Professional athletes flocked to TikTok during COVID-19 lockdowns last year, but a Griffith University athlete branding expert warns the short-form video app is a ‘double-edged sword’.
Dr Jason Doyle from the Griffith Business School contributed to an international study analysing how 10 professional athletes, five in the US and five in China, used TikTok during lockdowns from March to May 2020 in the US and January to May 2020 in China.
Researchers found many US-based athletes started using or became newly active during lockdown and those in the study all recorded videos in collaboration with family members.
Behind the scenes with the world’s elite athletes in lockdown
Dr Doyle said TikTok was popular with fans because it feels more ‘behind the scenes’, with relatable and genuine self-deprecating humour in videos.
“It provides a different window into their personal and family life, like LeBron James posting fun videos with his family. It gave an unpolished look into who he is as a person and not just who he is as arguably the greatest basketball player of all time.”
@bryce23jamesThe whole fam@bronny #fyp♬ #hiteverybeat – dianelis🦋.
Dr Doyle said US athletes also posted performance-related videos offering a glimpse into their at-home training routines, resonating with the ‘challenge’ function of TikTok.
“Athletic challenges are popular because they showcase an athlete’s abilities like gymnast Laurie Hernandez doing the ‘clock challenge’, where an athlete does a handstand and moves their legs in a wide circle to the beat of Kanye West’s song Stronger.”
@lauriehernandez_inspired by @arthurnory 💙 can you complete this handstand challenge? ##fyp ##handstand ##challenge ##gymnastics♬ Originalton – Lisa Wagner
“Many of the athletes we looked at were downloading TikTok to get involved in these types of challenge without their career aspirations in mind. But athletes need to be aware that everything they do contributes to their brand.”
He said for Australians, the most prominent example was Penrith Panthers player Nathan Cleary uploading a dance challenge video to TikTok which ignored social distancing restrictions.
“It’s a classic example of not thinking about the broader implications of what you’re posting, athletes really need to be aware of what their uploading right down to their song choice.”
In comparison, China-based athletes displayed a more sophisticated use of TikTok, known as Douyin in China, with frequent postings, visual effects and the promotion of their own commercialised workout programs and sponsored products.
Dr Doyle said many athletes aren’t giving much thought to the strategy behind their marketable lifestyle off the field.
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“Athletes are influencers and they need to get involved with causes and charities which align with their brand. Naomi Osaka uses her platform to support Black Lives Matters activism.
“When athletes give back in an authentic way, they also build their brands in the process.”
Fan engagement in 15 Seconds: Athlete’s Relationship Marketing During a Pandemic via TikTok is published in International Journal of Sport Communication.