• Franky Wong

Athlete Collaboration, a Trend that You Should Know

Sports KOL Marketing has never been this everywhere. Let us explain what, why and how it is.



With the scattered and fragmented platforms, channels and media for gathering information by different generations, KOL has become the ‘universal key’ for marketing people when it comes to promotional campaigns. No matter what you are promoting, more often than not you will have a list of KOLs or micro-KOLs that you would like to use - and it only gets even more often when the top athletes join the list after Hong Kong’s record-breaking results in 2020 Olympics.


KOL: From Domain Experts to Influencers

Originally, Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) refer to reputable leading experts who’d share their authentic and authoritative opinions on topics in their respective domains; yet as time goes by, the term ‘KOL’ has developed a broader meaning. Those who have a high number of followers or subscribers in social media would be named as KOL or ‘Influencer’. Influencers may or may not have a professional opinion on a topic; more likely they’d share their personal ideas or commodified recommendations in commercials, broadcast programmes or, most commonly, ‘sponsored’ postings, to create a word-of-mouth effect for a product or brand.


Why Athletes: the Bridge to the Public

With Hong Kong athletes completing the Tokyo Olympics with flying colours, there was a surge of marketing campaigns utilising athletes as spokesperson or ambassador. The athletic trend only comes second to the frenzy triggered by Hong Kong famous boy band MIRROR (who represented over 180 brands in Instagram in 2021).


But why preference for athletes over ‘ordinary’ KOLs? Athletes are commonly connected to attributes such as sportsmanship, dedication, professionalism and passion, not to mention the attractiveness of their healthy outlook and vibe (which is particularly influential during the pandemic). These attributes not only are positive, unique and authentic, but often engage a wide range of social media users, especially when the athletes perform well (e.g. the number of IG followers of fencer Cheung Ka-long saw an explosive 1851% rise in one day after his gold win in the Tokyo Olympics).


Something More Than ROI

While athlete engagement has become a universal solution of campaigns, there is no universal way to measure the ROI (i.e. the engagement fee versus the net profit generated) of KOL engagement. According to the 2022 Global Sports Marketing Report by Nielsen, consumers view athletes as meaningful and personalised connections. Nielsen’s recent Trust in Advertising study found that people trust recommendations from people they know more than any other influence factor, with influencers not too far behind. Globally, 71% of consumers either completely or somewhat trust ads and opinions from influencers about brands and products, which is notably higher than channels like online banners, mobile ads, search engine ads and SMS messages. That may explain why, while metrics of ROI measurement vary among marketers, athlete collaborations keep going strong as a promotion and branding tactic.


TIP: Athletes are Athletes

Ways to engage an athlete are versatile nowadays. From event appearance, product sponsorship to brand crossover, social media to physical events, there are different combinations of engagement depending on the marketer’s plan, goals and budget. The major difference between engaging an athlete and engaging a KOL to note is that marketers need to take into account athletes’ training and competition schedule. There were cases that the public thought some athletes had taken up too many commercials and were distracted from their professional athlete roles, hence their sport results were never getting better. This might not be the concern of the marketers, but engaging an athlete is like investing in a stock - the better the result the athlete gets, the better ROI the marketer gets in return. Therefore, marketers must be aware of athletes’ need to balance between their professional role and KOL role.


If Michael Jordan didn’t win 6 NBA championship rings, would Nike be dominating in the basketball sports gear market for over 20 years? (source: The Last Dance).


It’s time to start to plan your next campaign with athlete collaboration and create the win/win situation like MJ and Nike.




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