How Sport Enthusiasts Can Turn Their Passions Into Successful Ventures

By Matt Hayes, Europe’s most well-known angler

The online world can be an intimidating space for any sportsperson, professional or amateur. The need (and expectation) to engage with fans online and deftly navigate the subtleties of doing so is an ever-present part of the sports industry for anyone in the spotlight. There is a lot to consider, from working out what your audience really wants, to finding the best channel to reach them through, and maintaining engagement in the long term.

This can be daunting even for those sportspeople who have grown up in a world of social media, let alone for the older generation who are coming to it later in the game. But it isn’t insurmountable, and just knowing the basics can be the difference between sliding into anonymity and building a long-term fanbase – and even going on to generate new commercial opportunities for yourself. My own experience creating my own platform speaks to that.

It doesn’t matter how niche your particular sport is. I’m an angler first and foremost – which certainly isn’t the highest profile or most lucrative sport – but I’ve had success as a writer, TV presenter, judge and influencer across my career. In fact, the niche nature of angling made it much easier to find my fan base initially, and turn my passion into a successful business.

The first thing to consider is your audience. It is much better to be speaking to tens of thousands of engaged individuals in the right way than to be yelling from the rooftops to millions that aren’t interested. But to understand how I found that audience, I need to back up a little bit. My background before I got into angling was in copywriting for the fishing industry, and then as a writer for Angling Times, which served as the springboard for my work creating TV content for Sky Sports, Discovery Channel and the BBC – creating over 200 TV shows. I have even been the face behind a PC fishing game, Matt Hayes Fishing by EA.

These early roles gave me insight not just into how the industry worked from a business perspective, but also into the audience wider fishing-related content. When the 2008 crash decimated budgets in the television industry, I started looking at how to use my knowledge of this audience to better give them what they wanted  – and without being beholden to someone else’s editorial direction.

That isn’t to say you need decades of experience to understand your audience. The best way is to just ask! When you get the opportunity to speak to fans, ask them what it is they like about your sport, your team or even your personal brand. They will give you clues as to where you should focus. I found my audience valued fishing expertise over flashy production values, and generally preferred video and written content, which formed the foundation for the content I decided to produce. Don’t assume that because you’re not a big studio exec you can’t address your audience better than them. They might be better at broad appeal, but addressing a niche audience is an entirely different thing.

Once you know what your audience wants, you have to work out how best to give it to them. Basically, what platform is best for reaching your fans specifically? My fans tend to be older, and, as they favour written or video content, Facebook has been a natural fit for me. It’s therefore the social platform I’ve put most of my efforts into with both organic engagement and advertising. But if you are, say, a footballer aiming for a younger audience – Instagram might be your primary platform. If you’re a fitness guru – YouTube could be a better fit.

Just as important is the need to create your own space. Social media platforms are fantastic tools but they should never be the home base for your brand – that should be your own space where you can host what you want with full editorial control.

Creating and running your own platform can be difficult, not to mention expensive, so for this I turned to an ‘out-the-box’ website and mobile app solution from SupaPass, which has allowed me to create my own Netflix-type platform, pre-built to host my whole video back-catalogue in one place. My fans loved that they could finally find all my 200 TV shows in one place on my own app, and support future work with a yearly subscription where they know 100% of their support is going directly to me.  With my app they enjoy an exclusive space where I nurture my own community and offer fans things they can’t get anywhere else. I was even able to add audio recordings of my new books, and a new ‘fishcast’ podcast to my app. I believe technology is the biggest obstacle holding sportspeople back from properly engaging with their audiences and SupaPass has solved that for me; to have that taken care of frees you up to focus on creating (and monetising) your own content.

Having your own online space also acts as an anchor for your audience. It’s where you can engage with them more personally, host an online store to sell your core products, and it can prove to advertisers that you are someone worth engaging with for commercial opportunities. Becoming an “industry influencer” in this way may be different to other avenues, but the ability to say yes and no to whatever you want is something that only grows more important as your career progresses. It also gives you more control over your content rights, something which you often have to sacrifice when working through platforms or engaging in commercial partnerships.

This brings me nicely onto another big consideration – crafting a personal brand that you can leverage and monetise should be seen as a long game, an investment for your future rather than a way to make a quick buck. And you should always leave room to reinvent yourself as your industry changes. Follow your passion for your sport above everything else, and decide early on how you want to measure success in this space. You don’t want to end up like Andre Agassi, who famously said, “I play tennis for a living, even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion, and always have”. I knew I was never going to be “rich” through angling, but I am successful, and I wouldn’t have become successful if I hadn’t focused on what I loved about my sport and found a way to share that with the very people who put me where I am – my audience.

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