As Facebook’s director of sports partnerships, team and athletes, Kevin Cote’s job had mostly consisted of working with properties on how they could best use their accounts. Now, with live sports paused, the focus has shifted to the male and female players who themselves are the faces of their respective leagues and teams.
Even without live sports, athletes have been using apps like Facebook and Instagram – which is owned by the former – to entertain, inform, and support their millions of followers.
During this crisis, Facebook and Instagram have partnered with athletes – ranging from Stephen Curry and Julian Edelman and Naomi Osaka – to make them Facebook ambassadors for the World Health Organization. They are tasked with sharing up-to-date, accurate health and safety messaging directly from WHO on their Facebook and Instagram profiles.
Right now, Chiney Ogwumike would be training for the 2020 WNBA season, which was supposed to tip off on May 15. Now with the season put on hold indefinitely, the Los Angeles Sparks star – and recently turned 28-year-old – is with family in Houston, the most time she has spent in her hometown since high school.
Since coming home, Ogwumike has chosen to be more transparent with her fans across her social media platforms. She has added TikTok into her portfolio, often showcasing her and her sisters’ dance moves on there and reposting it to her Instagram account. The night of the 2020 WNBA Draft, she posted a video celebrating the news that her younger sister, Erica, would be joining her and the eldest Ogwumike sister, Nneka, in the WNBA.
Ogwumike has also used Instagram Live to interview both her athlete peers and others outside of sports. She has interviewed players ranging from Lisa Lesie to Damian Lillard, as well as sports marketer David Meltzer and motivational speaker Jon Gordon.
Ogwumike wants to be more giving – and less receiving – on social media. When she celebrated her 28th birthday on March 21, she pledged on Instagram to help 28 families cover bills they were struggling to pay due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“In this time, I think the connection has really been what we’re very focused on: helping our partners not only with the shift in their business right now, but also how they can use their voice, use their brands to share information to be there within their local communities,” Cote said. “This is a critical time for us, I think to be there to be there for people, but also for us more specifically for the sports industry.”
“Chiney is a great example of using our platforms in a way that is completely innovative for her and to basically say she’s donating her birthday – but not in a typical way,” Cote said.
Ogwumike’s act of generosity has seen her build an active dialogue with many of her more than 145,000 Instagram followers. Her contributions have helped a disabled army veteran who cannot work right now, local families with electricity and grocery bills, and international college students unable to return home.
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Those who have been helped by Ogwumike have been grateful for her assistance and are looking forward to watching her in a Sparks uniform again.
“I’m super fortunate to have great jobs and to be secure, have a Stanford degree and all that stuff,” Ogwumike said. “But it didn’t feel right to try to celebrate myself on my birthday, especially given that a lot of people are struggling and – we’re not NBA players with that NBA contract. I tried to be creative in a way to find a way to help other people. ”
Whereas Ogwumike is training for next season, Osaka was approaching the heart of the tennis season. Already having competed in the 2020 Australian Open, the 22-year-old was to appear in Indian Wells and the Miami Open before the Women’s Tennis Association canceled both tournaments. As of April 27, the WTA plans to return to action on July 13.
Osaka has slowly begun adjusting to a life without tennis while being at home. She has dabbled in the cooking space, but not quite like Dwayne Wade and D.K. Metcalf, who each have utilized Instagram Live for their own cooking shows.
While Osaka has always enjoyed a closer relationship with her fans, she feels a stronger sense of connection with them at home. When she was asked to join other athletes as Facebook ambassadors for WHO, it was a no-brainer for her and her efforts to help others through her social media presence.
“I definitely have been using these platforms even more now,” Osaka said. “It has been great to further connect with my followers and share a little of what I have been doing to try and stay busy and creative. While we are all listening to the rules of social distancing, you feel like you are with others again when you are communicating through social media.”
Ogwumike and Osaka’s personal contributions are just two examples of athletes taking to Facebook and Instagram to help their followers. For Edelman, his message to his more than 1.2 million Facebook followers prioritized both mental and physical health. He encouraged them to reach out to their loved ones, read books, exercise indoors, and to practice social distancing.
Meanwhile, Curry and his wife Ayesha’s Eat. Learn. Play. Foundation launched a Facebook fundraiser for Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks committed to serving people in need. To date, the fundraiser has raised more than $160K. Curry has also used Instagram Live to host a conversation with Dr. Anthony Fauci and also host a virtual worship service with his wife.
As a result, viewership of athletes’ Instagram Lives have increased more than six times over the past month compared to the previous month, according to Willem Suyderhoud, Facebook’s sports communications lead. This is measured by the number of viewers of Instagram Live broadcasts started by athletes in the last 30 days before April 7 compared to the 30 days before March 8.
Cote still wants athlete ambassadors to make positive content on Facebook and Instagram, but to also create more entertaining videos. Some examples include LeBron James answering fan questions on Instagram Live to Sue Bird and Steve Nash participating in a stay-at-home challenge with HomeCourt, a mobile app that uses AI to record and track basketball shots.
Cote also sees an opportunity for more athletes to use Facebook Gaming, the platform’s new mobile app that is designed largely for creating and watching live gameplay. More than 700 million of its 2.5 billion monthly users already engage with gaming content, according to The New York Times.
Even though the coronavirus pandemic has put a toll on many aspects of life, Cote believes that it has also enabled social media to assist athletes with reaching their sports-deprived fans.
“We’ve been in this position where we’re helping athletes break down the barrier between themselves and their fans and their communities,” Cote said. “Facebook and Instagram do that in ways that weren’t possible 10, 15, 20 years ago, and this moment specifically is helping demonstrate that athletes are human. They are accessible now, Their engagement with [fans] now can be much more of a two-way conversation. Definitely there’s great examples of that over the past two years, but right now, in this moment, it’s more true than ever.”