Are surf and outdoor athletes getting rich off instagram?

Some athletes could be charging thousands if not tens of thousands for a single post on Instagram. Such is the age of the social media influencer Photo: WSL/Kenneth Morris (Modified)

The Inertia

Editor’s Note: This feature is part of The Inertia‘s Money Spotlight, an initiative that explores the powerful influence of money on surf and outdoor culture. We’ll be releasing a feature each day this week with money on our minds, so check back daily.

When Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom posted the first photo to Instagram on July 16, 2010, believe it or not, there was nothing being sold. More to the point, the platform had yet to be inundated with users anxious to cultivate a following and monetize it for their own benefit. In those early days, the term “social media influencer” wasn’t in our lexicon.

Now, though, brands are investing big money to leverage influencers with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of followers to plug their products. Surfing and the outdoors is no exception in that regard. Money is changing hands and athletes that have built considerable fan bases are using their platforms to sell followers on the merits of products they endorse to varying degrees of transparency.

With the surf and outdoor worlds what they are – an ecosystem of apparel, footwear, energy drinks, eyewear, and equipment contracts – the act of wielding social media influence among athletes in exchange for cash is more convoluted than among typical influencers.

Recent high-profile debacles like the social media promotion around the disastrous Fyre Festival, though, have raised concerns among regulators. In light of that, we thought we’d examine how, and for how much, athletes across disciplines are using their influence. Let’s dive in.

What Is an Influencer?

According to Karen Freberg et al. who published a study on social media influencers in a 2011 issue of Public Relations Review, “Social media influencers represent a new type of independent third party endorser who shape audience attitudes through blogs, tweets, and the use of other social media.”

Effectively, though, influencers are compromised as “independent third party endorsers” as soon as they get paid.

A few recent examples? Gabriel Medina chowing on a Frooty açaí bowl, Anastasia Ashley endorsing Rosetta Stone, or Mikaela Shiffrin’s shoutout to Bose, all posts paid for by the brand being advertised. In the case of Shiffrin, recent posts about the headphone maker are tagged “paid partnership with Bose.” With Ashley and Medina, there’s no indication either post mentioned is sponsored.

Beyond surf and outdoors, influencer marketing is big business – and perhaps nothing is more revelatory of that than recent facts that emerged around the failed Fyre Festival. According to the Los Angeles Times, Kendall Jenner charged some $250,000 for a single post promoting the event.

The controversy around the festival provoked the ire of the Federal Trade Commission that has since cracked down on influencer marketing sending warning letters to 90 influencers claiming a lack of “clearly and conspicuously [disclosing] endorsements,” with brands paying for exposure, per FTC regulations. According to the letter, followers must be made aware posts are advertisements in the first three lines of a caption. Including the hashtags #ad or #sponsored is insufficient.

So How Much Are Influencers Making?

Jenner’s $250,000 post is well into the stratosphere compared to what surfers and outdoor athletes are charging to promote products. Still, the amount they’re collecting isn’t pennies.

A site called Influencer Marketing Hub has created a calculator measuring what influencers can get paid. It’s not exact but does provide some data and takes into consideration the number of followers, engagement, and comments. As a point of reference we know from aforementioned disclosures Kylie Jenner’s rate back in 2017. The tool estimates Jenner could fetch anywhere from $258,000 to $430,000 for one post now – a wide range, admittedly, but we’re in the ballpark.

I should also mention that the data shows what different athletes could charge for a single post. Not every athlete listed below is engaging in social media advertising. And no one would disclose to us their actual rates, which, as you’ll see below, are tricky to pin down anyway.

A quick survey of Instagram reveals some of the surf and outdoor athletes that have the largest followings on Instagram include: Gabriel Medina (7.5 million followers), Kelly Slater (2.4 million), Lindsey Vonn (1.8 million), Alana Blanchard (1.8 million), Bethany Hamilton (1.7 million), Alex Honnold (1.3 million), and Shaun White and John John Florence (1.2 million). Not all engage in pay-to-play social media influence beyond sporting the logos of their sponsors on equipment. But, according to Influencer Marketing Hub’s calculator tool, Medina could have pocketed a cool $15-25,000 for the Frooty açaí post above. Slater falls into the $5-9,000-per-post range. And at the bottom end, Florence or White could charge $2.4-4,000-per-post. Everyone else falls in between.

According to Anastasia Ashley, though, the price influencers charge per post really varies depending on content. The number of followers isn’t everything.

“I would say that large follower count can be important in terms of reach and selling brand deals, but honestly it’s more than that as some brand deals require you not only being in the footage or image content, but sometimes meaning handing over a turnkey production which can be a lot of time and money on the influencers’ end,” Ashley told me in an email. “I’d say that easily CPMs (cost per thousand) anywhere between $5 and $30 for Instagram is quite common – but again all depends.”

A Tangled Web

To complicate matters, an athlete’s income has multiple streams – competition winnings, contracts with brands, public appearances and speaking engagements, and royalties. Social media is just one of those complex streams.

When we reached out to brands for clarity, understandably few were anxious to open up about privately negotiated athlete contracts. Still, one industry insider at an endemic surf brand who asked to remain anonymous explained that some surf companies, generally speaking, are a little behind the eight ball. “We do measure the athlete’s following, growth, and engagement as well as how many times they post and tag the brand, though. And we reward the top performer,” the insider said.

A brand isn’t always going out and saying its athletes are contractually obligated to post a certain number of times per day, week, or month. But, building a following and giving the brand that pays you greater exposure can serve as leverage when athletes go to renegotiate their contracts, says Nick Greeninger of Beatbox Beverages who formerly managed pro surfers.

Greeninger compared athletes being on a brands’ payroll to a full-time employee doing consulting work on the side. “For athletes, it’s the same way,” says Greeninger. “You kind of gotta have a primary deal that’s your monthly retainer and you have all these obligations and posting and tagging is all built into that and it’s real simple and streamlined… and then your side hustle is doing one-off (posts).”

That’s precisely where things get so complicated on the regulatory front. According to FTC guidelines, someone who endorses a product must disclose any “material connection” between themselves and the maker of the product. For mainstream influencers like Jenner, advertisements are a little more black and white – if she’s paid or gifted a product or service for posting, she’s obligated to disclose that.

Among surfers and outdoor athletes, the water is muddier. For instance, if a surfer is on a surfboard manufacturer’s payroll and gushes about their equipment on Instagram, does that qualify as an ad since they’re being paid? Here’s another tricky one: Kelly Slater owns Outerknown and is on Breitling’s roster. Does the post below qualify as an ad? The answer to both is probably not, but the FTC may not see it that way as social media posts and the money behind them inevitably begins to become more highly scrutinized.

The Way It’s Always Been

In the end, how surf and outdoor athletes are endorsing non-endemic brands on Instagram and other social media channels may not necessarily be new, although the means of communication may have changed.

“We’ve had the same business model and attitude working with brands even before the Instagram days,” said Ashley. “It was always my job to get surf and lifestyle photos with the products to give to the brands with my own photographer and filmers that, at the time, would be used for advertisements in magazines, or even just on their website, or for them to have videos to play in stores. Now having the reach that I have, I am my own media outlet. Instead of buying media from a magazine, they can just go directly to the talent.”

Ashley’s point is well-taken. The difference, though, is the medium often blurs the line between a true recommendation and a paid advertisement in a new way, and regulators are just now catching up.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article featured a number of embedded Instagram posts that have since been removed.


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