Jonny Murch

The fifth edition of Redtorch’s #SportOnSocial League Table compares 2020 data against that from the previous four years. This enables us to provide insights for Olympic International Federations (IFs) on the impact of the pandemic on sport and the challenges faced by social media teams.

When the world went into lockdown and events were cancelled or postponed, IFs' social media strategies needed to adapt fast.

What did they do and what was the impact of the decisions they took?

We start with the understandable downturn in social media activity across all IFs:

  • number of posts: 160,000 in 2020 - 38 per cent decrease from 2019.
  • total engagements: 293 million in 2020 - 33 per cent decrease from 2019 (engagement rates decreased across each platform).

Without live events, sports were unable to benefit from social media discussion of key moments.

The good news? People's appetite to engage with sport remained strong:

  • total fan numbers - increased by 7 per cent (although this is half the average growth rate over the past 5 years).
  • video engagement - despite an overall reduction in content shared, the number of video posts increased. This resulted in a small increase overall in views per video and engagements per post.
Olympic IFs saw total engagements fall by a third compared to 2019 ©Redtorch
Olympic IFs saw total engagements fall by a third compared to 2019 ©Redtorch

The data demonstrates the power of live events in driving social media performance. It is highlighted by the strong performance in the #SportOnSocial League Table of IFs fortunate enough to hold events in 2020:

  • Volleyball World, an International Volleyball Federation page, gained a massive 983,000 Facebook fans, the largest fan growth being in January 2020 during the women’s and men's continental Tokyo 2020 Olympic volleyball qualification events.
  • The Badminton World Federation saw its largest fan growth on Facebook coincide with the 2020 European Men’s and Women’s Team Badminton Championships.

New virtual events also had a significant positive impact on social media performance:

  • The International Skating Union (ISU) achieved its highest engagement rate on Twitter in July 2020 during the ISU Skating Awards.
  • World Archery achieved 40 per cent growth in YouTube subscribers during its remote Lockdown Knockout event.

What can we take from these figures?

Though live events remain the number one social media driver, they are by no means the only one.

This last year has forced a change in thinking and accelerated positive change in at least three key areas:

1. Creative and content

In my introduction to last year's report, I suggested IFs adopt a more creative approach between events. 'Non-competition' narratives, for example, help attract new audiences who might struggle to relate to elite competition.

Last year's lack of events encouraged such an approach.

Every IF dug deep into its video archives to present clips such as 'amazing moments', 'unforgettable highlights' and 'best of' series.

Interestingly, IFs producing archive-based campaigns that focussed on human stories away from the field of play made significant gains. By connecting with audiences on an emotional level, they strengthened the sport-fan relationship.

2. Athlete relationships 

IFs had to shift the narrative from athlete live-event-related content to athlete lifestyle stories.

Athletes are central to a sport’s identity. An IF’s audience will increase quickly when its athletes are willing to expand their social media profile. 

The Volleyball World Facebook page experienced significant fan growth in January 2020 during Olympic qualifiers ©Getty Images
The Volleyball World Facebook page experienced significant fan growth in January 2020 during Olympic qualifiers ©Getty Images

Both parties need to recognise the mutual benefit that comes from working more closely to build the brand of their sport.

The increased focus on athlete lifestyle content in 2020 required IFs to develop and nurture their direct relationships with athletes (providing them with social media training, too). Both parties benefitted as a result - and we hope more IFs will see the positive impact of investing in athlete media education.

3. Product innovation

Some IFs adapted fast to the new environment, using technology to explore fresh ways to produce content and events. These rapid-reacting IFs invariably made the news, engaged audiences, and delivered much-needed value for sponsors.

Seeing an event take place in a totally different context, like a back garden, created a new buzz. Challenging to coordinate? Yes. Production quality lower than normal? Yes. Entertaining? Yes, yes, yes! Conclusion: the new and unusual engages and entertains.

Certain IFs are more suited to reach into the 'sport as a lifestyle' and fitness communities than others. They can run programmes with elite athletes or create online mass-participation events.

Indoor cycling using Zwift (around for some time) is a well-known example. More recently, World Rowing got in on the act with its virtual Indoor World Rowing Championships.

In short: 2020 forced a change in thinking, creating new marketable products that have attracted new audiences who are most likely here to stay.

What influences social media performance?

Our unique #SportOnSocial algorithm enables all IFs to be benchmarked against each other.

There has been a Zwift boom amid the pandemic ©Getty Images
There has been a Zwift boom amid the pandemic ©Getty Images

A number of reasons help explain how and why some IFs perform consistently better than others. 

  • Money is key. Those with more financial resources can invest more in audience growth.
  • Accessibility. An IF's social media potential growth increases with increased accessibility to that sport. Some IFs struggle in this category.
  • Ease of understanding. A single sport with one discipline, for instance, is far easier to understand than multiple sports/disciplines. Again, this is an area in which some IFs face difficulties.
  • Leadership. Sports whose leaders understand the importance of brand-building activities, and the level of investment these require, achieve greater social media success - and reap the commercial rewards that invariably follow.

Surprising, the leaders of a few 'big' sports still do not appear to get this message. Their sports' extremely high participation rates worldwide offer huge potential for audience growth yet still underperform on social media. 

When this is put right, they will see their audiences grow rapidly. This will move them up the #SportOnSocial League Table and enable them to enjoy the associated benefits, material and otherwise.


While #SportOnSocial includes a League Table benchmarking social media performance, its primary role is to create insights that help IFs develop and improve their social media strategies to bring multiple benefits:

  • audience growth.
  • increased revenue opportunities.
  • inspiring more people through sport.

While 2020 was difficult for us all, the lack of events gave IFs the opportunity to look longer term, to innovate, and to be more creative.

I am confident these trends will continue as we approach the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

For an outline of Redtorch's methodology and detailed insights into an IF’s social media performance in 2020, download the #SportOnSocial League Table 2021.