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Atop the recent Paris-Roubaix podium, Peter Sagan appeared wearing a now-familiar pair of motocross goggles draped around his neck. Nothing to do with the cobbles’ mud and dust, the goggles are pure cross-promotion, for eyewear sponsor 100%.
Some laugh, stylistas howl. Others shrug — hey, if anyone can pull it off, the charismatic world champion can.
They may upset some sensibilities, but in reality the goggles perform exactly the same purpose as a sponsor-emblazoned team cap. They remind us that these athletes are elite billboards, whose performances draw attention to the companies who pay to associate with them. But does this actually work?
CyclingTips has tried to answer that question, calculating the value of a select group of pros’ social media posts and followings, in collaboration with sports marketing firm Hookit.
The Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts of Peter Sagan, Chris Froome, Richie Porte, Mark Cavendish, Jens Voigt, Taylor Phinney, Alison Tetrick, Tiffany Cromwell, Elizabeth Deignan (nee Armitstead), Wout van Aert, Jeremy Powers, Sanne Cant and Katie Compton were each analysed. The idea was to see how valuable athletes from different disciplines, and with different fanbases, are to their sponsors.
So the winner? No prizes. Peter Sagan.
Between January 1, 2017 and January 31, 2018, Sagan generated US$6.5 million in exposure for key sponsors Specialized and eyewear company 100%. That’s more than 20 times the US$305,955 in value Mark Cavendish generated for Oakley, Nike, Met helmets, and watch company Richard Mille.
Sagan’s most valuable post? The video below, of the world champion jokingly ‘doing a real job’ helping Tour Down Under organisers pack away an inflatable banner.
Viewed more than half a million times, that one video was calculated as worth nearly $300,000 to Specialized, and about $30,000 for 100%.
Specialized is rumoured to have paid a large part of Peter Sagan’s salary at Bora-hansgrohe. Now, as the company releases a series of Sagan signature models, we can see how the marketing department justified the outlay.
An athlete’s value is calculated by determining audience engagement with that athlete’s posts (likes, comments, shares) and then by using that engagement figure to work out how much it would cost a company to generate a comparable response by paying for advertising on the same platforms.
Hookit’s CEO Scott Tilton explains that the company uses logo recognition technology to calculate the value of sponsors’ exposure in photographs and videos.
“We analyse each post for quality promotion of brands,” says Tilton. “If it’s a logo we look at the size and clarity of the logo in the picture; if it’s a video, we look at the duration of time the logo is present, so all of those things get factored into the quality of the promotion.”
There are limitations. Hookit is still adding brands and athletes to its database and, being based in the US, the company doesn’t yet have information on a number of British and European companies which sponsor cycling, like Sky or Pinarello for example.
That means the only available data for Chris Froome shows he generated US$48,000 for Hublot, the luxury watch marque he endorses. But the number of times people have liked or commented on Froome’s posts (roughly half of Sagan’s figures) would indicate his audience is worth much more.
Australia’s Tiffany Cromwell is the standout female, with posts worth US$190,000 to SRAM. Other sponsors Rapha and Canyon are not (yet) in Hookit’s database. British former world champion Lizzie Deignan (Armitstead) generated just over US$50,000 for Specialized, and US$14,000 for SRAM.
If you’re a cyclocrosser looking to ‘monetise,’ the news is less encouraging.
Triple world champion Wout van Aert was worth US$17,500 to Red Bull, most of it in the one Instagram post below where the company’s colours and logo are prominent. However, bear in mind that because the study focussed on 2017, this doesn’t include his impressive recent spring on the road.
Again, acknowledging the limits of the data available, American ‘crosser Jeremy Powers’ regular updates generated just US$14,500 for Focus bikes.
In pursuit of excellence or relevance?
Beyond each rider’s specific value lies a bigger question: is this how athletes’ worth should be determined? Unsurprisingly, not everyone thinks so.
American cyclocrosser Ryan Trebon had a bit of a rant on Twitter last month on this very subject.
One can only speculate whether Trebon was frustrated by fleeing followers, was pushing back amid contractual negotiations demanding daily updates, or had simply seen one too many #sockdoping posts. However, his tweet does suggest sponsors expect to be represented on athletes’ accounts.
One source familiar with negotiating rider contracts has told CyclingTips that most agreements do not demand marketing content. However, they do stipulate that athletes’ posts uphold brand values, and don’t violate accepted community standards.
But on a different level, there is certainly anecdotal evidence of social expectation.
Some time back, CyclingTips was contacted by the sponsorships manager of a well-known global sportswear brand.
“Have you heard of rider X?” “He’s got no social media following!” came the almost incredulous question, via email.
The athlete in question had raced as a pro in Europe, and even won his country’s national championships.
Worth sponsoring? The tone of the email suggested otherwise. The implication was clear: without a quantifiable digital presence, the athlete wasn’t worth backing.
If this seems a bit wrong, well, yes, it does fly in the face of traditional sports sponsorship.
Simply put, before social media came along, sponsor dollars allowed athletes to dedicate themselves to training and competition. When the athlete competes (and hopefully does well), the company backing them is rewarded with positive media exposure in return. Thus, their contribution to sport (hopefully) generates return on investment by way of brand affinity and ultimately sales.
Because sportspeople who get the best results usually get the most publicity, it follows that the winningest athletes are the most valuable to sponsors. This in turn meant the criteria for sportspeople was simple – train hard, do well, get rewarded.
Kind of what Trebon seemed to be advocating.
But, what if I’m not really into racing?
The trouble with this logic is that it is arbitrary and narrow, ignoring the fact that cycling is many things to many people.
If a company wants to sell stuff to people who ride bikes for adventure, or as an expression of their identity, they’ll naturally look to support athletes who embody those ideals. Why shouldn’t those niche companies be free to sponsor whoever they want?
CyclingTips tech editor James Huang recently wrote that cycling’s image to outsiders remained that of a misery-fest. Compared to other activities, the industry still relies too heavily on the glorification of suffering, he suggested.
If bike brands wanted to attract new people into the sport, he argued, they should take a look at outdoor companies’ marketing, and show more people smiling and having fun. Maybe think less Tiesj Benoot at Strade Bianche and more post-ride fun around a campfire or at a café.
So our little-known national champion just needs to amass a few hundred thousand followers then? Maybe a few good #WYMTM posts? Partly right.
Followers are not the be all and end all.
Like Hookit’s Scott Tilton, social media marketing expert Eduardo Morales emphasises that engagement (likes, shares and comments), not follower numbers, is the key metric.
“Basically, what engagement rates tell you is how much people care about what you’re saying,” says Morales.
That obviously matters. Dig a little deeper too into the riders Hookit studied, and there are interesting numbers for prospective sponsors.
Although his following is far smaller than Sagan’s, Richie Porte had the highest engagement ratio of any rider, suggesting he’d be a valuable prospect for marketers wanting to target an Aussie audience in particular.
Similarly, retired German hardman Jens Voigt’s posts featuring Fitbit activity trackers were estimated to be worth nearly US$80,000 to the company. Jens’ trademark ‘shutuplegs’ quote and his famously dry musings on bike racing and pain appeal primarily to slightly older cycling fans, who are more familiar with his career. So Fitbit’s choice of brand ambassador is likely aimed at this demographic of prospective customer – health conscious and active, but a group which perhaps might not identify with current pros as much.
Another interesting example here is Alison Tetrick, who has switched her focus from road racing to gravel and adventure racing.
Tetrick’s recent change of bike sponsor (from Cannondale to Specialized) unfortunately took place after the study’s completion. Its a shame, because Tetrick – last year’s winner of the Dirty Kanza 200-mile offroad epic – has been particularly prolific in documenting her new setup.
Gravel and adventure cycling is the fastest-growing segment for the bike industry, and its clear Specialized sees Californian Tetrick as someone who embodies this ‘go out and explore’ appeal.
Keepin’ it real
‘Authenticity’ is the marketing gurus’ concept of choice.
Hookit’s Scott Tilton says any post which allows the audience to relate to an athlete is worth far more than a podium shot with every #single #sponsor #logo #hashtagged.
Eduardo Morales says the key is being able to convey a sense of personality. Taylor Phinney is a good example.
Frequently teased as the peloton’s hipster in residence, Phinney’s most valuable post in the period surveyed was this photo/caption from last year’s Tour, where he succinctly explored the intersection of aerodynamics, fashion and facial expression.
The post conveys his personality, and thus enables his followers to relate.
You could say likewise about Mark Cavendish. Few cyclists wear their heart on their sleeve as prominently as Cav, and his emotional honesty helps him connect to fans, in a way Chris Froome’s steely persona prevents.
Social media marketing expert Eduardo Morales, says his first lesson in the value of small, highly engaged followings came when he saw a girl with 100,000 highly attentive followers on Instagram drive four times more web traffic than two fashion bloggers with 3 million followers each.
“All of these accounts are like magazines,” says Morales. “What you want to pick is the one that people like the most, and the way to figure that out is engagement.”
PR companies have long valued editorial coverage above advertising because the audience isn’t being ‘sold’ to.
“When it comes to paying for advertising, what you care about is what that person says,” Morales continues. “Creating good content is how you measure that.”
And that’s where “real” matters. For example, the most valuable post for Specialized and SRAM by Lizzie Deignan wasn’t the one where she drools over her new bike; rather it’s one where she’s fixing a flat with sponsor logos on her jersey clearly visible.
And Morales agrees that yes, being an ‘influencer’ requires a different talent to being fast. “I see it with musicians, I see it with artists – it’s two different abilities,” he says. “The ability to create really good content and build a community, is a completely separate ability to being an athlete.”
This may lead to some debate over whether Peter Sagan’s sometimes eccentric media performances are a curated extension of his promise to entertain on the bike? Potentially. But even if they are, he still seems able to project an image many find endearing, and engaging.
What goes up?
Recently, there has been a notable backlash against the concept of influencer marketing, for its blurring of lines between editorial and advertising. That anger is directed primarily against people exposed for promoting products without disclosing any affiliation. That scenario is unlikely for paid athletes, whose endorsements are more overt.
But even if the posts are authentic, the outcry over Facebook’s misuse of data could see their value diminished, if audiences aren’t looking as much.
Finally, if these figures show the value athletes can generate for sponsors, what do they say about the risk of harm in the event of scandal?
As Chris Froome’s salbutamol case grinds on, perhaps Sky might be happy their brand isn’t included.
About the author
James Bennett is a cycling mad video-journalist who has covered everything from sheep shearing to several Tours de France. He recently completed a posting to India as ABC Australia’s South Asia correspondent, and can currently be found riding up and down San Francisco’s hills. He’s on Twitter: @James_L_Bennett.