1.5k on the track, 100k on Instagram
Long dismissed as a distraction or relegated to “folded hands” emoji, social media has become an organic slice of an athlete’s development. Accounts – created first to follow their role models and colleagues, then used to post workout videos and gym photos – are now the tool for gaining followers and securing branded partnerships, completing a trajectory of user content creator-influencer.
The rules of engagement have changed. Lazy selfies or uninspired clips are no longer enough. The flows are intelligently organized and managed, the brands and approved products controlled. Weekly reports on likes, views and number of subscribers are transmitted. This new generation of influencer athletes have an eye on the numbers on and off the pitch.
Harmilan Bains, national 1,500m record holder with 106,000 Instagram followers and at least half a dozen brand partnerships, is one of the first athletes to achieve it.
“We have a life beyond sport. When I’m on the pitch I give him my 100 percent but leave it behind when I get home. I know how short the career of an athlete is. We need to explore new avenues and I want to further expand my social media presence after quitting athletics, ”said the 23-year-old, who broke the national 1,500m mark in September.
NIharika Vashisht, a 26-year-old long and triple jumper who has yet to win a senior international medal, has garnered several branded mentions and a TV commercial against Bollywood megastar Akshay Kumar, all thanks to her popularity. on Instagram.
Niharika and Harmilan aren’t the only ones to profit. Many beginners become creators of sports content. Junior boxer Simran Verma, who has partnered with multiple brands, believes every athlete should have a well-maintained social media platform. For 17-year-old Simran, social media is not only a tool to build his brand, but also a tool to bring about social change.
“I get a lot of messages from young girls like me who want to play sports but their families are reluctant and I want to change that. There have been cases where girls have shown their parents my Instagram profile, where I regularly post workout clips, to allow them to play sports. I use it as an empowerment tool, ”explains the Mumbai boxer.
Among the growing number of social media platforms, Instagram appears to be the most popular among athletes. “Instagram is a visual medium and sport is all about visuals. You can easily record, edit videos and share videos on Instagram. An athlete would rather post a clip or a photo than write about what he is doing, ”says Priyanka Periera, founder of social media agency ‘Phantom Words’.
The reach is massive. For example, Harmilan’s most watched Reel (short video clip), a workout clip with some visual effects, had 8.9 million views and was enjoyed by 716,000 people. But such a reach cannot be achieved overnight, nor is there a fixed formula. “Some people learn it the hard way. It takes them years to develop content but they fall behind in the race. Some people do trial and error and find out what works for them, ”says Priyanka, who previously managed cricketer Rishabh Pant’s Instagram profile.
For Niharika, it was easier to determine what worked for her as she had sports consultant Adithya Rai to guide her. Rai, a former athlete, has been studying Instagram trends since 2016 and has always believed this to be an untapped market for Olympic athletes. When Aditya approached Niharika, she only had 1,500 followers, but within a few years she passed the 100,000 mark with aspiring athletes being a significant portion of the followers.
“I saw potential in her. I just told him this social media and ‘jo dikhta hai, woh bikta hai (what gets seen is sold’. Your Insta following is not entirely dependent on your performance in the field. It’s the world of content creation. and it’s about I guided Niharika on how to record clips and what to post and it worked for her, ”says Adithya, who previously helped Harmilan and the triple jumper at the Asian Games Arpinder Singh with their Insta profiles.
Harmilan agrees that you don’t have to have big medals under your belt to become an Instagram star. “There are several athletes who have not performed very well on the field, but they are still influencers on Instagram. Some athletes only post training videos that could help with army selection, ”she said.
The aforementioned athletes unanimously agree that the introduction of “Reels,” a feature that allows users to post short clips, has boosted their Instagram profiles. Three of Harmilan’s ‘Reels’ have passed the million-view mark. His profile received a huge boost after his record-breaking run in August.
“I had around 40,000 followers, but after breaking the national record, it went crazy. I went from 40 to 100,000 in no time, ”explains Harmilan.
The number of followers has direct implications on the potential monetary benefits, as contracts are signed on the basis of numbers. Athletes should submit weekly reports, which contain details such as the number of views, likes, shares, comments and time spent with brands on their paid posts. “If we have more views than expected, we can negotiate better rates for the next job,” says Adithya, who takes care of the paperwork for Niharika.
Both Harmilan and Niharika are very aware of the brands they represent and have turned down several offers that did not match their image or if the products were found to be of inferior quality. Niharika claims to have turned down at least 20 paid promotional offers in the past two years.
“I once approved a product and then saw a lot of negative reviews about it. I refused to work with them again. Now I pay close attention to the brands I work with, ”says Harmilan, who is now run by Anglian Medal Hunt.
For brands to even knock on athletes’ doors, they need to build a significant following. The Instagram profiles mentioned in the story seemingly follow a set pattern: workout clips with catchy music, photos in their best non-sporting outfits, and clips from competitions.
“I am very particular about what I post. I want my profile to look really good, so I’m not posting anything at random. My followers consider me a style icon so I dress well and take pictures. Only high definition images, so having a good phone is essential, ”explains Harmilan.
There are several reasons why brands go to young athletes for promotion, with profitability being the most important.
“There are millions of people on Instagram and this is the easiest way to contact them. Asking an athlete to simply pose with their product rather than creating a full advertisement is much more economical for the brand, ”says Priyanka.