Fergal O’Brien – translating social media success to success on the track

Social media has become an important tool for sportspeople to foster positive relationships with fans, with Su et al (2020) stating that “an athlete’s social media profiles are now an inseparable part of their brand.” In horse racing, this is primarily relevant to jockeys and trainers. However, I would consider effective utilisation of social media as being more important to trainers than any other group within the sport. This is because, primarily, I think trainers have the most to gain from stimulating favourable fan-professional relationships.

Ten-year-old racing fan Kian Burley has been appointed “honorary assistant trainer” by the Fergal O’Brien team

Wann et al (2008) discussed how individuals sports “may be less likely to lead to high levels of identification [for fans] because these individuals only compete for a few years, rather than for decades, as is the case with sport teams.”  Racing would be predominantly classed as an individual sport, but it would be fair to categorise trainers as having “teams” in terms of the horses in their care. As many trainers have careers spanning several decades, it could be said that the trainers occupy a space almost directly between individuals and teams.

This is relevant for trainers, as, whilst perhaps more subtly than a football club or a sportswear brand, they too are competing for customers. This manifests itself in the form of attracting owners to their yard, and outside of having horses perform well on the track, social media channels are possibly the best marketing tool for a trainer to make their services seem attractive to potential customers.

Thomson (2006)’s “human brand theory” suggests that consumers form strong attachments to well-known personas that are attractive, accessible, and authentic, yielding positive marketing results. An individual wanting to get involved in racehorse ownership may have his choice of trainer motivated by their “human brand,” so trainers potentially could gain a great amount if able to show a likeable personality and a worthwhile ownership experience through their social media channels. The two-way communication allowed by social media also allows trainers to be more accessible with their fans, who may ask for running plans or updates on certain horses. 

The most successful example of a trainer benefitting from an engaged social media follower base is that of Fergal O’Brien, who has posted over 32,000 tweets across a variety of topics, including a repeated focus on cakes. The hashtags #BakeForFergal and #GreatFOBBakeOff have both become well known within racing because of this.

By providing regular engaging and often humorous social media content, O’Brien has therefore managed to replicate these associations into his “human brand” and has been able to attract several new owners and syndicates to his yard. In having more horses, it also increases the likelihood that O’Brien will have more success on the track, which will display his talent and in turn may further persuade owners to put their horses into training with him.

The FOB Partnerships accounts provides updates on the many in-house syndicated horses in the O’Brien yard

The freedom, creativity and interactivity provided by social media would be impossible to match within traditional media channels, and I predict more trainers will look to mirror O’Brien’s success and look to utilise social media to showcase their “human brand” and build potentially financially beneficial relationships.

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