Interview with Martin Leroy, sports and entertainment influence agency House of Stories founder
This interview is an extract from the 2023 Kolsquare Sports Report.
What are the challenges with leveraging influence in the sports sector?
Influence can be a real lever for development in the sports sector, and a means of meeting several objectives. One of the major challenges is how to combine the codes of influence with those of sport, without distorting either one. That means not breaking with the traditions or values of sport, but still being disruptive, interactive and open to new actions and formats.
When we talk to federations, leagues and event organizers, they’re dealing with issues like recruiting new members, developing women’s sport, attracting young people, and changing formats and sports. Influence can play a role by drawing on new opinion leaders with the ability to raise awareness among younger generations or specific targets.
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What makes influence in sport special compared to influence in other sectors?
Some sports have historical traditions that can be hard to shift or adapt. Tennis has strong values, traditions and match formats that can be very long. These elements are important to tennis fans but the sport has a hard time attracting new generations who may find it too long or lacking in some aspects. You can’t come in via influence and break all of that. You can’t forget what the sport is, its values or traditions, and just apply the codes of influence.
The arrival of influence has forced all sectors to adapt, change and accept new elements. Sport may be getting there a little more slowly, but it must address these issues if it is to continue to interest new generations.
Olympic athletes often start competing at a young age: does working with athletes who are not yet adults pose a problem for influence campaigns?
There are a lot of young, up-and-coming athletes, or athletes who have already had very successful careers by the time they are 16, 18, 20 years-old. We can completely rely on them; just because you’re a sixteen-year-old athlete doesn’t mean you’ve got nothing to say, it doesn’t mean you don’t have any impact.
But it comes back to the question of whether an athlete is an influencer. Do we differentiate between athletes and content creators? Yes, because their primary job is different. An athlete’s primary job is to master their sport. A content creator, as the name suggests, creates content, speaks out on social networks.
Can an athlete influence, have an impact, inspire people, create changes? Clearly yes. Many people follow sporting idols, see them on the soccer pitch, the basketball court and are inspired by them. Does that make athletes influencers as we understand it today? It depends. We’re seeing more sportspeople who are interested in content creation and are moving into influence, such as [French tennis star] Gaël Monfils on Twitch. We’re seeing sportsmen and women who want to do it out of passion, because they love it, love being able to tell stories. But there’s a fine line between the two.
What motivates athletes to move into influence? Is it a question of being able to earn a living around their training hours?
There are a lot of differences between sports. Soccer gets a lot of media coverage which athletes benefit from. They may have other opportunities, or a club salary. It’s more complicated in individual sports, or sports with less media coverage. Some athletes work on the side because they have to make a living. There are differentiating factors but athletes are taught to be sportsmen and women, not necessarily to be content creators.
New athletes today have more of a digital logic, they’re more familiar with the social networks, and spend more time on TikTok than older athletes. We like to bring the two sides together and create links between content creators, influencers and athletes because they inspire each other. Each side has something to learn from the other.
Are some social networks more suited to sports influence than others?
Athletes are mainly present on Instagram, maybe Twitter, and TikTok. There are very few professional athletes on Twitch or YouTube. Content creators will be on a greater variety of platforms.
Twitch has taken on an important role in sports. We see more and more successful events— such as GP Explorer or the Eleven All-Stars — set up by creators and influencers. There’s a real DNA in sport being established on Twitch. But there are very few athletes who are active or have interesting communities on Twitch or YouTube. But in terms of influence, Twitch and YouTube are the hyper-important networks today.
Issues of diversity and equality are closely tied with sport of all genres; how do they impact influence in the sector?
Sport is an extraordinary vector for change in society. We’re seeing a growing search for meaning in activities and events within the sector. We’re putting more in place to respond to this demand; to limit environmental impacts, promote diversity, and develop the promotion of art and sport. We’re trying to ensure that influence can also be a tool for responding to these issues. We make our athletes and content creators aware of these issues, and are regularly approached by advertisers and events looking to develop them.
These issues play an increasingly important role. We’re seeing more athletes speak out on subjects that aren’t necessarily linked to sport. Some people criticize them for this, and say they should stick to sport. But they have such an impact and are an important voice. They can talk about subjects that are important to them, about causes they feel strongly about.
Take the recent [denunciation of racism by] Vinicus Junior in LaLiga. These subjects are increasingly being addressed by sports federations, leagues, governments, everyone involved in the world of sport. Today, if you want to use influence within the world of sport, you must keep that in mind, and do everything you can to help change things so that it can have an even greater impact. There have always been a lot of questions about ethics, doping, racism, gender diversity in sport, but awareness is growing and so much the better.
Is that growing awareness also happening amongst advertisers? Are they more interested in working with more women, or diverse athletes as spokespeople?
Yes, completely. There’s the performance aspect, media coverage, digital notoriety which are existing factors — but beyond that, today’s advertisers want to rely on athletes who have a story to tell, a message to convey, who are committed to different causes. Ultimately, the relationship between the media performance and the athlete’s commitments, story and personality is evolving and becoming more balanced.
We work with [Olympic surfer] Pauline Ado, a professional surfer who’s very committed to environmental issues. We have a circle of partners and advertisers around her who are there because of what she stands for, because of what she represents, and not just because of her performance and excellent results. Clearly, compared to five years ago, advertisers are choosing ambassadors, spokespeople who are more and more focused on commitment, personality and the humanitarianism of athletes.
Looking ahead to major events like the Paris Olympic Games or the Rugby World Cup, how can brands with smaller budgets leverage influence around these events?
We have to stop thinking that we can only do things if we have huge budgets, or are an international brand. Every brand has its own objectives, and the aim is to meet them in the most personalized and authentic way possible. With smaller budgets we can do interesting things working with micro-influencers. Smaller brands that partner with events can offer interesting experiences and find creative ways of relying on opinion leaders, influencers or athletes.
In relation to athletes, the cost of associating with an athlete is extremely variable. Yes, top athletes can have a big budget but there are many others who have great messages to get across and incredible results, but who are less in the media spotlight. It’s a barrier we encounter a lot, this preconceived idea that you have to have incredible budgets to be able to do things via sport. There are lots of different ways to get messages across.
Streamer sporting events, and other branded events during which fans are invited to meet influencers, are helping to create stronger, more personal relationships between influencers and audiences; is this a trend which is also pertinent to sport?
Today there are real sports content creators who specialize in the disciplines, whereas before they were lifestyle content creators interested in sport. With athletes, there’s a difficulty; audiences feel closer to a content creator or influencer than to an athlete. They are more likely to admire an athlete and what they do, but not necessarily feel close to them. Perhaps because there is less time to meet them; you’re less likely to see an athlete on Twitch chatting with their community because their daily main focus is sport. Between training, physical preparation, recovery time, medical practice, travel, it takes up a great deal of their time. That’s time content creators use to establish themselves and get closer to their communities. Athletes will be exposed more than content creators in TV interviews, in the media, during end-of-match interviews.
The recent 3X3 basketball match [organized by Twitch streamer Domingo] was attended by Tony Parker and other athletes. It’s interesting to mix and create bridges between the two communities. It gives the athlete a way of getting closer to their audience. It’s also interesting for the creator, many of whom are sports fans and see certain athletes as idols.
We’re seeing more athletes be active on social networks because they want to get closer to their community. They want to thank them for the support and to share their daily lives with them, which you don’t necessarily see on TV. The fact that we’re seeing more athletes be involved in digital shows that there’s a desire to get closer to their community.
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