Cristiano Ronaldo has been a ‘poster boy’ throughout his career. Dazzling feet and handsome features have made him an iconic figure in football and beyond. His ascent in the game has been pretty much perfect and he has even had an adversary, Leo Messi, with whom to battle throughout a compelling narrative.
But his success extends beyond both the game and the gossip columns because Ronaldo is the world’s leading athlete in social media.
Recently there was a great fanfare over him passing 200m followers on all platforms. A ‘club’ that had only included music stars Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift until then.
Ronaldo was not the earliest adopter in sport social media but his team took it seriously from the start. In August 2010, they had 50m followers on Facebook. By October 2014 that was 100m.
In February 2016, the number had risen to 109.7m. If you add in 40.7m on Twitter and 49.6m on Instagram then you have a simply stunning figure that equates to NBA stars Steph Curry, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Michael Jordan combined.
That last name is the most significant. Ronaldo’s social media stature is used as evidence that he has transcended the sport in a similar way that Jordan did with basketball in his prime. It is suggested that when the Chicago Bulls visited a team back in the 1990s, hometown NBA fans would cheer the exploits of their side AND Jordan himself, such was his popularity.
It is different but similar with Ronaldo. Talking on YouTube, his social media team outlined their position. They know those attending Old Trafford will live and die as Manchester United fans. That is not this issue. Those in the visitors’ section will be similarly intransigent in their dislike. But the difference lies in the more distant connections a club has made with its fanbase. Or as they outlined themselves, there is a second layer of supporters in, for example, China and Colombia who may be likely to follow their star player to different clubs. Please note, no one suggests second tier is second class, it’s just about the different nature of their support.
The concept has been talked about for decades but it has intensified with the advent of digital media. It pushes against the team-first notion of fandom that has previously underpinned sport. The development of social media has provided a more sophisticated mechanism for clubs and players to engage with overseas fans. It should be no surprise that Ronaldo’s top countries for Google traffic are USA 13.5%, France 7.4%, Brazil 6.4% and Mexico 6.2% - all territories with which he has never been associated
Ronaldo’s digital statistics also suggested a major focus towards Instagram. Seventy four per cent of his new followers came on that platform during 2015 and it saw more interactions than Facebook and Twitter combined. But then ‘the bird’ barely registered in terms of interactions. Twitter’s travails are well-documented. Although Ronaldo gained more followers on that platform than Facebook last year, the latter had over 100 times the interaction. Indeed, Ronaldo’s most engaged post last year was a picture with his son that registered 4.8m likes. His best Instagram post got 1.8m. On average he gained 135,000 followers per day on all platforms during 2015.
Ronaldo has outrageous talent in the world’s truly global sport however his team clearly have the blend of content to go with the brand of their athlete.
In the dawn of digital sport, teams took the lead. But increasingly athletes will leave their employers back on the blocks. Their ability to weave a compelling narrative is greater. Not to state the obvious but personality comes most easily from a person.
This is nothing new. It has been happening for years and Ronaldo's headline figures should only serve to shake up certain sports people who are failing to capitalize.
In digital, players > teams. And, from now on, they always will be.