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Insights & Innovation | When athletes care, audiences do too

What audiences want to see from content creators and brands that cover sports — and activism within sports — today

Athletes have long stood at the forefront of social change. Sports icons like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Venus Williams, and Arthur Ashe remain popular public figures not just because of their athleticism, but also their activism. In recent years, we’ve seen Colin Kaepernick, Maya Moore, and Lebron James use their voices and platforms to inspire positive change. As a result, what was once only part of the conversation has now become even more central to how we, as media, cover sports in general.

SB Nation is home to 280+ communities of some of the most passionate, informed, and knowledgeable fans in sports. With our community approach, we bring fans intimately closer to the teams and players they love most. We’ve taken special care in covering some of the most powerful moments in recent sports history, including Hayden Hurst’s journey around substance abuse and suicide; the NBA’s decision to not play at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in protest of systemic racism; the WNBA’s united voice in the 2020 Georgia Senate race; the celebration of Carl Nassib as the first openly gay active football player; the first-ever group of out trans Olympians and Paralympians; and Simone Biles prioritizing her mental health on the world’s greatest stage. It is fundamentally important to us to amplify these topics through a human lens — and by doing so, we create even more engagement within our fan communities.

As content creators, at Vox Media and SB Nation, we’re viewing the world of sports through a new lens. We are finding renewed intention around how we cover the intersection of athletes and activism, how our audiences engage with us on these topics and where our brand partners can engage with us in this ever-evolving discourse.

We recently partnered with Humantel, a research collective that studies sports & culture on a recent study to better understand where general sports fans fall on the spectrum of support for athletes and activism, and zero in on the SB Nation audience’s level of engagement on a wide range of social impact topics.

We found that 67% of sports fans view an athlete’s effort to affect social change in a positive light — and at least half strongly view what they do as impactful and inspirational. We also found that SB Nation fans are, on average, 25% more likely to support social change and expression than fans of any other sports outlet.

WHAT ISSUES DO OUR FANS CARE ABOUT THE MOST?

SHIFTING CONVERSATIONS AROUND MENTAL HEALTH

It’s clear that fans whole-heartedly support the championing of mental and physical health. Thanks to popular athletes like Brandon Marshall, Michael Phelps, Venus Williams, Kevin Love and Naomi Osaka, these topics are becoming less taboo — both in sports and in society as a whole.

POLARIZING & POLITICAL TOPICS

However, deeper issues — like healthcare, climate change, gun control and police reform — are a bit trickier. We found that SB Nation’s audiences are more likely to support athletes who speak publicly about these issues, compared to the general population of sports fans.

Over the past few years, as communities rallied in support for Black Lives, trans rights, anti-Asian hate, voting rights, and equality for women, with several large-scale movements including Black Lives Matter and #MeToo entering the public sphere, the majority of sports fans found it similarly appropriate for athletes to join in the fight. But there were fewer fans that felt OK with athletes’ involvement in more controversial movements like “taking a knee.”

We found general sports fans – compared to SB Nation’s audiences – are much more likely to say it’s appropriate for an athlete to support the idea or concept of a cause than it is to support a specific movement that actually advances the cause.

  • 71% say it’s appropriate for athletes to support the concept of racial equality, but this number drops for the two specific social change movements that are meant to promote racial justice and equality: Black Lives Matter (65%) and Take A Knee (52%).
  • 68% say it’s appropriate for athletes to support the concept of gender pay equality, but support drops to 60% for Women’s March.
  • 60% support movements against sexual harassment but only 47% support the #MeToo movement

ACTIVATING ATHLETE SUPPORT

Just as sports fans’ support of social issues fall across a broad spectrum, fans are similarly looking for athletes to show their support to causes in very different ways.

SHOWING SUPPORT: MONEY & TIME

Sports fans universally believe that appropriate support comes by way of athletes’ time and money. In a sense, they’re looking for athletes to open their wallets and their hearts.

SHOWING SUPPORT: EXPRESSION & CHANGE

Many fans do not want activism to get in the way of their experience of enjoying sport. The vast majority find it more appropriate for athletes to show their support in activities that do not have any connection, per se, to the fan’s experience. They see donating and raising money, volunteering, running charities, and attending events to be impactful acts. Even fewer fans think it’s appropriate for athletes to personally advocate for social change — even in a relatively small way — on and off the field. It’s only a chosen few that support actions that directly impact their experience.

While there is less support for social issues tied to play among sports fans across the board, we found that SB Nation fans are, on average, +20% more likely to support on-the-field activism than fans of other sports media outlets. They are also more likely to feel athletes should be allowed to speak up for themselves, whether that be discussing issues post-game, refusing to take part in competitions, or creating opportunities for change through the legal system and elsewhere.

THE INFLUENCE OF ATHLETE ACTIVISM ON SPORTS FANS: INVOLVEMENT IMPACTS MY OWN BEHAVIOR TO:

When athletes use the weight of their influence through their social platforms, brand sponsorships and organizational affiliations to amplify social causes, it promotes fan involvement in those same causes. This is especially true for the SB Nation fan, who is more likely to learn more, do more, and care more.

SB Nation fans feel brands should help give athletes a platform to support their causes, with two in five fans believing brands have an obligation to participate in conversations around social change.

At SB Nation, we believe our coverage of athlete activism isn’t just a way to deliver on our promise to keep fans up-to-date with their favorite teams — it also helps fuel a sense of community, both physically and digitally, and aligns with the growing expectations around social impact. Simply put, our content and platform is about much more than sports.

As a result, SB Nation fans are ready to reward brands with close relationships to athletes and social causes; more than 50% say they would be willing to try a brand’s products and services just because they endorse an athlete’s cause.

  • 57% will try their products and services
  • 54% say they will buy their products more often
  • 53% would be willing to pay a little more because they endorse the athlete

HOW TO MAKE THIS DATA ACTIONABLE

If you’re wondering what happens next, you’re not alone. It’s hard to take an insight and turn it into action, especially when dealing with a topic like athlete activism, where consumer and sports fans fall on a broad spectrum of support, neutrality or opposition.

We would love to work with partners to further amplify athletes and the social impact work they are doing. This NFL season, SB Nation will tell the stories that celebrate the impact of athletes on social issues with the launch of the Community Impact channel. The stories released throughout the season will spotlight the work NFL players are doing off the field to impact their communities. The Community Impact channel launched on September 9.

In addition to this initiative, we have more ideas on how to make the insights from this study actionable and would love to start a dialogue with like-minded partners to collaborate with on this work. If you’d like to get in touch to learn how you can leverage these insights to engage SB Nation’s communities, please reach out to advertising@voxmedia.com.


Research was conducted in partnership with Humantel’s Sports & Culture Collective. Humantel is a consumer insight collective. In partnership with small, curated groups of brand professionals, we conduct ongoing explorations into the emotions, values and attitudes that drive people to act.