers (DeMers, 2014).

Considering that some brands face fierce competition in their markets, improving brand loyalty is one of the most important aspects of their marketing strategies. 53% of Americans that follow brands on social media are more loyal to those brands (Baer, 2016). This study illustrates the effectiveness of social media to achieve customer retention.

Customer service in today’s day and age has become key. With the amount of competition offering similar products it is important to keep customers content. Social media offers a great way to interact with customers. Businesses have to be aware that their customer interaction on social platforms is public to everyone. If done right this is a big opportunity, if done wrong it can have catastrophic consequences on the brand’s image (DeMers, 2014). A quick and helpful response and/or action is required when dealing with customer complaints. If done right this can even turn an unhappy customer into a loyal repeat-consumer. Compliments by happy customers on the other hand have a very positive effect on the business’ image. One thing to consider though, is that the amount of time that can and needs to be spent on controlling customer comments on social media is enormous and involves significant costs.


Reviewing Evidence: Examples of social media’s effects

Having previously explained how Adidas uses athletes and teams to their advantage on social media, they also managed to implement a very successful social media marketing campaign during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Being one of the main sponsors of the World Cup the sports sponsoring brand was in charge of supplying the ball, called “Brazuca”, used during the tournament. With the aim to be the most positively talked about brand of the tournament the company decided to involve fans on social media. To do this, they set up a Twitter account for Brazuca which soon had more than one million followers (Jessop, 2014). The reason for this absurd number of followers for a football was that a GoPro camera was installed inside the ball and every follower received behind-the-scenes footage via Twitter. Fans could see the ball moving through the player tunnel and onto the pitch before each game (Jessop, 2014). This created a fan experience they would otherwise not be able to experience and had massive positive effects on the sports brands image.

To contrast this, Adidas did not manage their social media appearance all that well was during several cases of FC Bayern players posting images of their main competitor’s products. Adidas can not forbid FC Bayern players who have personal endorsement deals with Nike to post pictures of Nike products during their own private time. However, when they are on active duty within the stadium or training facilities, having them advertise for their main competitor has significant negative influences on the brand’s image. Nike has continuously tried to pull this marketing stunt off using social media platforms of players like Jerome Boateng, Mario Goetze and Thiago. Even a group photo of all Nike endorsed players in the changing room after a game was posted on Facebook and led to an increasingly unhappy sponsor. Adidas spokesperson Oliver Brueggen publicly stated his frustration with the club, saying that this can not happen during a long term collaboration worth millions of dollars (“Adidas is mad at FC Bayern”, 2016). This example shows the vulnerability and lack of control sports sponsoring brands face on social media when dealing with athletes/personal sports brands who have their own financial interests.

1726460934-bayern-jerome-boateng-joshua-kimmich-arturo-vidal-thiago-douglas-costa-1MgdJVZOLRa7Figure 3: Bayern players’ group photo with Nike boots while wearing Adidas sponsored FC Bayern Jerseys. Retrieved from:

McDonalds’ approach to using social media within their sponsorship of the London Olympic Games in London in 2012 had them use medal-winning swimmer Dara Torres and her Twitter account. She tweeted phrases like “Proud 2 be a part of the Olympic McFamily!” to help McDonald’s push their exercise and balanced eating campaign (Feil, 2012). By using an athlete to communicate these “healthy” values that people do not particularly associate with a fast food chain, it helps make their claim a bit more believable.

TelDaFax was a German energy distributor that sponsored Bayer Leverkusen, a top flight soccer team, from 2007 until 2011 (“Fall Teldafax “, 2015). In 2010 the company decided to join Facebook where they mainly posted about their engagement in football. Most posts did not receive much attention and it was one-way communication by TelDaFax. When people started posting complaints on the site about the lack of customer service, the brand told them that their Facebook page was for entertainment only and not the right place for complaints (Kauert, 2011). On top of that the language used by the company was very unprofessional, creating even more problems within the community. This example had a very negative influence on the already damaged brand image. This is one instance where social media could have been a useful tool to improve customer relationships by being transparent and helpful on the Web, but instead had the exact opposite effect.


Policies to regulate and manage social media

Policies for regulation and controlling of a sports sponsoring brand’s social media appearance are key components of their social media strategy.

The following policies should be implemented by sports sponsoring brands to ensure successful communication on the Web:

First of all, the company needs to employ one or more social media managers, depending on the brands size and site traffic. After the staff has been trained on what the brand stands for and wants to communicate to the public, they will be able to monitor the platforms and post relevant content as well as responses. Interaction is key.

Detailed contracts with sponsorship partners, including teams and athletes, are another policy required to successfully manage social media appearances. By having a legal document to hold the other side to certain rules, the chance of media mishaps happening, like in the case of Adidas and FC Bayern players, is significantly reduced.

Lastly, implementing an authorization process before every post that is done by sponsorship partners gives the brand complete control and transparency. By simply having the athlete/team run a planned post by a specifically chosen contact person, the risk of a harmful outcome for the sports sponsoring brand will be reduced significantly.



Social media has become a staple in today’s communication, whether it’s being used privately or commercially. The above analysis has highlighted the reasons why sports sponsoring brands should be and are using social media to effectively reach the more than two billion active users. With policies for regulation in place the dangers of social media usage can be kept to a minimum, allowing brands to realize the many positives found in the online world. However, with social media’s nature being public and for everyone, brands will likely never be in complete control. As social media evolves, brands and the other billions of users will have to evolve with it.



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