Any story remotely concerning Twitter should probably start with Lady Gaga, who has 8.4 million followers, more than anyone else (and, incidentally, more than the population of 114 countries). Far below Gaga, skateboarder Tony Hawk recently climbed into Twitaholic's No. 50 position, making him the top action-sports athlete with 2.3 million followers.
For a moment, don't think about Hawk's followers as fans. Think of them as a direct marketer's low-hanging fruit. And when considering that Hawk's video game outsold Shaun White's video game by more than a 2-1 margin last year, remember that Hawk, 42, has two million more followers than White, 24, on Twitter.
A stretch? Who knows. What we do know is social media has infiltrated the business side of action sports like nothing before it. Contracts have monthly tweeting quotas for athletes -- including some that mandate product endorsements. Sponsors pay incentives in the thousands of dollars for page views, which are largely generated by Facebook sharing and the ever-popular retweet. One brand is giving its athletes four-figure bonuses for every 5,000 new followers they attract on Twitter.
"When companies call us now," said Tom Yaps, an agent with Evolution Management and Marketing who represents Tanner Hall, Tom Wallisch and Sammy Carlson, "it's in their line of questions: How many followers does he have? How many fans on Facebook? They use the numbers to help decide if they want to sponsor someone."
More than ever, action-sports stars are seen as mediums to reach a coveted generation of consumers. "We want to get video that was shot with our product in as many different places and in front of as many different eyes as possible," said Dan Strickland, director of partnership marketing at Contour HD, a hands-free camera company. "Our athletes are our tools to do that."
Contour sponsors 15 athletes on its pro team, including snowboarders Torstein Horgmo and Jeremy Jones (big mountain) and motocross star Carey Hart, and rewards them with payouts as their videos pass increments of 10,000 views. The video incentives are primarily driven by social media sharing, Strickland said, and have become a much bigger part of Contour's contracts in the past year. As a whole, the company's social-media policies are among the most aggressive in action sports.
"We require that our athletes post positive endorsements of our product on Facebook or Twitter, and we require that they friend us and encourage their friends to friend us and check out our website," Strickland said. "It aligns with our desire to push video content and their desire to get paid."
Every company's strategy is different in this evolving realm. "We make social media completely mandatory," says Josh Bishop, team manager at Armada Skis, "but it's not like I ever chase someone down and say, 'You didn't tweet today.' It's more something they're already doing for themselves that we just tap into."
Armada is different from some brands in that it doesn't require its athletes to promote the product. It simply wants them to be as visible as possible, Bishop said, which in turn makes more people interested in them and exposes more people to the brand.
We just did a deal with a snowboarder and a beverage company. They wanted five tweets a month that mentioned the product, we wanted two. Eventually we settled on three.” -- Tom Yaps, agent
Surfing agent Dana Mesenbrink of The Sports Syndicate refers to deals that incorporate social-media clauses as "forward-thinking contracts." Mesenbrink, who represents pros like Greg Long, Nat Young and Kai Barger, singled out one clause in particular: an apparel company decided to reward its athletes based on their number of Twitter followers.
"You've got to figure," Mesenbrink said, "if that brand can get its message across to 15,000 fans, they could easily sell 20 times in product what they're paying in incentives. It makes sense for these companies to do that -- there's not much risk when you're only talking a couple thousand dollars."
He added: "I could see in the next year or two every company having that sort of thing in its contracts."
Still, not every athlete is ready to pitch gear on demand. Most prefer a more "organic" or "natural" manner of supporting the companies that support them. "I put my sponsors' products in my tweets once in a while, but I don't want it to look like I'm trying to sell something for somebody," Daniel Dhers, a three-time X Games champ in BMX Park, said by phone from Caracas, Venezuela. "It's more like, 'I'm having trouble staying awake -- good thing I got my Red Bull.'"
Said Mesenbrink: "It's a photo of them rocking the headphones or shoes they just got. But these kids do that anyway -- they're social media machines. And they get all the new stuff before anyone else. So when they post it, they create a buzz for the companies."
Still, some of the contract negotiations border on "absurdity," Yaps said. "We just did a deal with a snowboarder and a beverage company. They wanted five tweets a month that mentioned the product, we wanted two. Eventually we settled on three."
Red Bull, one of the most influential and coveted sponsors, doesn't require its athletes to do anything specific in social media. In fact, big-wave surfer Maya Gabeira, a Red Bull athlete, said she'd refuse to partner with a brand that did. "At the end of the day, I just want to be myself," she said. "I will always promote the brands that support me, but I wouldn't want it to be written into a contract. That would be too superficial."
It's an understandable position. But when you're Travis Pastrana and you have two million Facebook fans to leverage in business deals across three sports, at some point the personal medium takes on a more professional role. Even mid-level pros can relate to that.
Asked how much of his income was driven in some form by social media, pro skateboarder Jordan Hoffart estimated 40 percent. "Give it four or five years," he said, "and it'll probably be 90 percent."