Some of the biggest sports stories of 2021 took place on social media. Women’s college basketball players revealed inequities between the men’s and women’s facilities in their respective March Madness bubbles, and the nation’s top-ranked class of 2022 recruit, Travis Hunter, announced his decision to sign with Jackson State University by tweeting, “Time To Make History.” These conversations were driven digitally.
While plenty of U.S. athletes promote themselves and their causes on Twitter, the top 20 male and female athletes with the most new followers in 2021 represent the platform’s global reach. The lists feature competitors from 10 different countries who play 10 different sports, with half of the top 10 coming from soccer. Cristiano Ronaldo, whose 95.5 million followers is the fifth-most of any account in the world, led them all with 6.8 million new followers over the past 12 months.
Several athletes on the list utilize Twitter’s evolving platform to creatively engage with fans. “Kevin Durant is one of my all-time favorite Twitter users, because he doesn’t mind getting spicy,” said TJ Adeshola, Twitter's head of U.S. sports partnerships. “He doesn’t mind responding to people in real time. One day Kevin Durant decided he wanted to talk about basketball with fans, and he hopped on Twitter Spaces for over an hour.”
I really don’t like u https://t.co/CdTs4ZReko
— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) December 15, 2021
Among basketball players on the top 20, Durant trails only LeBron James, who engages in non-basketball conversation as well, such as when he used Twitter to promote his election initiative #MoreThanAVote back in 2020. “In the past year or two with the pandemic and the racial reckoning that took place not only in the U.S. but across the globe, athletes really took this as an opportunity to look in the mirror and say, ‘I stand for things,’” Adeshola said.
Just as James waded into social issues, so did athletes around the world. “Some of the folks in the Premier League like Kylian Mbappe and Marcus Rashford have [drawn] awareness and amplification to the fact that there’s a ton of systemic racism in and around fandom of global football,” Adeshola said. “They tweet about that very transparently and vulnerably.”
Only soccer, cricket and basketball players made the men’s list, but the female list includes several Olympians from sports that aren’t otherwise commonly watched. Stars like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka were centers of attention in Tokyo—and not necessarily for their sports performance.
Suni Lee’s social following, on the other hand, exploded after winning the all-around gymnastics gold medal. “Ultimately, one of the common denominators across all these people on this list is they’re winners,” Adeshola said. ”We fall in love with athletes immediately after seeing them perform at the highest level.” Lee’s sudden success has positioned her to take advantage of new sponsorship opportunities in NIL while continuing her gymnastics career at Auburn.
Nearly half of the top female athletes in Twitter follower growth are WWE superstars. Alexa Bliss and Charlotte Flair raked in over 200,000 new followers each. “That actually doesn’t come as a surprise,” Adeshola said. “[WWE Twitter] is one of the most engaged, most passionate fan bases on the platform.”
While the men’s top 20 consists of largely established athletes, two women with very different paths to overnight stardom saw the highest growth rates. Emma Raducanu won the U.S. Open as a teenager in just her second career major tournament, while Sha’Carri Richardson displayed openness and authenticity after being banned from competing in the Tokyo Olympics due to testing positive for marijuana.
Once athletes achieve this level of fame, they aren’t likely looking for one-off paid social media posts, but increasing follower counts can still lead to monetary gains. “Having a larger following absolutely increases the total that they could ask for in a meaningful partnership opportunity,” Wasserman vice president of digital and content partnerships Brendan Meyer said. Twitter allows Raducanu, for instance, “to tell a story about her impact as a marketing partner. I haven’t heard of a single brand using Q Score anymore…. What they’re looking for is social clout.”
Many organizations look at top-line social metrics, like follower counts, but smarter organizations are concerned with who those followers are. “Female athletes may have a largely female audience or a largely male audience,” Meyer said. “For the type of product that is aiming towards one of those demographics, having an understanding of who the audience is is very important.”
Biles, the female leader in follower growth, would rank just 57th among all athletes, demonstrating that there is still a cavernous gap between the opportunities for female and male athletes. “The follower metric is one that folks are really obsessive about, but the one that really matters is engagement,” Adeshola said. “Women on the platform have engagement rates that rival, if not exceed, their male counterparts.”
Organizations may also choose athletes to be brand ambassadors because of their personalities or the causes for which they stand. “[Fortune 500 companies] routinely ask me, ‘Who’s good at Twitter? Who’s engaging? Who’s funny? Who’s witty? Who makes sense for our brand?’” Adeshola said. “They don’t ask who has 20 million followers.”
Even if social media follower counts aren’t the end-all-be-all, they’re as important as ever during a pandemic in which screen time has gone up and in-person events have been canceled. “The prices that athletes are seeing on a paid post basis are certainly going up. I think the pandemic probably fueled a lot of that,” Meyer said. “It became more challenging to put together production shoots and full 360 athlete marketing campaigns, so some of the budgets shifted.”
(This story was corrected to clarify that gymnast Suni Lee will attend Auburn, not UCLA.)