The rise of the ‘Facebook Athlete’ – The Who, What, Why and Where Next?

Over the last six months or so, a trend we’ve noticed as I’m sure you have as readers, is the popping up of ‘Athlete Pages’ on Facebook. Now there’s nothing new in this, some of the ‘leading’ girls and guys in our sport have had athlete pages for sometime now. But were not talking about leading runners here, we’re talking about regular ‘Joe’s’ and ‘Joette’s’ setting up a page so people can ‘like’ them and follow their progress. As part of this article, what we’d like to do is throw it out on the table and debate a few points that look at this trend in more detail. Firstly, what constitutes being an ‘athlete’? Why do people set these pages up and if you are seeking to use for personal gain, what are some lessons you can learn in the process?

Now, I’ve used the term ‘leading’ above because that’s what I feel people are. I often hear the term ‘elite’ being used more than you can shake a stick at. To be frank, I think it’s one of those overused, ostentatious words and it really grates on me.

Back on topic…

The who?

With regards to the leading runners in our sport, it’s a natural extension of their ‘brand’ activities that they create a persona for themselves on the Book of Faces. After all, they win races and people look to them for advice and a sense of how they achieve what they do. Blogs spring up, they are profiled on websites such as ours (although we have made a conscious effort to move away from focusing on the individual), and the Book of Faces is a natural path to follow given that’s one of the biggest platforms for us all to use to communicate with one another.

Then we have the everyday Joe’s and Joette’s setting up a page. People you’ve probably never heard of and then a ping comes through on Facebook asking you to like their page. Now, are they setting these pages up simply to keep a record of their training? A natural extension of say a blog? Or is it more a bit of a lack of self-awareness about their own standing/ability and a subtle form of narcissism?

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But to analyse further, one thing we need to look more closely, (and which I feel swings the debate for some people) is the definition of the word ‘athlete’. ‘What constitutes being an athlete?’

The what?

I’m not quite sure what Facebook’s intention was when setting these up, be it to allow global leading sportspeople the chance to build a following or to allow anyone the chance to have their Andy Warhol moment. Let’s look at this in more detail. My own interpretation of the term ‘athlete’ is someone who runs, races and trains pretty full-time i.e. it is their profession for the most part and whom regularly wins races at most events they take part in, and is competitive on a global scale. A good local example for Australia is Brendan Davies.

Naturally, there are exceptions to the rule here. Stu Gibson (TNF100 winner) is probably an anomaly in that he probably wouldn’t describe himself as a full-time athlete (although he was previously a former GB 1,500m rep – look him up), but heck does he win races and he’s competitive on a global level too. But that’s simply my interpretation. For me as a writer on the sport, to warrant focus as a ‘leading’ runner, the individual has to be competitive not only at winning a multitude of competitive events in Australia, but that it also translates across to a global scale.

But, who the hell am I to clarify who is and who isn’t an athlete? You’re right, I have no right in a wider community sense. All I’m doing is applying the term and clarifying it a sense of writing for a publication that reports on the sport. Anyone can quite rightly call themselves an athlete whether they win races or not. That is not for me to decide and people are within their right to do what they like.

But let’s delve deeper…

The Why?

You don't need to be a leading runner to have an athlete page - it's about making sure you have something valuable to say to people that counts.
You don’t need to be a leading runner to have an athlete page – it’s about making sure you have something valuable to say to people that counts.

Why the need for everyday hacks, similar to myself to set-up pages? What’s driving the need to do this? We’ve had some brief discussion up top about why some of the leading guys and gals set up pages, but why the normal Joe’s and Joette’s? We had an interesting debate on our Facebook page, where a couple of people who had set-up pages chimed in with their very valid thoughts. Some of those who commented have ‘public’ facing roles and felt there was a need to separate out their personal Facebook accounts to their public facing ones. Others simply wanted to a place to track and record what they do in their training, in a similar vein to a blog. In short, why not? People have been writing running blogs for years (I did one for a while), so why not do a similar thing with Facebook? It’s simply a natural extension, and if you like, a shifting of the medium from blog to Facebook i.e. a movement of the audience from one place to another.

I think as long as you have a good sense of self-awareness and not grand delusions of epic greatness based off running a 3 hour marathon, then that’s perfectly fine. In fact I’d actively encourage people do it. If it helps motivate and drive others, that’s only a good thing. In fact it’s a great thing. Our sport needs role models, whether you’re a leading runner or not – as long as there is a sense of humility and self-awareness. We all like to ‘humble brag’ on occasion, but it’s when bragging goes beyond the realms of self-awareness that I think the problem with athlete pages start. The most important consideration when setting up an athlete page is whether or not you actually have something interesting to say, and that adds value to people. It’s all about the content and the product i.e. you!

Where next?

One of the areas of middle ground is those ‘athletes’ or runners on the rise. Those guys and girls who show a bit of promise, but seek to take it to the next level? This is the focus for our ‘where next’.

People will use Facebook athlete pages as a way of building up a following in a bid for sponsorship and awareness. One of the first things potential sponsors look for when making decisions about a person to align with is the reach they have i.e. numbers of fans. BUT, this is only half the story. Numbers are all well and good, but there is a secondary and much more important factor many ignore and this is how influential someone is.

I’ll be frank with you. The numbers game is easy. Any muppet can pay an outsource shop in the Philippines a couple of hundred dollars to ‘find’ 1000’s of fans for them. I’ve seen it done within own sport. I can’t prove it explicitly, but I see the signs. The trick is to look at how engaged those fans are, something that’s very easy to find on Facebook and more people (and brands) need to be aware of. If you see a page with a large number of fans, yet very low engagement, you kind of know something is amiss.

If you’re a runner with potential and you’re seeking to build your own awareness and look for sponsorship (as many are who have set-up pages), then some advice I’d offer is to get the results under the belt first. Be a great runner first and great promoter second.

There’s a saying in marketing that if you have a great product, you don’t need to market it – it would put people like me out of a job – oh the irony 🙂 But it’s so true. Everything starts with the product, and the product is you as an athlete. Many people I see setting up ‘athlete pages’, trying to build a profile for themselves, are running before they can walk. Get the results in, prove you’ve got what it takes and then shout about it. There’s nothing more off-putting than someone who has a bit of talent, but clearly not enough to be a ‘leading’ runner, who shouts louder than a screaming child with no dinner on their plate.

To be honest, there’s a whole host of things to explore in this topic as each individual and the experience is different. What we’ve tried to do with this article is bring a few of the main points to the surface, and of course present a few different sides, scenarios and experiences. There’s no right or wrong in my opinion, just a number of different criteria to think about as you design or build an athlete page for yourself, should you choose to. Here are three simple considerations if you’re thinking about stepping into the Book of Faces athlete pages:

#1 – Why am I setting this up?

#2 – Have I got something interesting to say to people?

#3 – Can I sustain updating it – after all, an athlete page is not just for Christmas, it’s for life 🙂

What do you think of Facebook athlete pages?

Dan

12 thoughts on “The rise of the ‘Facebook Athlete’ – The Who, What, Why and Where Next?

  1. Couldn’t agree more on the ‘elite’ reference. There are few genuinely elite runners on the trail or running ultras in Australia but a multitude who claim to be. It reminds me of when Rugby Union turned professional in 1995:

    Within 12 months, Wales had 253 registered ‘professional players (without having won a championship of any description since Adam was a boy).

    At the time, 253 was more than the combined total in the southern hemisphere at the time.

    Ultra and trail running has gone the same way, lots of big fish in small ponds, all looking for a feed.

  2. From what you have written it seems that you suggest only elite athletes are entitled to call themselves athletes. Have you forgotten about the term recreational athletes – I mean these are the people most exercise studies are conducted on. If we had to apply your definition of ‘athlete’ to research there would be near nothing out there!

    One definition of a recreational athlete is: A recreational athlete is someone who participates in sports activities to be healthy and to have fun. The goal of a recreational athlete is to participate, to finish or to establish a personal best. They may train for competition but not at the same intensity as would be expected of a competitive athlete.

    Now, while I admire elite athletes for what they achieve, I tend to admire the recreational athlete who manages to run a 3 hour marathon (or just reach their set goal) just as much. These people manage these times despite having to get up at 5am to catch a train at 6 to work. Then spend a long day at work (which in my case requires 12 hours on my feet) just to travel home again. Add in a busy family life to this and I tell you, you have to be a machine to then put the training in to manage a 3 hour marathon!

    These are the people I want to learn from and I want to get my inspiration from. Their challenges are my challenges and they compete under the same terms as I do. I would much rather follow them on FB and get short succinct posts with some interesting pics than on a running blog where they try to write long winded paragraphs only because they feel guilty that they haven’t had time to post anything for a week (between travel, work, kids, taking the dog to the vet, and oh yes some training on top).

    If someone who trains under the above circumstances achieve their goal (what may be in your eyes a mediocre result) let them shout it from the mountain tops! So what if it irritates you? Hide their page but don’t squash their enthusiasm just because they haven’t quite managed to satisfy your standards.

    Heck, if only people with something to say were allowed on FB at least 3/4 of the celebrities should be hidden.

    It is further a pity that a big part of your blog reminds me of the argument a while ago where people suggested that only individuals who run at a certain pace are allowed to call themselves runners. How does this type of attitude help people take up sport? I have met several individuals who for years wanted to take up running but felt too self-conscious because they felt they would not be ‘good enough’. How can you not be good enough to run? Where could they have gotten such a silly idea from?

    1. Hi Mary, thanks for adding to the debate and I appreciate your detailed response. I’ll address some of your main points if I may?

      1.) I haven’t suggested that only leading runners can call themselves athletes – in fact I quite clearly stated in the article: “who the hell am I to clarify who is and who isn’t an athlete? You’re right, I have no right in a wider community sense. All I’m doing is applying the term and clarifying it a sense of writing for a publication that reports on the sport. Anyone can quite rightly call themselves an athlete whether they win races or not. That is not for me to decide and people are within their right to do what they like.”

      All I have done is define the term in the context of someone who writes for a website that reports on the leading runners in our sport. I’m just defining the term athlete in the context of how I use it for this website and for how we report on the sport. I have no issue with anyone calling themselves whatever they like 🙂

      2.) I also admire recreational athletes, and again I quote from the article “I think as long as you have a good sense of self-awareness and not grand delusions of epic greatness based off running a 3 hour marathon, then that’s perfectly fine. In fact I’d actively encourage people do it. If it helps motivate and drive others, that’s only a good thing. In fact it’s a great thing. Our sport needs role models, whether you’re a leading runner or not – as long as there is a sense of humility and self-awareness.”

      I am a recreational runner. I get up at 6am each day, work 12hr days generally (I run a business), train at lunchtime (run around 80-100kms a week), go home and look after my 2.5yr twin girls while my wife relaxes, bath them, put them to bed, cook dinner for my wife and I, wash up, write an article for this website and then go to bed – get woken during the night by one of my girls as she has a medical condition and generally get between 3-5hrs sleep a night. I do this every day. You are right, us regular people juggle far more – I completely agree with you! But I’m nothing special – I’m just like the other 99% of us who do the same thing. Life is about choices and we all make those choices about what we do and I personally love my choices in life.

      I’m in no way belittling people’s results regardless of whether they run a 3hr marathon or 6hr one. I’m aiming to try to set some context when using the term ‘leading’ runner. Someone achieving a 3hr marathon for example and hitting their own personal goals is awesome. The issues arise when they place their achievements out of context with others and the overall benchmark for our sport. The point was made on our FB page. I think someone who runs a sub 2:30 marathon is amazing! But in the context of our sport, it’s not leading or elite. That’s the point I’m aiming to make here. Sorry if that hasn’t come across.

      3.) This blog is all about helping runner. I’ve spent thousands of hours of my own free time (because I love doing it) writing hundreds of articles that aim to help runners of all ability. Again, I have no issue at all with people shouting from the rooftops about their achievements. What I have tried to do in the closing stages of the articles is offer some guidance/advice (in line with the ethos of this website) to help those that seek to further gain from the sport. What recreational runners do in terms of shouting about their ability is absolutely fine and doesn’t bother me in the slightest! It’s when runners are seeking to gain commercially from their endeavours that I think some guidance is required.

      Please don’t think I am belittling the efforts of the everyday runner, far from it. I’m simply trying to put some issues and trends I see being debated in our community on the table, removing my personal opinion as much as possible and then offering some practical advice for those seeking to build a name for themselves in our sport.

  3. To be honest I have been too busy just “being” myself and “doing” life to be bothered with this kind of stuff. Between working, family and running this would take up valuable time for me. It reminds me of travelling through Nepal back in 1983 and having some friends trekking that were so obsessed with taking pictures of everything that they were missing out on some amazing, live authentic experiences. You know what they say- if it isn’t on FB it didn’t happen. Honestly, I don’t want to hear of Joe Blogs daily training log. I do want to hear if Joe Blogs has some deep human insight as to what running has done for them but this is few and far between and not worth waiting for on most pages. Great kudos to those that take the time and commitment to build FB pages and websites that add some value to others. However, I have to say that most of them are pretty pedestrian in their content and have a short half-life. That being said, there are some outstanding FB pages, blogs and websites that I enjoy but this is because the people have made a commitment to consistent quality content with some real human story or insight or some truly new take on the existing dogma.

    1. Which is why you’re so highly respected and people look up to you Martin 🙂 Thanks for commenting. It means a lot to me when people like yourself and Brendan Davies send me notes and comment on what I write. Hope you’re well and hope to see you soon.

  4. Wikipedia: “An athlete (American and British English) or sportsperson, sportsman or sportswoman (British English) is a person who competes in one or more sports that involve physical strength, speed and/or endurance. Athletes may be professionals or amateurs.”

    IMHO it doesn’t really matter who chooses to set up an athletes page. The market will sort out whether they get followers or not. In much the same way as that the Internet is full of “writers”!

    1. Thanks Steve, I agree – although I did look up the definition of athlete prior to writing the article and saw the Wikipedia one… I thought it strange that an athlete could only be American or British English according to them 🙂

  5. Also, for what it’s worth, if you can knock out a 100 miler in under 24 hours, you’re something of an athlete (it’s all relative). It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re qualified to espouse on the rights and wrongs of training, etc., but free to blog or diarise your own activities. Many athletes may be out chopping trees or wrangling cattle (is a rodeo clown an athlete?), are they excluded because they don’t win anything or even enter anything that’s recognisable to us.

    As Martin suggests, whether they have anything valuable to contribute is dictated by the masses. One man’s meat is another man’s poison.

    Don’t lose sight of the fact that for some, it’s the very, ‘check me out and blow smoke up my @rse’ nature of these pages that keeps them motivated. That’s got to be a good thing, right?

    Oh yeah … exclude Mike Le Roux from this. He’s the definitive athlete for me, but a freak in the best possible way (how can a 95kg guy run a sub 16 hour 100 mile cross country?!!).

  6. Interesting discussion. It also seems that you are an automatic hero & receive numerous accolades if you’ve ever lost a reasonable amount of weight (>25 or 30% of total) . Never mind that it’s most often self inflicted from junk food & not weight gained through poor health.

    When does the average healthy living person get their media spotlight ? They don’t. I’m a person who has never varied more than about 10-15% weight & never win races but am regular top 5-20% of finishers in mutli hour endurance events. So way above the average Joe public who does little or nothing but not ever expecting any mass or even minor media or sponsor interest. Perhaps this is why there are more & more ‘not athlete’ pages. It’s people like me, hard triers, just wanting some credit for effort.

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