Modern Rugby & the Social Media Goldfish Bowl

One of the most high profile Irish rugby players, Heaslip has utilised Twitter to maximum benefit

A post I had planned on writing for a while, I was spurred on by recent media reports concerning the nocturnal activities of a couple of unnamed Irish rugby players. The media hunt, led by the Sunday Independent, is illustrative of the every brightening glare of public and media interest in the lives of professional rugby players in Ireland. With this in mind, I wanted to take a brief look at social media and the increasingly important role it plays in the modern game.

A mixture of personal and professional interest, I have for a long time watched the rise of social media and the effect it has had (and is having) on the communications landscape. From a professional perspective I am primarily concerned with how businesses and other organisations engage these new platforms while on a personal note, I am intrigued by how professional athletes, particularly the younger generation interact and utilise this new medium of communication.

According to recent research conducted by Amárach on behalf of EMC eight out of ten online Irish adults use social media which illustrates how Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc. have become part of everyday life both personally and professionally. Whether this is to engage with others, follow the news etc. the ever increasing number of smartphones, tablets and mobile devices are making access to social media platforms even easier and somewhat unavoidable. These general trends are reflected in how many business and organisations such as the IRFU have moved to embrace (or at least acknowledge) social media as a means to reach a larger audience and drive revenues whether it be through the sale of tickets, jerseys or alcohol etc.

The Benefits

Brand Ambassadors: Tom Court and Paul Marshall illustrate the potential for today’s players

An invaluable way to reach a wide audience, social media platforms encourage two way conversation and offer supporters a means by which they can gain a behind the scenes look at the lives of their favourite players. From an athlete’s point of view, the main benefit is obvious, money. Professional rugby is playing catch up however a successful player on the field has the ability to cultivate a profile that makes him or her ideal for marketing and advertising purposes. For example, a player who has appeared at International level, is a consistent player at provincial level and generally recognisable can command a fee of €5,000 plus for a small amount of promotional work (note this figure is mid-range). This would typically consist of a launch photo call, a number of media interviews and maybe attending an event. The player would talk about rugby and include a mention of the product/organisation they are representing. Not bad for what might be one days work.

The financial benefit for players is evident and in a high impact sport where fleeting careers can be cut short at any time, rugby players (and their agents) have been quick to utilise social media marketing tools. Jamie Heaslip, Tommy Bowe along with international stars such as Dan Carter and Quade Cooper are examples of players who do it well. They trade on the natural inquisitive nature of fans and promote their sponsors products whether they are cars, shoes, jumpers, food etc. by treading them in to their everyday lives. Some are more subtle then others but practice makes perfect.

In writing this piece I had a top line look at a couple of young Irish rugby player’s Twitter profiles, focusing on four who are just beginning to make their mark. Robbie Henshaw (Connacht), Stuart Olding (Ulster), Darren Sweetnam (Munster) and Jordi Murphy (Leinster) are four players who featured at provincial and international level last season to varying degrees and are in the early days of their respective careers. Each has over 2000 Twitter followers but tellingly, all bar Murphy, have posted less than 850 tweets suggesting they are not consistent users. While only an assumption, the chances are that they have been advised to set up an account for profile building purposes. This is illustrative of a marketing process that now begins in the Academies, potentially shining a light on players who have yet to fully establish themselves.

The Downsides

Beale and O’Connor, already under pressure, received undeserved and further negative media attention during the Lions series, all due to one photo with one unscrupulous fan

So what are the dangers, the pitfalls etc.? I will begin with an example. Jordi Murphy ran into a spot of bother earlier this year when a wayward homophobic Instagram post was featured on Leinster Rugby were quick to step in claiming that his phone had been taken and the image posted by someone else. Whether you believe the explanation or not is irrelevant for one simple reason. When it comes to social media, perception is more important than reality.

Skilled social media marketers create realities that showcase products and encourage consumers to make purchases. What this means for rugby players is that if they are perceived to have behavioural issues, seem any way unreliable or don’t fit a certain image then marketers will not use them for their brands. Less visibility also limits the chance for television work which further compounds the issue. The bottom line is that seemingly minor lapses of judgment or indiscretions can have a very real impact on a players long-term earning potential. Generally speaking, there is little science or analysis behind a decision to choose a brand ambassador so perception is nearly everything.

The Answer?  

In short, there is no answer. While I am not aware of the official IRFU and provincial social media policies (apart from the 24 hour cool off period) they do appear to have a good grasp of online engagement which I would assume carries through to working with players in terms of teaching them about the various platforms. However, while people can be trained, prepped and polished to handle the formal media, the 24/7 and unregulated nature of social media means that it is practically impossible to mitigate against risk.

Players cannot be expected to sit in isolation between games, they earn the right to enjoy the rewards of their on the field success. The fact however still remains, and one that the IRFU is powerless to do anything about, that players are now more than ever in demand and potentially at risk from negative influences. It is the responsibility of the player themselves, their agents, provinces and IRFU to ensure that the all parties, from academy level right through to the first team, understand their roles as ambassadors and ideally have the awareness to avoid compromising situations where possible. Apart from practical measures such as never posting your social plans to social media and leaving the iPhone at home in favour of a dumb phone alternative, I would suggest that players need to be trusted to police and mind one another.

The accessibility of professional players is a very positive facet of the modern game in Ireland and one I would like to see continue but each player needs to be aware of their responsibility to the broader team and provincial/national reputation. Quite simply, the collective on field effort should be replicated off the field and individual players should be made accountable to the collective for their actions. As part of this, players need and deserve proper structures that allow them to develop a better understanding and knowledge of the social media landscape so they might find some respite from the public gaze.

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