2020 has been a year has been unlike any other across the world and the sports industry. Despite seemingly constant uncertainty, the year has proved revolutionary for professional athletes.
And even while restrictions that forced numerous events to be canceled or postponed — including March Madness and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics — the collective voice of athletes has never been louder. Throughout the past six months, social media has provided these stars at all levels of sport with an alternative to reach and impact their audience.
Whether it was keeping fans entertained while stuck at home, or helping spread awareness for an important cause, this year has seen more athletes using their personal channels to connect with their communities than ever before.
Sports have long provided a platform for activism and awareness around meaningful issues. Leaders like Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King have transcended their athletic accomplishments by using their voice for the causes they believed in.
Today, every athlete has a platform for their voice to be heard without needing to step foot on a playing surface. These athletes are not letting the opportunity go to waste, as they have used their platform to build their personal brands, secure endorsements, and progress meaningful social causes.
Looking back at the first eight months of 2020, we wanted to highlight some of the high-performing campaigns that we admired the most.
Here are five of this year’s most impactful athlete marketing campaigns:
The Return of Basketball
When live sports finally returned, fans were hungry for the NBA’s restart inside the much-discussed Disney bubble in Orlando.
Meanwhile, the WNBA created a bubble of its own on the other side of the state. With games set to tip-off a week before the NBA, the league needed to ensure that fans across the country knew that basketball was officially back.
In an effort coordinated by the WNBA and primary broadcast partner ESPN, the network sent orange hoodies sporting the league’s logo to more than 50 professional athletes and celebrities across the country.
NBA stars LeBron James, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Jayson Tatum, and Victor Oladipo, among many others, each posted a photo wearing the hoodie to their Instagram account and promoting the return of WNBA hoops.
Not long after the pictures were posted, athletes from other sports also began sharing pictures of themselves in the orange hoodie. Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, tennis star Naomi Osaka, and professional gamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins all joined in, showing support for the league, ultimately taking the campaign beyond the sport of basketball and using the opportunity to reach fans from a variety of demographics and interests.
The campaign seems to have paid off and succeeded in generating significant buzz for the league’s return.
Not only did the hoodie become the #1 selling item across the entire Fanatics website, it eventually became the best-selling WNBA item ever, according to Fanatics.
The opening game between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Phoenix Mercury became the league’s most-watched opener since 2012, averaging 539,000 viewers. And after ESPN’s four-game slate saw viewership numbers up 63% from the 2019 regular-season average, the network added thirteen more games to the national television schedule.
It’s In The Game (Stay Home, Play Together)
The 2020 NFL Draft was the most unique draft in the league’s long tenure, and will undoubtedly be written into sports history for more than one reason.
Originally scheduled to be held at the Bellagio resort in Las Vegas, the 2020 draft was hosted primarily from the basement of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, complete with a screen full of football fans on the wall behind him.
Held during a period where sports fans had been deprived of live events, the makeshift draft performed exceptionally well. The broadcast set viewership records on all three days and reached a total of 55 million viewers over the weekend, up 35 percent from the 2019 draft.
With no other live sports, brands took advantage of the increased fan interest and looked to the draft as an opportunity to connect with consumers that had been longing to watch sports… or at least something close.
EA Sports was one of the most prominent brands activating around the event. The brand used the opportunity to connect with fans and promote the Madden franchise while also pushing the message of their Stay Home, Play Together campaign that encourages fans and gamers to connect with friends digitally while remaining physically apart.
Due to the unique presentation of the draft, EA worked with 2020 prospects to digitally recreate the moment where they would normally walk on stage to shake hands with Roger Goodell. And to encourage fans to download the game, EA made the title free-to-play for the entire weekend.
EA partnered with nearly half of the 32 first-round draft picks to promote the game by inviting fans to join their weekend streams and compete against them online. Many of the draft’s top prospects, including Isaiah Simmons, Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, and Jordan Love, took to social media to invite fans to view their livestream and compete against them in Madden 20 throughout the weekend on their Twitch channels.
The campaign netted nearly 2 million engagements across all social channels and created a unique opportunity for football fans to interact with their team’s newest superstar.
Play Inside, Play for the World
As Nike tends to do during moments of cultural significance, the brand used its platform — and its roster of professional athletes — to send a powerful message to the athletes suddenly stuck inside and unable to participate in their favorite sports.
The campaign featured posts from Nike’s owned accounts as well its powerful roster of athlete endorsers including Cristiano Ronaldo, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, LeBron James, and Carli Lloyd.
Each post from the campaign stressed the need for social distancing and shared the same message:
“If you ever dreamed of playing for millions around the world, now is your chance. Play inside, play for the world.”
The brand also debuted several video spots with similar messaging, each featuring images of Nike athletes and reiterating that we are all going through this together. One particular video, featuring videos of Cristiano Ronaldo working out at home with his children, garnered over 3 million views on Nike’s main Instagram page alone.
Nike followed up on the campaign with initiatives designed to help people stay active while they were stuck at home.
To provide athletes with workouts that could be done indoors, Nike made their previously paywalled Nike Training Club app free for all users. They also provided access to the Nike Running Club app, along with a library of workouts hosted on the Nike website.
The brand also live-streamed weekly community workouts, hosted by Nike Master Trainers, on the Nike YouTube channel. Each workout was designed to be suitable for small spaces and done without needing any equipment.
According to Nike, the campaign led to a +100% increase in weekly active users of the NTC app during the last quarter. As a result, Nike’s digital business continued to grow and maintain momentum, despite the closure of nearly all Nike retail stores.
Hulu Has Live Sports, Again
When professional and collegiate sports came to a halt in March, so did one of the most memorable sports marketing campaigns and one of Hulu’s greatest selling points: the inclusion of live sports in its streaming package.
As sports finally returned to our TVs, Hulu was prepared for the moment. The company partnered with more than 50 athletes (and one athlete’s cat) to let fans know that live sports are back, and that can be watched live on Hulu.
The messaging behind the campaign remained intentionally straightforward, much like the original campaign. The majority of the posts shared the exact same message, stating: “@hulu told me to post this to tell you, Hulu Has Live Sports Again” along with the hashtags #obviously and #huluhaslivesportsagain.
Part two of the campaign featured a video that appears to show Damian Lillard, Aaron Judge, and Skylar Diggins-Smith trying out some new hobbies in their homes before finally saying goodbye to their newfound interests and putting on their Hulu jerseys to announce that Hulu Has Live Sports, Again.
Due to the uncertain status of sports and the rapid pivoting of the three athletes’ schedules, they weren’t able to film the ad in person. Instead, Hulu got creative and put the ad together in time for the WNBA’s return in late July.
While the video may look normal at first, it was actually created by filming a body double who performed each athlete’s movements and then used a VFX technique called digital face replacement technology to superimpose each athlete’s expressions onto their body double during post-production.
Hulu made sure to poke fun at the ad by using tags like #DeepFake to let fans know that their favorite athletes are too busy “hitting dingers, getting buckets in the bubble, and hoopin in the wubble” to shoot ads right now.
Overall, the posts generated over 700 thousand likes on Instagram, while the videos received more than 3 million total views.
More Than a Vote
In a year that has seen us deal with a multitude of societal issues, many tie back to a cause that is of the utmost importance in an election year — the right and ability to vote.
Started by a coalition of more than 50 Black athletes and artists, More Than a Vote is focused on fighting voter suppression and protecting the Black community’s right to vote.
LeBron James has led the charge for the organization, with support from athletes across the sporting world. Allyson Felix, Ben Simmons, Alvin Kamara, Chiney Ogwumike, Jason Heyward, Jozy Altidore, Deandre Hopkins, Tim Anderson, Patrick Mahomes, and many more have lent their voice and helping hand to create an impact.
The organization’s tagline, “Change isn’t made by watching from the sidelines,” encourages the public to contribute in their local communities and help to ensure a fair election for all.
Since the movement began in June, More Than a Vote has added nearly 30 thousand followers on Twitter, 32 thousand on Instagram, and another 7 thousand on Facebook. But the success of this campaign can’t be measured by social media metrics.
Key initiatives for the campaign are registering voters and recruiting individuals to volunteer as a poll worker on election day to help shorten lines and ensure that polling sites remain open long enough for every vote to be counted.
Another initiative is the push to open professional sports venues as polling sites.
12 NBA teams to-date have announced their plan to open arenas or practice facilities as voting centers for the general election this fall.
The trend is catching on in other sports too, as the Los Angeles Dodgers recently became the first MLB team to offer up its stadium as a polling site. Not long after that announcement, the Detroit Tigers and Milwaukee Brewers followed suit. It appears that there will be many more participating by election day.
One thing is certain — athletes are using their platform to help progress causes that they believe in, and the activism we see today is only growing stronger.
In a year that has seen the sports world turned upside down, social media has cemented its status as one of the most valuable tool for athletes and sports organizations alike.
While they weren’t able to entertain us in-person and on TV as usual, social became the go-to channel to engage sports fans, resulting in a surge in content creation that is sure to shape social’s role in sports for years to come.
As we continue to progress through the year and sports return to “normal,” we may not see the same level of activity or engagement that was present in the spring and summer months, but that doesn’t mean normal will look like what we’re used to. If 2020 has proven anything, it’s that athletes are no longer willing to “shut up and dribble” — and for good reason.
Statements made by professional athletes carry real weight in the community. You can be sure that athletes will continue making their voices heard on social media, even after fans return to the arena to cheer for them in person.
Help us share the best
Any great campaigns or athlete marketing activations that we missed?
Share your favorite campaigns by tagging @opendorse on Twitter and we’ll add the best to our list.