Over the weekend at the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio, the power of social media bulked much larger than the hypertrophied bodybuilders competing there.
Four-time Mr. Olympia champion Jay Cutler is still somewhat puzzled by this development. "I don't totally get Instagram and social media," he told a crowd of fans and reporters at last September's Mr. Olympia bodybuilding championship. "When I was coming up, we built our careers through the [Joe Weider-published] muscle magazines. There was a certain mystique associated with that. It was a level of distance between you [the fan] and the athletes; it was more about you as a bodybuilder than you as a guy or girl with charisma who can draw a crowd."
He's a freak, but the good kind of freak.
Cutler is right about one thing: these people can draw crowds, with over 175,000 people attending the Arnold Classic this year. Spread across the gigantic exhibition floor of the Greater Columbus Convention Center, Instagram physique stars and other sponsored athletes had attracted throngs of fans who were willing to endure lengthy waits in slow-moving lines.
"Rich Piana is an inspiration to me, in so many ways," Aaron Cook, a 400-pound part-time powerlifter and full-time registered nurse from Cincinnati, told Motherboard when asked why he was spending his afternoon waiting to get a picture taken with the 300-pound bodybuilder. "He's a freak, but the good kind of freak, somebody you notice. You want to be noticed, like you noticed me, because of how I'm huge, how I stand out."
Like many of the expo's most sought-after stars, Piana has only a modest record of success in bodybuilding competitions, but an incredible social media footprint, boasting 900,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel and a million followers on Instagram.
"You are your brand; that's how it works. I'm a serial fitness entrepreneur at heart," said powerlifter and bodybuilder Cory Gregory, who co-founded the sports nutrition brands MusclePharm and Max Effort Muscle and owns the Old School Gym in Etna, Ohio. "I bought my first gym at age 20. I've won powerlifting competitions, been on magazine covers... all because I bet on myself. I'm here selling products that I use, that I helped develop, because I know what works. My customers can look at me, look at how I live my life, and see that. They can watch my YouTube demonstration videos and read my articles on Bodybuilding.com."
Susan Goodell, who does public relations for the Glanbia-owned nutrition brand Optimum Nutrition (ON), explained that sponsored athletes who have preexisting followings are valuable marketing tools. "If you take someone like the bodybuilder Steve Cook, who has a million followers on Instagram... his platform helps him reach so many people that companies couldn't otherwise reach. And Steve really does use the supplements, which people following him can clearly see, and that's effective in a way that a scripted advertisements aren't."
Aware that aspiring lifters and bodybuilders have begun to covet the "sponsored athlete" label for their own profiles as a kind of status symbol, Optimum has expanded its notion of "sponsorship" to encompass members of the general public who actively share their products on social media. "Here in the display booth we've got a contest winner, Kenny Missey, who actively promoted ON on his various social media feeds, and as a reward, he gets to be here at the Arnold with us and our other athletes," Goodell said.
Vlad Yudin, the director of the bodybuilding documentary Generation Iron, believes that the technology-driven democratization of bodybuilding has been critical to the sport's expanding popularity.
"It used to be all about the magazines, muscle magazines, but we took it to a digital age with our Generation Iron fitness network," Yudin told Motherboard. "Now the athletes are right there for you: you can watch them, listen to them—there's no barrier."
Anyone with a cell phone can potentially build their own revenue streams.
Two-time Arnold Classic champion Kai Greene agreed with Yudin's assessment, noting that social media has created opportunities for bodybuilders who might not have prospered in prior eras. "You have people that are incredible enthusiasts and personalities outside of the competitive stage of our sport, who are standing on a stage of their own, on social media," he said. "I think it's an interesting time of personal empowerment. Twenty years ago, you had to compete for a ranking or placement that allowed you to be in the running for sponsorships. With the advent of social media, you have a playing field that's been leveled. Anyone with a cell phone can potentially build their own revenue streams."
Aaron Cook, who had paid extra for a "VIP" pass that entitled him to early entry to the expo and other perks, said that he respected the entrepreneurial energies of the attendees. "Everybody wants to be seen and noticed, you know, and if you can make money doing it, if people like what you're selling and who you are, that's awesome. I mean, this thing is named after Arnold, run by him. And if he hadn't made that documentary [Pumping Iron] and sold himself, we wouldn't be here, right? I'm a big believer in a free market, no regulations, and this is just a taste of what it could be like."
"It comes down to gambling on yourself," said Max Effort Muscle founder Cory Gregory. "You look around this place, and see that lots of other business owners have made that same bet. You don't need to worry about a salary when you have faith in yourself and what you can accomplish."
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