Sports is often viewed as a social pastime. For a select few who excel in their disciplines, they may choose to make their passion a living – if they can. Top athletes feel increasingly pressured to go beyond just being a top athlete. They have to market themselves to gain the necessary resources to pursue their passion. However, professional athletes in Singapore are almost unheard of due to many reasons – lack of resources, family obligations, to name a few. Social media is one of the most popular marketing tools available to athletes and brands today, but this costs the athlete’s privacy. Are athletes willing to maintain a public image on top of excelling in their sport?

Even before double SEA Games marathon champion Soh Rui Yong toed the line at August’s SEA Games in Putrajaya, Malaysia, he wasn’t sure he’d be running at all.

Twice before the Games, the self-proclaimed “Honest Rebel” angered authorities SNOC and Singapore Athletics by protesting the blackout rule on promoting personal sponsors and cutting holes in his singlet. Both governing bodies threatened to take him off the team for breaking the rules.

After defending his title, the marathoner hit the headlines again when he declined to donate 20 percent of his Multi Million Dollar Award Program (MAP) winnings to the athletics association for “development and training purposes,” as outlined in the MAP guidelines. Multiple public debates ensued. Topics ranged from whether it was an entitlement or birthright for athletes to represent their country to whether government officials should take a pay cut.

Though the spotlight has been focused on Soh for the past two months, he welcomes the attention regardless of the harsh comments.

“Without the media, sporting stories don’t get told,” said Soh, 26. “Without sporting stories, you don’t have all these inspirational, beautiful stories that the public can use to draw lessons from.”

Starting from ground zero

Top athletes were once part of the populace. When they were introduced to the sport during their developing years, most did not expect media coverage to be part of the package. They created their first social media accounts to connect with their friends. Inevitably, their athletic pursuits seeped into their online profiles as it was part of their identity. Their following expanded beyond family and friends to people who believed in their passion.

Media coverage ranges from athletes’ social media posts to newspaper headlines to brand advertisements. Sports is a niche category such that among their sparse choices for media exposure, athletes have to get creative to be seen. Some partake in charity work. Some rally for athletes’ rights. Some incorporate their full-time job with their sport to prove that athletes are multifaceted.

One of Singapore’s few professional athletes is sprint hurdler Dipna Lim-Prasad. As a full-time athlete, her main focus is to keep healthy and run fast. Few can appreciate the high-risk, low-payout nature of a pro athletic career. Even fewer have the knowledge and courage to speak of the challenges they face.

After the Games, Lim-Prasad sat down to craft her usual post-season appreciation post. She ended up penning her frustration at the lack of funding available for professional athletes such as herself.

“Funding is…an important conversation which should be discussed more openly so we can understand and learn from each other to grow,” Lim-Prasad, 26, wrote. “We must continue to engage sponsors to show them that athletes are worth the investment.”

It was the first time the three-time SEA Games silver medalist had taken such a bold stance. Each time her phone beeped with a new notification, she was terrified.

Her worries were unfounded. Lim-Prasad was overwhelmed by positive feedback from Singaporeans who empathized with her and lauded her for working towards change.

Are athletes willing to exchange their privacy to pursue their passion?

“We’re in the entertainment business. They have to have an opinion. They have to dominate a room, dominate a stadium.” – Lord Sebastian Coe, IAAF President, Athletics should follow IPL’s lead to generate buzz.

Often, athletes are expected to be in tip-top shape year-round. But the truth is that athletes are human too, so they too are vulnerable to injuries. Athletes are split regarding how much they want to share with the world. Some share their injury because they feel they owe it to everyone to be transparent about their progress. Others go off the radar because they don’t want others to share their burden.

Initially, Lim-Prasad’s Instagram profile was private because she was uncomfortable with strangers viewing her personal life. When she turned professional, she realized that engaging sponsors would help her grow as an athlete. That meant making her Instagram profile public for everyone to view – family, friends, critics and hopefully sponsors.

“I want my followers and friends to really know me as a person, which is why I post things that are close to my heart,” Lim-Prasad said. Her feed primarily focuses on her athletic journey, combined with her other passions for travelling and baking.

Besides posting photos, she goes the extra mile to write captions that document her journey. One of the sprinter’s favourite online personalities is Sarah Pang, a Singaporean national tennis player who journals her tours in her Instagram captions.

Despite Pang’s elite status in her sport, her following count of just over 1,200 pales in comparison to the tens of thousands followers celebrities garner. From a pure marketing perspective, it would be more worthwhile to sponsor the latter since they face fewer restrictions on promoting their sponsors and have more eyeballs on them.

The pressure to post on social media differs across sports and even event groups. Compared to distance runners, sprinters can race more often because it is not as physically taxing. Thus, they have more posting opportunities.

Marathoners, however, are limited to a handful of races a year to prevent injury. In between races, Soh has to find ways to maintain public interest in his event besides household competitions such as the SEA Games.

“If everyone keeps quiet and no one is on social media, there’s no backstory to all these races,” Soh said in an interview with Ben Pulham, the man behind Coached. “Marathoners race twice a year. If that’s the only two times the public hears anything from you, it’s no wonder that there’s not a whole lot of money in track and field.”

And Soh has been anything but quiet. In late September, he appeared in the papers for six consecutive days revolving around his protest to donate his 20 percent share of the MAP award to SA.

Are sports brands willing to invest in these athletes?

“You need people to authenticate your brand. By that, I mean you need the best people in the world validating that your product is legitimate and that your products can perform at the highest level. Whether people are aware of that or not, I think it factors into their purchase decision.”

-Steve DeKoker, brand manager at Brooks, talking in an article by Outside about why shoe companies sponsor pro runners.

The athlete-sponsor relationship is a two-way deal. Sports brands outfit athletes with their latest gear. In exchange, athletes promote the brand online to create awareness.

Though contract details vary among brands, there is a common understanding that athletes have to meet a quota to keep their end of the deal. Lim-Prasad’s deal with Nike doesn’t require her to post regularly on social media. She does have to appear at major launches and promote large-scale events such as the Breaking 2 effort earlier this year.

But for most brands, it is not rewarding to sponsor athletes who pursue sports such as athletics, swimming, and triathlon. In Singapore’s context, people are much likelier to pay attention to these sports only during major Games. Athlete’s social media interaction is visibly higher during the Games; their photos garner close to double the number of likes as compared to their off-season content. Their following also dramatically increases during this period.

Soh capitalized on the seven-day break between his two events at the Games to share race photos and reinforce the ongoing storyline of his friendly rivalry with Indonesian star distance runner Agus Prayogo. The news that he was the first Singaporean male marathoner to win back-to-back titles, combined with the coverage prior to the Games, boosted his Instagram following over 10,000 over a span of three months.

Need more convincing? Singapore’s first Olympic champion, Joseph Schooling, gained double the amount of followers in the following week after he beat multiple Olympic champion Michael Phelps in the 50m butterfly.

Schooling’s followers remained steady at 77.45k before his Olympic breakthrough

Schooling’s followers doubled right after he won Olympic gold (153.85k)

However, the value of the athlete is severely diminished if they cannot promote their personal sponsors when there is maximum exposure. The SNOC’s blackout rule protects select brands by banning all mention of non-sanctioned sponsors. The latter might be inclined to invest less in athletes as they have little to no visibility at that peak month of the year.

On top of that, athletes may prefer to focus on their performance instead of worrying about promoting their sponsors. Lim-Prasad’s hectic race schedule had her racing on four of the five days of the athletics schedule. This left her little time to worry about anything else besides recovery and mental preparation. It was only after the Games that she could sit down to chronicle her journey at the Games, going back as far as a month prior to finally open up about her injury.

The SNOC’s sponsor protection is hardly unique to Singapore. Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter forbids athletes from mentioning their unsanctioned sponsors for a few weeks surrounding the Olympics, the peak exposure period. Likewise, sponsors cannot mention Olympic keywords. They can pay a sum to have access to minimal Olympic exposure, but this is essentially unfeasible due to multiple restrictions.

Two American New Balance athletes found a way around Rule 40. All American Olympians were required to wear Nike gear, bar key performance equipment such as shoes. After Emma Coburn and Jenny Simpson won bronze medals in the steeplechase and the 1,500 meters respectively, they draped their spikes around their neck as photographers immortalized their creative gesture. It was the athletes’ only way to protest the rule without risking their spot.

Sports brands going beyond their niche target group

Combined with the need to target beyond a niche audience, sports brands have branched out to the lifestyle market as well. Besides innovating their sports shoes, they also have their own lines of casual shoes. Think Nike Roshes, Adidas Yeezy Boost, ASICS Onitsuka Tiger and the like.

Adidas is one of the most aggressive brands that is breaking into the lifestyle market. Besides sponsoring national athletes, they also outfit celebrities who are not primarily associated with sports. More often than not, these celebrities have a greater following than professional athletes. This makes sponsoring the former seem like a more efficient marketing solution.

Despite this expansion, sports remains a priority for some. For ASICS sports marketing manager Andy Neo, he looks for performance, attitude, and character when choosing ambassadors. This led the company to have one of the most significant presences in the running community, particularly road racers. Owning a strong stable of distance runners has resulted in a string of top podium finishes, establishing the brand as a regular presence in the road racing scene.

This marketing approach has proven useful since road racing is one of the most popular sports in Singapore; there’s always a couple of races every month. On top of that, more savvy runners even travel abroad to race. Notable competitions include the Gold Coast marathon and world marathon majors such as Berlin, London, and Boston.

While Neo acknowledges that social media is an efficient cost-effective platform for marketing, he believes that the choice of ambassadors ultimately reflects the brand’s message.

“We still believe our athletes’ performance is the optimal marketing strategy,” he said.

What do these athletes stand for?

Top athletes come and go with each era. Records are rewritten every few years, maybe decades. Those who go down in history are often remembered for extraordinary achievements (Michael Phelps’ legendary haul of eight golds in a single Olympics).

Athletes can also be remembered because of their extraordinary actions outside of competition. Till today, Steve Prefontaine remains a revered hero of the sport. Besides setting numerous American records across the distance events, he also made a name for himself by clashing with the Amateur Athletic Union while fighting for athletes like himself to be paid alongside the officials. The Prefontaine Classic, named after this same runner, is one of the most prestigious meets in the Diamond League.

It’s not that Singapore lacks the infrastructure for change to happen. The SNOC’s athletes’ commission, of which Lim-Prasad is a part of, gives athletes an avenue to express their concerns. Soh works at SportSG, which governs the national sports associations and strives to improve Singapore’s sports scene.

The pieces are in the right place, but whether the players are able to move the pieces accordingly remains to be seen.

*Detailed Instagram statistics found here.