Could Social Media Set Back Women in Sport?
By Sam Squiers
For athletes there’s no underestimating the power of social media. An instant connection with fans, they’re able to convey messages, control how they’re represented and grow a supporter base that bypasses the traditional media who formerly held that link.
For women in sport, it’s proven to be even more valuable. They are no longer forced to rely on articles in print and stories on television as an assessment of their “news value”, but can connect directly with fans – their likes, follows and hashtags of support sending a clear message to companies, marketers and broadcasters of what viewers and fans want to see.
There’s a dark side of social media, a narcissistic social needia.
Yet this new medium comes at a cost and has the potential to set back women in sport, tearing up the inroads made by female sporting pioneers.
Before social media, the connection between athlete and fan was controlled by traditional media. Television news, newspapers, magazines and radio decided whether to run a story, how the athlete was portrayed and what parts of their interview to use. Admittedly for a long time traditional media did this badly, athletes were exploited, sexualised and even trivialised but slowly the tide turned and female athletes began to be represented in the right way, with a focus on sport not sex. Journalists, editors, directors and the like had so much power as to how women in sport were conveyed to the public.
But there’s a dark side of social media, a narcissistic social needia.
The more followers an athlete has, the greater their perceived worth and value. Marketers and companies will often look at an athlete’s social media as an assessment of their popularity and potential brand reach. Followers can replace medals when determining whether to support or sponsor an athlete. It’s a destructive tool that can backfire on the professionalism of women’s sports. An athlete’s ability and performance isn’t used as a measure of success, instead the power of visual mediums like Instagram and Facebook are used as the measure, with the focus on what they look like.
But the dangerous truth is followers don’t always equal supporters. Last year one Australian female athlete with over 100 thousand followers on Instagram found herself needing to raise money to head to the World Championships. A call went out on her account to donate via a crowdfunding site. With 100,000 followers she needed just 5% to donate just $1 each to have well exceeded her target. After weeks of posts and messages the time limit on the fundraising was up and she’d barely reached more than a few hundred dollars.
How athletes go about getting their likes and follows can also prove destructive. Sexier, seductive shots, with plenty of cleavage and skin, can often get more likes and an increase in followers. Surfer Alana Blanchard is the queen of Instagram, at 1.4million, she has more followers than any other professional surfer including 11-time World Surfing Champion Kelly Slater. Alana has never won a world surfing tour event and last year her results saw her dropped from the tour, yet her popular Instagram feed is filled with shots of her g-string bikini bottom, shots in underwear and seductive poses. This article is not to say women can’t nor shouldn’t be sexy in posts but sometimes it can shift the focus onto sex rather than success. There used to be uproar when mainstream media portrayed a female athlete in that way, and while I’m all for a female’s freedom to dress and show herself in the way she chooses, there’s a side of me that worries about the broader picture of how the public perceives, and marketers respond to, women in sport.
The dangerous truth is followers don’t always equal supporters.
I often see on Instagram young girls obsessing with selfies, teenagers snapping themselves in their underwear in the bathroom and concentrating more on pictures rather than performances. Their self-esteem is counted by the number of followers on their Instagram, their worth measured by the number of likes on a post and insecurities are increased as they seek validation through social media.
Women in sport need to be the people these girls look up to, aspire to be and can teach them that success isn’t determined by their social media account.
There are plenty of female athletes who have been able to mirror their competitive success with their social media accounts. Take tennis for example, the greatest women’s player of our time is no doubt 21-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams. On Instagram, Serena is also the most popular female tennis player with over 1.7million followers. Maria Sharapova was earlier this year voted the most marketable female athlete in the world and has 618,000 followers. How you represent yourself on social media is extremely important as well, showing authenticity and personality in posts proves popular, so too does behind the scenes snapshots that traditional media isn’t privy to. This allows fans a sneak peek inside your character – rather than inside your clothes.
The message here is that it’s up to you girls to decide how you’re represented. Your followers, likes and comments don’t determine your value and shouldn’t be a benchmark for your success. Your posts have a bigger impact than just your profile.
Social media is causing a huge cultural shift, let’s make sure it’s in the right direction.