For many, the term ‘social media influencer’ conjures images of forlorn Love Island 2016 contestants fighting to revive a career circling the drain, not sponsored athletes competing on the World Cup circuit. The world of mountain biking is changing though, and social media is leading the charge.

Business is booming and downhill is fast returning to its glory days of the late 90s and early 00s. Brands are falling over themselves to get involved in the sport and the sheer size of Red Bull’s investment should be a sign that it won’t slow down anytime soon.

The increasing prominence of social media cannot be emphasised enough. Social media has provided a platform for athletes to take charge of their image, their brand and ultimately how they market themselves. Nearly all riders will happily throw a photo up on Instagram or Facebook if it means a few free products, but there are far fewer who understand how to cultivate, grow and use their following to their advantage, and of those that do, even fewer have the time.

'Sports sponsorship today is no longer about the logo on the jersey'

Brands are not naive to the power that their athletes wield over social media. Sports sponsorship today is no longer about the logo on the jersey, it’s about the marketable content that their athletes can deliver. Consider Red Bull, sure their riders sport a Red Bull helmet during a World Cup live feed, but there are only seven World Cups a year. The value in paying riders to wear that iconic helmet is in the ongoing content that Red Bull have access to because of that sponsorship.

Consider Gwin, Rachel and Bruni. Of all the Red Bull athletes in downhill, it’s those three that have the largest following on Instagram; a combined total of 829,000. That’s close to a million dedicated, passionate fans that Red Bull have access to, considerably more than would ever tune in to watch the three of them race a World Cup.

Red Bull is not alone though, look at Clif, who now plaster the helmets of Brett Rheeder, Casey Brown and the 5-panel that is seemingly glued to Minnar’s head of late, or Etnies coming from the skate world to sponsor a non-competing Semenuk.

Brett Rheeder at Crankworx Rotorua

'Social media is the action sports athlete’s stadium'

We are starting to see signs that the biggest names are taking note and increasing their efforts too. It’s becoming common practice for the biggest teams to employ media managers tasked with managing content for both brand and athlete alike. Canyon’s hilarious social media videos? The Athertons on Instagram? It’s all part of a concerted effort to grow and engage their social audiences.

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Athletes in action sports do not have the luxury of footballers or rugby players, knowing that they will appear on national TV or in front of thousands of fans, week in week out. Social media is the action sports athlete’s stadium. Still, the norm is that riders are fending for themselves on social media, with many not yet utilising what might represent their best opportunity to monetise their talent. To find out more about the influence of social media on mountain biking, how we can expect it to develop and what riders can do to utilise it, we got in touch with RXR sports.

The brainchild of Ben Ende and Jonathan Retseck, RXR is a New York City based talent management and sports marketing agency representing leading influencers in the world of sports and adventure. The pair boasts a wealth of knowledge from years spent in talent management and sports advertising overseeing massive sponsorship deals; the IBM sponsorship of the Masters, US open tennis and Visa Horizon’s NFL sponsorship to name just a few.

As Jon explains, the simplest way to describe what the agency does is, “look after the business parts of athlete careers and manage the nuts and bolts”. Essentially RXR find sponsors and brand partners for their athletes to work with and then, once these relationships are in place, help their athletes to manage them.

Ben and Jon’s formative years as athletes give them insight into how best to help their athletes develop their platforms, whether that be writing a book, appearing on a TV show or nurturing social media. Essentially, RXR does what their athletes don’t want to, allowing them to spend less time with Twitter fingers and more time doing what brought them a social following in the first place.

'4 to 5 years ago a brand would come to you and say ‘hey we want to pay you for one Instagram post, and just tag us and here’s some copy'

RXR helps to pair their athletes with the right brands, those brands who want to create compelling and engaging content, but more importantly content that is relevant to their story.

And those new projects? Some come from brands approaching RXR for their expertise and their athlete roster, but Jon prefers the ideas to come from the athletes themselves, “some of the best work that we have done has originated with our own athletes’ ideas, just helping those guys flesh out their own ideas, whether that be a trip or a content series, or a documentary film”. Rebecca Rusch, for example, is on RXR’s books and her recent Blood Road film came about thanks to their work.

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With firms like RXR thriving, can we expect it to become the norm for riders to have agents, managers and teams dedicated to helping raise their profile and increase their sponsorships? In short, yes. As Ben explains, the deals that RXR are sourcing for their clients are evolving year on year. “4 to 5 years ago a brand would come to you and say ‘hey we want to pay you for one Instagram post, and just tag us and here’s some copy’. Everybody has learnt some headaches and hard lessons of how to do that and how not to do that, if you’re doing it correctly it becomes a lot more sophisticated in terms of longer-term partnerships where the storytelling is more authentic.”

For RXR, that’s the win-win scenario that they’re always searching for, where the athlete is getting supported, but by a brand that creates content that is authentic and ultimately is good for the sport. As Jon says, “Typically [brands] are looking to crack into [our] world a little bit but they’re not quite sure how, so where we start is a pretty general conversation - tell us about your brand and what you are trying to accomplish - what type of emotion or story are you looking to tap into and then we look across our portfolio of athletes and which of our guys… could be a good fit for this brand”. The takeaway? RXR are always looking to establish partnerships that are not just transactional, but which are “more conversational and a bit more of a partnership".

'We definitely have athletes knocking on our door all the time'

For many of us, social media provides us with a glimpse into the personal lives of our heroes and the prospect of that being monetised, controlled and orchestrated is a bitter pill to swallow. It’s not all doom and gloom though, in our hyper-digitalised society there are growing ways to utilise social media to bring athletes and fans together. Nowadays influencer marketing is not solely about social media, there is an opportunity to utilise these platforms “to have these great participatory or shared events and experiences”.

Think Foxhunt; events intended to bridge the gap between social media and real life - “helping athletes develop businesses around real experience is definitely what people are craving in this hyper-digital environment, to get out there and have a memorable experience and the athletes enjoy doing it too, they want to be out and actually interacting with people and not just liking and commenting online”.

'A lot of athletes are pretty overwhelmed with the demands that they face today'

But where is all of this headed? Just how much can the influence of athletes in mountain biking continue to grow and what opportunities lie on the horizon? Ben and Jon are confident that this is just the beginning - “[there will] definitely be more firms like RXR and some of the bigger agencies will get more involved in this space. We definitely have athletes knocking on our door all the time… a lot of athletes are pretty overwhelmed with the demands that they face today - the downside of having their own social media platforms is that they feel a constant need to always be on and always producing a message and always doing something interesting or cool”.

And the sector that has them most excited? Online streaming services. “[We are] really optimistic, especially for a sport like mountain biking, that it’s going to do really well to find a home for itself on some of these apps and streaming services”. Consider the Enduro World Series, while it’s never going to be on primetime TV, it has all of the ingredients required to thrive on one of these streaming services. With Deathgrip already on Netflix, RXR believes an EWS series or documentary could be next on the cards, and they are “psyched about that opportunity to go out and get these die-hard fanbases who are as passionate about our sports as we are”.

It’s clear then that the relationship between brands and athletes is evolving. The days of a double-spread print ad in magazines are gone and in its place are Instagram stories, Facebook and Snapchat. As traditional media continues to wane and readerships migrate online, there is an opportunity for riders to take charge of their own fortunes and firms like RXR are helping to facilitate this. As the mountain biking audience grows and demand for rider content grows with it, the demand for firms that can help athletes manage this will grow symbiotically. Of course, there are upsides and downsides, but if these firms allow riders to earn more, produce more and spend more time doing what they do best, ride, then we’re all for it.