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The Instagram Olympics

In a world ruled by social media, U.S. Ski Team members are fighting for more than just a spot on the podium.

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Mikaela Shiffrin loves Boomerang. Not the Australian tool, but the Instagram effect that makes photos “bounce.” She often posts Boomerangs on her Instagram story of her boyfriend, fellow skier Mathieu Faivre, or Barilla Pasta, one of her most prominent sponsors. Shiffrin—like her U.S. Ski Team compatriots Lindsey Vonn, Ted Ligety, Resi Steigler, Tommy Ford and others—has curated a in-depth fan base through the social media app Instagram. She has even found inspiration through this fan base, including at the World Cup race at Killington in November, as reported by NBC Sports, a fan messaged Shiffrin on Instagram: “We’re not here to watch you win, we’re here to support you.”

This new generation of InstaSkiers navigates sponsorships in a radically different way; instead of demonstrating paid brand loyalty on the mountain solely based on helmet stickers and the like, these athletes are constantly promoting their sponsorships and their own brand through social media.

This promotion of both self and sponsors is changing the relationship between professional skiers and their supporters. With social media, the skier-brand partnership takes on greater value: skiers represent their sponsors with their physical presence on the race course, and also with their virtual followers on the Internet. Thousands of fans click to see what skis athletes are using, what goggles they’re wearing, and even what food they’re eating.

When skiers post an Instagram of themselves, they consciously tag all their brands so even their casual fan can know. After the Killington World Cup in 2017, Resi Stiegler instagrammed herself on the race course, diligently tagging everything: Reusch Gloves, Shred Optics, Rossignol, Leki USA poles, and more. She even tags what you may not be able to see in the photo, like “douchebags,” her luggage sponsor.

US Ski Team Member Steven Nyman—whose main sponsor is Clif Bar—makes sure to feature the brand in most, if not all, of his Instagram posts. Even paid advertisements for other sponsors, like one for Bose headphones, shows his Clif Bar water bottle.

Before the rise of Instagram, skiers demonstrated brand loyalty primarily through their outfits, using logos on their uniforms and stickers on their helmets. Today, a brand does not even have to be directly involved with the ski industry to be an athlete sponsor. Even though she might not tag the brand directly, Mikaela Shiffrin hashtags #sheskis #CantStop #givesyouwings #eleganceisanattitude and #teamvisa on the majority of her posts. While seemingly all inspirational messages besides the obvious plug in the final hashtag, these hashtags mainly correspond with her sponsors: Atomic Skis’ female-centric #sheskis, RedBull’s #givesyouwings, Longines’ #eleganceisanattitude, and Visa’s #teamVisa.

The Olympics are a different game. Athletes cannot wear their own sponsor-provided and branded gear, but instead are dressed in benign U.S. Ski Team uniforms. The podiums no longer become an opportunity to show off sponsorships and corporate logos, but that’s where social media becomes even more effective. Looking ahead to PyeongChang, skiers will use Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter as a key way to profit off their success. They will continue to use these tools to promote their sponsors, hopefully to a larger audience that only tunes into alpine ski racing every four years.

Sponsors versus paid advertisers

The Federal Trade Commission has regulations about sponsored posts on Instagram; individuals have to disclose when they’re being paid for a post using #ad or #sponsored. But skiers aren’t necessarily paid per post but rather for a long-term relationship. For example, Ted Ligety has five main sponsors: GoPro, Shred Optics (a brand he co-founded), Head Skis, Putnam Investments, and Leki poles. So while he doesn’t often post specific advertisements for one of his sponsors, he is sure to tag all his sponsors in any ski-related post.

When skiers post about brands that aren’t their sponsors, this usually takes the form of an “#ad” post, like Ted Ligety’s promotion of Oreos from a post back in September:

Unsurprisingly, the woman with the most World Cup wins of all time, Lindsey Vonn, is the most-followed skier on the U.S. Ski Team. Perhaps due to her fame, she has less of a need to tag her sponsors in each post. In fact, she tags her dogs (@vonndogs) more than she tags any particular brand. Her sponsors are usually visible what she is wearing, but they are rarely @-tagged, hash-tagged, or even mentioned. Consequently, the times she does do a sponsor-specific post are more noticeable.

Instagram is changing the landscape of professional skiing. Skiers are no longer just athletes; they are celebrities. Plus, with a bigger spotlight during the Olympics, social media provides skiers the opportunity to keep attention focused on them for longer. One would assume that this prolonged relevance results in bigger paychecks, but instead, a large and vibrant social media following is compulsory to even having a sponsor at all.

And, with this newfound social media responsibility, skiers must be relatable, but superhuman; authentic, but promote sponsors; show training and workouts, but not give too much away. In this new world of InstaSkiers, it’s not simply skiers’ ability to get on the podium that matters, but their presence in your Instagram feed as well.