Athlete Influencers: The Rise or Pitfall of Sports?

Some are calling 2023 the year of the “athlete influencer”.

And I agree…

But this rise has been going on for years now (finally kicking into full gear thanks to NIL.)

athlete influencer posing for photo

However, there are a lot of unintended consequences we might not be paying enough attention to.

Athletes are going through a great transformation (and this is going to have a profound impact on sports as a whole).

Let’s Dive In 👇

TikTok is Easier Than Sports

The bottom line is this…

It’s far easier to grow a social media following than it is to become a professional athlete. (Trust me, I’ve tried both)

And ironic enough, once you become a professional athlete it’s much easier to grow a social media following.

But we actually have to go back a step…

  • Only 7% of high school athletes go on to play college sports.
  • And 2% of those college athletes go on to play professionally.

Looking at men’s basketball, 60 players make the NBA each year out of an original population of ~500,000 high school players (0.012%) 🤯

high school athletes that will play college and pro sports chart

*The percentages are actually much lower if you account for the millions of kids that play sports globally.

Historically, it’s been extremely difficult to make money from sports themselves.

But, NIL has enabled athletes of all ages to make money.

So who does this impact the most?


But I’ll take it a step further…

Female Athletes

In my opinion, women’s sports are going to be impacted the most by the rise of athlete influencers.

We’re already seeing it with Livvy Dunne, Paige Bueckers, and the Cavinder Twins.

Teams are going to be filled with female athlete influencers (or at least trying to be).

I was talking with a volleyball coach last week and she said “I’ve never seen as much dancing on the sidelines as I did during this year’s college volleyball playoffs”.

women's volleyball league

Women’s sports leagues have traditionally struggled to garner eyeballs.

Interestingly, many of these individual female college athletes are having no problem earning attention.

The key is to leverage these athletes to help bolster the sports, leagues, and teams…

Pickleball has been great for both male and female athletes — and I’m excited to see how the pro women’s volleyball leagues turn out.

Male Athlete Entertainers

It’s not just female sports that are going to be impacted…

Men’s sports have similar things to deal with.

The fact that after 18 years of business, Ballislife decided to raise a $2.7M Series A is all the proof you need.

They’re a highlight tape, showbiz, & entertainment version of basketball media.

ballislife media

Ballislife sees the value in eyeballs — people want to see dunks, crossovers, blocks, and trash-talking (their revenue is up 800% in the last year).

Nobody watches a 30-second TikTok of good ball movement or a player who has sound fundamentals.

Let me show you why this is important…

Many players (and parents) are beginning to realize that it is a long shot to make it to the pros.

But social media stardom and the clout/money that comes along with followers are very much in grasp within sports.

So we’re starting to see athletes optimize for social media views & likes, compared to development in their game and attention from scouts.

baby gronk instagram
Baby Gronk (300k IG followers)

Keep in mind…

There’s going to be a lag effect in how this plays out (but it will undoubtedly change the landscape).

Downstream Athlete Influencer Impact

The combination of these things is fueling all of this:

  • NIL – athletes of all ages can monetize
  • TikTok – short form video clips have created “30 second athletes”
  • Monetization – athletes as entrepreneurs creates money-driven thinking

Sports have always been about entertainment, but it’s ramped up now.

Here are some of the side effects and collateral damage:

  • shorter attention spans
  • coaches have a harder job
  • education takes a backseat
  • the constant need for fans to be entertained
  • athletes thinking more about how to make money vs. get better

I’m sure throughout the ages people have said “we live in such an interesting time period”, but 2023 is so strange.

What’s Being Built

There’s so much potential in building companies, software, and services around athlete influencers.

I covered the landscape in a prior briefing, the rise of creator platforms.

But let’s take a quick look at some other options:

  • Media – the Ballislife model could certainly work in other sports
  • SaaS Tools – in my opinion, anything to help save athletes time is valuable
  • Videography – schools, companies, and athletes are going to have an increasing need for videographers
  • Editing – with all this extra video content, editors are needed to turn raw clips into a final product
  • Legal – more brand deals = more contracts
  • Agents – athletes with more opportunities creates the need for more gatekeepers
  • Community – membership groups are interesting, we’re starting to see a rise in communities built around athletics

Sports are in the process of becoming fully commercialized — from t-ball social media sensations to Patrick Mahomes.

In my opinion, sports companies need to be thinking about the downstream impact athlete influencers will continue to have.

Starting a sports company from scratch in 2023? You should 100% think about targeting the youth sports landscape.

The Path Ahead

When I was growing up, kids wanted to be professional athletes.

Most kids today want to become YouTubers, streamers, and social media stars (especially in Western countries).

western kids grow up wanting to be youtubers

Ironic enough, the worlds of athletes and social media influencers have collided.

Room for concern…


If athletes use sports to boost their influencer status — at least they’re able to make money, bring more publicity to the sports, and learn real-world business skills.

Are these positives or negatives?

It’s all in your perspective and opinion.

However, there is one thing I am worried about…

The mental health of these athletes.

mental health of youth athletes

Because the reality is — most kids won’t become pro athletes or famous social media influencers.

Then what?

Industry Trends & Analysis

The future of sports delivered to your inbox every Thursday.

Related Articles

Industry Research & Analysis

Trends, news, & companies shaping the future of sports delivered to your inbox every Thursday.

Industry Research & Analysis

Trends, news, & companies shaping the future of sports delivered to your inbox every Thursday.