Resetting the boundaries: Embracing the athlete’s voice and their increasing role in shaping social change – Head of Consulting, Europe at Nielsen Sports

Global sports stars including Marcus Rashford, Lewis Hamilton, Naomi Osaka and Megan Rapinoe have seen a huge increase in their social followings and impressive engagement rates this year, largely due to their support of social issues

Nielsen Sports data shows that since January, Rashford, Hamilton, Osaka and Rapinoe have collectively posted 5x more non-sport related content than their corresponding rights holders and more than 50% of those posts were to advocate diversity, inclusion, equality and support for the hungry

Marcus Rashford alone has seen his Twitter following grow by 65%.

More than 15m interactions generated by the athletes and their teams and federations combined in relation to content that was about social causes

Research by Nielsen Sports Fan Insights suggest that brands need to change their marketing strategies with 48% of those aged 16-29 now showing an increased interest in socially responsible brands 

“The social upheaval that’s been caused by the global pandemic is likely to reshape what sports marketing looks like in future. As a result, we will see a shift in brands realigning their marketing strategies to ensure they support different social causes.” That is the view of Samantha Lamberti, Head of Consulting, Europe & Middle East at Nielsen Sports, the global leader in sports industry analytics.

Data produced by the Nielsen Sports Fan Insight tool further backs this up, showing that the interest people now have in brands that have behaved in a socially responsible way during the pandemic is increasing. Young people, in particular, appear to be the drivers in this new way of viewing sponsors and brands, with almost half (48%) of those aged 16-29 claiming to have an increased interest in socially responsible brands, compared to 46% of 30-49-year-olds and  34% of those aged between 50 and 69.

As a collective entity, sport will continue to be one of the most influential drivers of social change. However, the power of the individual athlete is growing and so is their influence. This is largely being driven by their social media presence and the platform it gives them to galvanize support quickly for a particular campaign or view they share.

Perhaps the most relevant and most impactful example of this is the influence of Manchester United and England footballer, Marcus Rashford. Rashford has seen his following increase by 36% on average across Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook since January. For context, in the same timeframe Manchester United’s social following has grown on average by only 8%, with the Premier League’s social following increasing by 11%. Rashford’s meteoric rise on social media is largely due to the campaign he started in relation to free school meal vouchers, which led to a huge public campaign and resulted in petition that forced a government U-turn by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. This post alone on Twitter received some 820.2k interactions.

Rashford’s power to unite his fans across social media and put his status as a multi-million-pound footballer aside and connect with his audience, drawing on his own upbringing, is further proof of the new responsibility that athletes have in society and the role they can play in shaping change. So much so that we can see individual athletes becoming as powerful, if not more so, than the organisations, clubs and federations they represent. Athletes have far more freedom and flexibility to express their beliefs on a particular topic than the organisations or clubs they represent and is one of the major reasons why the athlete voice is becoming the most powerful tool in shaping public opinion.

In the last week Rashford’s renewed efforts to force government policy around free school meals has seen his social influence continue to rise and will only strengthen his position as one of a new generation of empowered athletes.

Alongside Rashford, we have seen some other highly relevant examples in the last few months of athletes using their voices to shape social change, with global athletes such as Lewis Hamilton, Naomi Osaka and Megan Rapionoe all using their social platforms to campaign against inequality and social injustice.

Using data from Nielsen’s comprehensive influencer selection tool we can see that Lewis Hamilton’s follower growth has gone up by 44% on Instagram, his support of the Black Lives Matter movement has certainly contributed to the significant growth. We can see that sum total of engagement per post across Hamilton’s social media channels since January (450,931) have received more than double the engagement per post published on the official Formula One social channels (211,673). Hamilton’s most engaging post this year, which generated over 1 million interactions was in relation to the environment and his plans to offset his own carbon footprint.

Naomi Osaka, meanwhile, has seen her following rise by a 57% average, a reflection of the success she has enjoyed on the court and her win at the US Open. She also used her run to the U.S. Open finals to draw attention to police brutality and racism by wearing face masks with the names of Black people killed by police or in racist attacks, which drew huge media attention.

Delving deeper into the analysis, of the athletes mentioned above, the Nielsen Sports data also revealed that the social media posts by Hamilton this year relating to inclusivity and diversity are amongst the top 20 most engaging posts across the EPL, F1 and athletes’ social media platforms during that timeframe.

Collectively Rashford, Hamilton, Osaka and Rapinoe have posted nearly 5x more non-sport related content this year than their corresponding rights holders and more than 50% of those posts were to advocate diversity, inclusion, equality and support for the hungry.  Elsewhere, more than 15m interactions were generated from content posted by the athletes and their teams and federations combined that referenced a social cause.

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