THE STAGE – the physical world and the digital world

To look at possible meeting points and to evaluate the pros and cons of a possible coexistence between sponsorship and influencer marketing projects, we must first look at the starting point of these two realities.

The athlete is based in the physical world, which is also his first stage: a soccer field, a tennis court, a basketball court, a volleyball court, a mountain, a desert, a paved road; his activity is characterized by interactions with other people: rivals, teammates, a technical entourage. And it is precisely in this physical world that the athlete moves, accrues recognition, makes a journey, obtains recognition, measures his value, and builds and develops his storytelling.  

The influencer takes his first steps from a digital world, which is his stage, in this context the physical world becomes in fact only a “scenography” and a background on which to build a narrative, but his story, his value, his storytelling are structured in the digital world and respond to its dynamics.

An athlete has his first recognition when his performance is measured and evaluated in the physical world and, consequently, may decide to use this recognition in the communication of the digital world. 

An influencer, on the other hand, builds his recognizability entirely in the digital world.

BEING AND SPEAKING – communicating in the digital world

To pursue a career as an influencer, as we have said, the first and fundamental thing to do is to build an identity in the digital world. An influencer must first choose an area in which to act – in the case of sport, perhaps a discipline – and what he or she must aim for is to attract and grow a community around him or herself that wants to belong to that world, wants to know more and more about it, and decides that that specific influencer is his or her point of reference in that area. This crucial choice can be driven by different reasons: aesthetic sense? Relevant content? Consistency in the context of the environment? Exposed friendships or celebrity acquaintances? Or other elements that exert appeal.

The influencer who succeeds in having a target community in the outdoor world -from trekking, to first steps in climbing, to rainforest exploration… – doesn’t have to excel at what they do, doesn’t necessarily have to have come a long way in that field, have a history of success. 

All it takes is for him to be credited in that world through the images – videos and photos – that place him where his community at some point “expects” him to be.

An influencer exists because there is a digital stage that has sets, scripts, co-stars and extras that are consistent with the world the influencer builds around him or her. You don’t even need structured copy, just captions built from the messages you choose to send. 

The objective on which success or failure is assessed for an influencer has to do with numbers and percentages: followers, views, engagement.

In order to become a professional athlete the first thing you must build and cherish is a dream, preferably a long lasting one. Without a dream the chances of becoming a professional athlete are ZERO. Because only the strength that a dream can give us can sustain an athlete while going through fatigue, sacrifices and failures.

To be more precise, what creates a professional athlete is a dream transformed into a goal, which grows with him. A goal that must always be measurable in reality.

The field of action of an athlete is always real and measurable, whether it is the athletic track, the soccer field, the red rectangle … Even athletes who do not have a well-defined field of action, do not have rules written by a federation, do not have a federation, however, must be able to transform the goals and fields in something measurable: for example, mountaineers have the summit made of meters and the history of ascents to that peak. Another instrument of measurement in reality is then represented by “opponents” and competitors.

At this point, the main difference between a professional athlete who also communicates himself in the digital world and a sports influencer becomes evident.

An athlete may decide to leverage his or her history, background and storytelling built over years of goals measured and achieved in the real world to speak to the digital world as well.

So an athlete can potentially be suitable for influencer marketing, BUT an influencer will never be an athlete.

However, there is a middle ground between the two categories, actually two:

  1. The athlete who is already at a good point in their career but hasn’t brought home any major successes, in which case the digital stage can become the space/time through which to capitalize on a life dedicated to a sport;
  2. Non-professional athletes who have pursued a dream or passion for sports in parallel with a “normal” life outside of sports. The fact that they have dedicated all their free time to their sport-passion can make them become points of reference for a given community when they decide to share their experiences and acquired knowledge on the digital stage.

THE AUDIENCE – who we’re communicating with

“To each his own audience.”

Is this statement enough to pacify our souls and lead us to believe that everything is simple?


On the contrary, it is a statement that should push us to try to understand even better who the audience is. And not only in terms of target audience because today the numbers are much more “jumbled” than some time ago. If we want to communicate effectively in the digital world we have to look at everyone: monitor the trends of the youngest, most vulnerable and dynamic targets to try to predict their next move and at the same time pay attention to where and how those with wallets move (which I remind you are always the oldest in Italy, the myth of the 30-year-old millionaire remains in the USA).

What I mean is that reasoning in “honest” terms about the role and importance of the audience also means letting go of the snobbish attitude of those who know a lot about how the digital world works (in the end, the wallet always rules).

Beyond the (more or less scrupulous) targeting, one of the things on which we must focus some of our attention are the transversal behaviors that have a sociological, philosophical, psychological, anthropological impact… and from these we generate the most important question that dictates the law on the digital stage: 

How is content being enjoyed? What has it come to?

To speed of fruition, little dedicated attention, zero in-depth analysis, generation of opinions not necessarily based on facts but on other opinions that dominate thanks to SEO, zero culture of the topic, and visual and textual language that fit this logic.

While I admit this is the thing that scares me the most since I come from the belief “words shape thought and thought shapes behavior,” in this context I’m simply interested in pointing out that we practitioners are all inclined to respect the will of the audience, especially the paying audience. 

Which means that the distinction between influencers and athletes (and the shades of gray in between) on the communication level is not so easy to make.

And beware, this does not mean that the solution is to wash your hands of it, this awareness must above all remind us that it is very important to be vigilant, to be honest, to be respectful, to be loyal, towards your audience, towards your client. Values that are still valid beyond the generational boundary of the baby boomers.

Values that if we can preserve and make our own can help us to bring out the differences and peculiarities that distinguish influencers and athletes.