This story was initially published in The Creators — a newsletter about the people powering the creator economy. Get it sent to your inbox.
The sports world is increasingly intertwined with the creator economy. Collegiate and professional athletes serve as de facto creators for their teams, backed by social media departments that didn’t exist a decade ago.
Krishna Subramanian—co-founder and CEO at Captiv8, an influencer marketing and data company—has been following the evolution of athletes as creators. He founded four companies prior to Captiv8, including BlueLithium, an advertising business that was sold to Yahoo! for $300 million. Subramanian, 43, lives in San Francisco and is a huge fan of the 49ers NFL team.
Captiv8 provides creator data to advertisers and manages the process of working with influencers. It has developed campaigns and headed affiliate marketing with companies like Nordstrom and teeth-aligning service Byte. And as new rules permit college athletes to earn sponsorship money, he has worked with University of Alabama quarterback Bryce Young and Olympic gymnast Grace McCallum, who attends the University oh Utah.
Companies began using social media creators to advertise in the Super Bowl years back. As this year’s big game approaches, Subramanian expects advertisers to increasingly turn to creators, and he expects the role of athletes as creators to continue to grow.
The Observer: What’s going on with the Super Bowl and creators right now?
Krishna Subramanian: Last year, you were seeing folks like King Bach or other digital creators that were showing up. I think you’ll continue to see more and more creators that show up at the actual Super Bowl. And not necessarily even doing anything on social, but being there. Whether it’s wearing specific branded items, or whatever it is, like the dude with the sign.
Now, you might spend half a million dollars on getting creators to the Super Bowl and creating an experience around them. And if that gets picked up on TV, and commentators talk about it for 20 seconds, that could potentially have a much larger impact than even a Super Bowl commercial. And then I think it’s really looking at how to leverage creators and the audience to make content dynamic so that people have different experiences looking at the same content.
Are companies paying creators to go to the Super Bowl and wear merchandise or other branded products?
We don’t have anyone doing that this year for us, but I totally think it will happen. It’s almost like the Tarte Dubai trip. It totally makes sense when you think about the media opportunity that you have there. If you’re able to get a crew of creators out there, just think about the buzz that generates. These folks are great at getting attention, because that’s what they do all day, every day. I think we’ll see that again, this year, at a much larger scale.
A lot of times, what a brand will look at is creating the experience. They’re not necessarily saying, “Hey creator, we want you to post three Instagram stories that say this and tag this,” because that almost restricts the power of what they’re able to do. It puts a cap on what that opportunity is for a brand. But if you create an amazing experience, and you put a creator in that set-up, they’re going to be so grateful and happy and excited, and as long as there’s authenticity between the brand and the creators they’ve selected, that’s where it’s completely open. When the creator is so excited, they’re just creating content and posting it, whatever it might be. And it becomes truly authentic, and I think that’s where that opportunity is.
What other ways can companies promote themselves through the Super Bowl, aside from traditional advertising?
I think getting into the social conversation. As people are watching the Super Bowl, everyone’s also on their phones. How do you capture that engagement while they’re on the phone? Within each platform, there’s different ways of doing it. You can get creators to all post at the same time. You can get regional creators, and this is where NFL athletes come into play. If you’re a local business, like Bob’s Bagel Shop in Arizona, it’s easy to find creators locally and activate them in that local market. Whereas with larger creators, it’s just more difficult.
Your company data says collegiate football players are growing faster on social media than NFL players, and they have better engagement rates. Why might this be?
When you think about college athletes, they’re typically micro to mid-tier. Right off the bat, when you’re looking at percentages, you’re starting at a smaller base so you have the opportunity to grow at a faster rate. And I think your audience is highly engaged. You are a local celebrity at your college, where everybody essentially knows you.
What are some advantages for companies to work with collegiate athletes versus the pros?
College athletes are just getting started, so price points start lower because they don’t have national exposure right off the bat. There’s an opportunity to create long-term partnerships. Imagine someone like Bryce Young. If you started working with him a year ago, you’re locking him in before he gets drafted at No. 1 or No. 2. Then, everything skyrockets. You’re not only locking in a partnership at a price point that’s economical, but you’re also locking in this audience and creating authenticity.
When might a company want to work with an NFL player over a college one?
Pros have so much star power. It’s like working with a celebrity, and they have national TV time as well. Pregame, postgame—they’re on TV. Whatever they’re wearing, even just walking into the locker room, can have a big impact.
How has working with athletes changed in the past couple of years?
I think social has become much more important for athletes. There’s a “1 percent,” with the quarterbacks and wide receivers and LeBrons that have millions of followers. But then there’s a steep drop. You can be an All-Star Pro Bowler and still only have hundreds of thousands of followers. Social has become much more relevant, and athletes have to take account of that. They have to have an Instagram, a Twitter, be a part of the conversation. And the content itself is evolving. These players are not building their own reel. Athletes having social media managers is a new thing—sports teams having their own content departments as well, because it happened so fast. (Fans are) not going on SportsCenter and figuring out what happened during a game. You’re looking on social.
From a partnership standpoint, let’s say five years ago, brands might be excited to partner with a celebrity athlete once and get their name out there. Now, athletes are not going to want that, and neither do brands. No one’s looking for that one night stand. Everyone’s looking for that long-term partnership.
This interview was originally published in The Creators, a newsletter about the people powering the creator economy. Get it in your inbox before it’s online.