For female athletes competing in less prominent sports, the opportunity to parlay social media popularity into sponsorship dollars can be a real game changer. By Engel Schmidl.
Sportswomen and social media
Recently, Australian badminton star Gronya Somerville spent an afternoon learning Indonesian gutter talk. “I posted a picture of myself in a bikini and my Indonesian friends quickly alerted me to a lot of bad comments on it,” she says. “We had to go through about 800 comments, check each one and delete the inappropriate ones. Now I’ve had to create a list of words I have to censor for my Instagram account.”
The 24-year-old doubles specialist is better known in the East Asian countries, where badminton is a bigger deal than in her homeland. While she’s not the biggest name in badminton, the sport’s popularity in Asia puts her social media metrics on equal footing with some prominent Australian athletes. With about 180,000 Instagram followers – about 20,000 more than AFL dual Brownlow medallist Nat Fyfe – she estimates 65 per cent of her followers are Indonesian, and most of the rest are from Malaysia, China and Singapore. A good chunk of them are young men.
Social media is not about vanity for Somerville. Creating a personal brand is crucial in professional sports today. For big stars, a stellar social brand can take an athlete from wealthy to obscenely rich. For the likes of Somerville, impressive Instagram, Facebook or WeChat numbers can mean the difference between being an amateur and being a professional.
Unfortunately, in pursuing her sporting ambitions, she has to deal with the dickheads, trolls and creeps who plague women on social media. She also has to display some deft cross-cultural footwork to fend off multilingual attacks.
If you want commercial opportunities as an athlete, you need a social media presence. That’s the reality, according to Carlie Green-Medina, the founding director of Agency X, a talent agency and personal brand management firm that works with elite Australian athletes, including female cricketers and W-League soccer players. “They’re the product and social is their shopfront,” she says.
She advises clients to pick “three brand pillars” they can create content and build a profile around, and to concentrate on two social platforms. She says the marketplace is now broad and sophisticated enough for female athletes to carve out different identities for themselves.
“You’ve got to have a strategy; otherwise you’re just blowing in the wind. You can’t be everything to everyone. Brands don’t like people that are everything to everyone. They’re buying you essentially for the audience you bring. They want as tight an audience as they can get.”
For Green-Medina, authenticity trumps all else. She cites former UFC champ Ronda Rousey’s transformation from glamazon to farm girl. “When Ronda Rousey first came out they had her so sexualised and explicit in the imagery,” she says. “If you look at her now, she’s on the farm with no make-up. That’s her true and authentic self.
“If you’re happy and comfortable and that’s who you are, and your energy and brand are sexualised, go for it. But you don’t have to do that. You can find something else that’s unique.”
Selling your social wares in the sports marketplace can have a dark side. Algorithms can be a punishing taskmaster. Deakin University Associate Professor Kim Toffoletti calls it “the athletic labour of femininity”.
In a paper co-authored with fellow academic and researcher Holly Thorpe, Dr Toffoletti and Thorpe write: “It is the process by which elite sportswomen craft their self-directed lifestyles through social media that constitutes the athletic labour of femininity. This form of labour is largely invisible.”
Toffoletti tells The Saturday Paper that while elite athletes might have a team working on their social media accounts, those a few rungs down the ladder, such as Somerville, are mostly responsible for this work. In addition to training, athletes now put in the digital hard yards, too.
“It’s the marketisation of people’s lives,” she says. “There’s a whole new kind of logic that remains unquestioned. Sport for a long time has been a commercial industry, but we’re at the level now where sportswomen are compelled to share intimate details of their lives, essentially creating content for engagement to sell and make appealing to advertisers. I think that demands a lot.”
She recognises social norms are shifting, often in a positive direction, which makes a blunt critique of the representation of sportswomen on social media problematic. However, women are still measured against certain forms and ideals. The gendered nature of the sports industry makes the playing field far from level for female athletes, with women’s bodies still bearing the weight of conveying popular social media tropes such as empowerment and authenticity.
“There’s an Instagram genre which is about being your best self, which is a very neoliberal idea about the individual being responsible for their success,” she says. That discourse sidesteps the bigger questions of the gender inequalities that continue to affect women in sport. “So rather than interrogating where the money is going … we say women can overcome their marginalisation through hard work and selling themselves the right way. We say that’s how women can be a success.”
Australian badminton is not flush with money. The sport received $745,000 in funding from the Australian Sports Commission, now Sport Australia, for 2018-19, with $410,000 going to high-performance athletes and programs, and another $325,000 to participation programs. It’s small change compared with powerhouses such as China, Japan and Indonesia.
Ranked 26 globally, Somerville and doubles partner Setyana Mapasa are the best-performing Australians in the sport. Their career prize money stands at $US52,817, averaging out to about $10,000 a year, an annual income of about $5000 each. Badminton Australia also pays elite players such as Somerville a modest stipend, which she says covers some of her travel expenses. Corporate sponsorships make up most of her income.
With the Tokyo Olympics in mind, Somerville, whose mother is Australian and late father was Chinese, has upped her social game. Sponsorship money has enabled her to defer her final year of an exercise science degree at Victoria University. “Through a combination of my playing level and my social media, I’ve been able to compete full-time and fund myself,” she says. She recently played tournaments in Asia, won the Oceania doubles championships, and is off to Europe soon.
Somerville’s branding got an early kickstart at the age of 16 during a tournament in China. A local TV report featured her as the youngest player in the competition, with reporters casting her as a “Eurasian beauty” and “the Sharapova of badminton”.
“It was pretty weird, especially considering my playing level at the time,” she recalls. The Chinese media also picked up on the fact Somerville’s great-great-grandfather Kang Youwei was a famous scholar and political reformer during the Qing Dynasty. Chinese fans found her looks and exotic backstory irresistible.
As her rankings rose, so did her social media profile and the sponsorships that now help fund her career. Currently, she’s a brand ambassador for healthy snack company Slim Secrets and the Chinese sportswear label Li-Ning.
Somerville and Mapasa’s status as the Oceania region’s highest-ranked doubles team almost certainly guarantees them an Olympic spot. With broadcast times aligned to East Asian badminton audiences, a good showing in Tokyo could mean massive exposure. She could leverage her brand and become a very marketable face for Australian companies in Asia, or conversely for Asian companies targeting Australia. That would give her the capacity to continue playing badminton professionally – a rarity for an Australian.
Social media is increasingly driving the business of sport. But where does that leave the less photogenic, the introverted, or those who can’t hustle the algorithms? What burdens are this social paradigm placing on female athletes competing for corporate dollars?
For Somerville, the pressure to perform is not just on the court. It’s on social media, too.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 7, 2020 as "Likes minded".
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