When it comes to social media, the most powerful Detroit professional athlete is not who you might initially expect.
The local pro with the most Twitter and Instagram followers is Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond with a combined 1.9 million.
After him, in Crain’s first Pro Athlete Social Media Power Index, comes a pair of Detroit Tigers: Slugger Miguel Cabrera with 1.8 million total followers, and pitcher Justin Verlander with 1.7 million.
Detroit Lions wide receiver Golden Tate was fourth on the list, and represents a major drop-off from the first three spots. He has nearly 480,000 total followers, which light-years beyond mortal social media users but is 1.3 million fewer than Verlander one spot above him.
The index represents the online reach for these athletes, which is increasingly important for both players and companies to build their brands, i.e. make money. By team, the list includes eight Lions, seven Tigers, six Pistons and four Red Wings.
Social media is many things for pro athletes: A series of platforms for personal brand-building, a way to directly reach fans and other celebrities, a method to promote charity work and a tool to endorse products. So the more followers, the more reach, and more reach means more money for the player and potentially more product moved for the brand.
Some athletes choose to largely ignore social media. Those atop the Crain’s index do not.
For example, Verlander on June 17 posted a photo of his Lamborghini with a message promoting Firestone’s automotive service centers. The post had the hashtag #ad to denote it was a paid promotion, and it had more than 6,300 likes and nearly 50 comments.
HOW WE CREATED THE INDEX
The methodology used to create the index is simple: The teams provided their most current list of primary social media accounts for their players, and Crain’s tabulated their Twitter and Instagram followers from last week — an imperfect method because the counts change by the second, but none have added or lost followers to change their ranking. The Twitter and Instagram followers for each account were added to form the final total that is the index.
Some athletes only use Twitter or Instagram but not both, and many use additional apps such as Snapchat that can even further their reach. However, Twitter and Instagram remain the dominant social media services used by athletes for now.
Drummond promotes a burger chain, and Cabrera lately has been posting about his own snack food line.
How much do these guys earn for peddling products on social media? Details about the local athletes aren’t available, but some general terms show that it can be a nice payday.
A sports star with 3 million to 7 million followers can charge $75,000 for an Instagram post or $60,000 for a tweet, according to a report from The Economist reported in 2016 based on data from social analytics and brand firm Captiv8. Other platforms are even more lucrative: $187,500 for a post on YouTube or $93,750 for a post on Facebook.
It doesn’t appear that Detroit’s team sports stars have reached that compensation level yet — they’re a long way from the type of reach that global sports stars can deploy for a brand. The monthly global athlete social media engagement index published by Solana Beach, Calif.-based Hookit.com shows only two Michigan-linked athletes in the top 100: Former University of Michigan quarterback Tom Brady, now of the New England Patriots, at No. 67 for total followers with 6.9 million and Olympic multi-medalist Michael Phelps, who trained at UM but didn’t swim for the Wolverines, at No. 46 with 14.4 million followers. The list also tracks interactions, posts, and other data based on an athlete’s Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook use.
Atop the rankings is global soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, who is approaching 300 million social media followers, and brands such as Nike, Castrol, KFC, and Tag Heuer paid him $35 million last year to endorse their products in various campaigns that included social media posts.
Why such spending? One marketing industry insider explained: “Third-party endorsement from credible sources is something that brands and their agencies covet these days,” said Bob Williams, CEO of Evanston, Ill.-based Burns Entertainment & Sports Marketing Inc., which represents companies that want to hire athletes to endorse products. In the past, Burns has brokered deals involving Detroit stars such as Barry Sanders, Isiah Thomas and Kirk Gibson.
One of the reasons brands love to use athletes and celebs to peddle their wares on social media, especially with hashtags and links, is the immediate trove of data available. The ROI can be measured via real-time analytics, whereas measuring effectiveness of broadcast and print campaigns takes time and sometimes guesswork.
“That’s one of things that brands love about social media is the more immediate and definitive results,” Williams said.
Social media also is one direct path to the most coveted demographic for many brands: millennials.
The data backs up the thinking behind using athletes and celebs on social media: Forty-seven percent of all millennial consumers use social media as part of how they spend while just 19 percent of non-millennials use such platforms, according to a 2015 Deloitte study on consumer spending.
A variety of sources put millennial annual consumer spending at $200 billion to $600 billion.
Another factor for brands: Many athletes are non-white, and that’s another sweet spot for marketers because 42 percent of millennials are of African American, Asian American or Hispanic heritage — and they represent $65 billion in annual consumer spending, according to a January report from Nielsen.
Millennials are savvy, insiders say, so just posting a photo of a product isn’t often enough, said Sam Tilton, CEO of Hookit.com. The firm, which connects athletes to brands, has done work with Andre Drummond and several prominent Detroit Lions such as tight end Eric Ebron and running back Ameer Abdullah.
“We always stress how engagement is the currency of social media versus making assumptions around impressions, eyeballs or potential followers who may have seen a post. Engagement is tangible action that can be effectively measured,” he said. Hence, you increasingly see athletes talking to each other on social media about a product, or involved in content beyond just a “buy this widget” caption.
Drummond’s Halo Burger post used the #TagAFriend hashtag to get fans to link their friends to the post, and increase its reach. Data from Hookit.com that shows that Drummond’s typical social media post — he made 834 of them — drew an average of 5,100 user interactions (comments or video views) over the past year. By contrast, a bigger star like Miguel Cabrera averaged more than 21,000 interactions, data shows, and Ronaldo in May alone had 193 million interactions on 106 social media posts.
The athlete-brand relationship is a two-way street beyond an endorsement check, said Tim Smith, owner of Skidmore Studio, a Detroit-based marketing firm that focuses on millennial branding.
“We’ve found that athletes are ideal to endorse products or services using their social channels — as long as the products or services they endorse are seen as authentic reflections of their own brand perception and reflect what would likely be their own purchasing habits,” he said.
Skidmore did work in recent years for Flint-based Halo Burger chain, and Drummond was part of that effort. His March 18 Instagram post for Halo Burger, which used a text-based promotion for a ticket giveaway, drew nearly 7,300 likes and 72 comments.
Drummond, who is just 23 despite having already played five seasons for the Pistons, can be viewed as a near ideal endorsement figure for a brand.
“Andre is a big name in Detroit, has a loyal and strong social following and the Halo target audience is a really good fit,” Smith said. “Athletes in general also tend to have a tremendously high following in terms of sheer numbers and thus can impact a real influence. These athletes also tend to be in the millennial age range which means they are already in the social media space.”
“So, the language they use, the way the communicate and use the channels, and the tone they strike is easy for the target audience to consume. The athletes are users of the social media, so they create content that is naturally consumable.”
Of course, brands are at the mercy of these young people, too. A misguided tweet, errant racy photo or arrest mugshot can wreck a social media campaign in seconds.
“With social media in general, it’s far less controllable from a brand’s perspective,” said Williams. “Increased reward comes with increased risk.”
Sports stars are getting increasingly sophisticated in their social media endorsement work. The candid photos of family, pets, and games remain, but now handlers often are running the accounts and uploading content that comes from professional agencies.
“(Athletes) have always been at the focus of sports content, but only now do they have the power to distribute and monetize it,” said Sam Weber, marketing coordinator for Lincoln, Neb.-based Opendorse.com, another firm that links athletes and brands. “But to really win, athletes need to act like media companies. They need to share content that grows and engages their audience — think high quality multimedia, authentic, and personable content. The larger and more engaged an athlete’s social audience, the more valuable their channel is to a marketer.”
It isn’t always clear when an athlete is being paid to post online about a brand they’re being paid to endorse versus a post that is simply a player freely touting something, or thanking a brand for free swag — although it’s supposed to be clear under Federal Trade Commission rules. The brand gets some level of marketing value either way.
The Lions’ Golden Tate, for example, thanked newish golf lifestyle brand G/Fore in a Feb. 4 Instagram post for a batch of hats they sent him. The post drew more than 1,000 likes. At Christmas, he posted a photo on Instagram of himself holding a pair of personalized video game controllers from Scuf Gaming and he wrote: “Huge shoutout to @scufgaming for my custom controllers. If you are looking to take your gaming to the next level you gotta check out their products!”
Absent from the list is Tate’s teammate, the one athlete with the potential to top them all: Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. The veteran passer deleted his @Staff_9 Twitter account some time ago, opting for online privacy instead of wading into the social media universe where everyone is a fan or critic, and sometimes both.
Stafford did an Ustream live event for Gatorade before Super Bowl XLIV in 2010, and afterward talked about social media.
“I think it’s important for players to relate to their fans and the people they’re trying to reach, especially with social media being such a big part of the mainstream media. But I haven’t got around to it much yet,” he said in an interview with Mashable at the time. He was coming off his rookie season. “I had a page on one of those sites when I was in college but gave it up when I got to the NFL.”
He spoke to ESPN in September 2014 about why he abandoned social media.
“I try not to put my private life out there as much as I can and don’t pay too much attention to what else is going on,” he said. “There’s so much in my life that is public and talked about every day without my control, I’d like to be able to control as much as I can.”
These days, Stafford’s wife Kelly is the family social media star, occasionally drawing attention for her comments, but largely showing off the couple’s newborn twins earlier this year.
For those athletes who do stay on social media, many factors drive their value as endorsers: How often a player tweets or posts, perception of authenticity, their on-field performance, their team popularity, if they’re cogent posts, and even the time of the year. Some players may have a big following but limited local marketing value. For example, new Lions offensive lineman T.J. Lang has more than 260,000 followers online, but most came from his time playing for the Green Bay Packers.
Also unique to celebs online: Verlander has the advantage of being engaged to supermodel Kate Upton, who has 2.3 million Twitter followers and 4.7 million on Instagram.