When it comes to combat sports, social media has changed the game. It has broken down borders but has created new problems. In the West raw economics is the driving force, whereas in Thailand social media is a medium for community and culture.
As social media continues to permeate fight culture, both sides see new problems arise. In the West, there is the problem of branding and promotion. In Thailand, it’s a distraction from training and a tease into the outside world.
Muay Thai is still a niche business in the West. Promoters lack the fan base needed to secure big sponsors. Therefore they must rely on ticket sales from the fighters directly.
Gyms with a large social media following will be given priority when it comes to securing matches. In today’s market, having a lot of followers directly correlate with ticket sales.
It’s up to the fighters to maximize the benefits of social media. Those with a loyal fan base and a modest level of fame will get bouts that other equally skilled boxers will not. American fighter Natalie Morgan was clear about the positive impact social media has had on her career.
“Some opportunities wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t have an online presence,” Morgan told ROUGH.
Morgan has been able to appear on an international stage early in her career, fighting for both Glory and Muay Thai Angels.
Cultivating one’s public persona means regular updates on their fitness, training methods, and fight schedule, interspersed with a few inspirational quotes. By creating their own brand fighters are able to make ties with aspiring businesses. This gives them access to t-shirt deals, pre-planned meals, and gear sponsorships.
Muay Ties creator Timo Ruge pointed at Ognjen Topic as an example of a fighter who has leveraged their social media following appropriately.
“Before you had to rely on the promoter. Now you can make a brand of yourself without relying on anyone else. A perfect example is Topic. He is with One FC because of his following. It makes him seem bigger than he is. That’s what social media and branding is all about.”
The West is a branding and image based culture. What appears is good and what is good appears. Savvy fighters and promoters can leverage their visibility towards more exposure, bigger fight opportunities, and better sponsorship deals.
According to Abigail McCullough, foreign liaison at Sitmonchai Gym, “if you work your social media right you can make anyone famous.”
Alternatively, in the land of smiles, social media is mainly used to express one’s feelings. Thai fighters use it as a way to overcome the loneliness of gym life. They invite viewers via Facebook live into the mundanity that is fight life; lying around in between training sessions and eating twice a day.
In Thai culture, public displays of affection are looked down upon but chatting to girls is relatively accepted. And for teenage boys confined to their gym, chatting to girls is pretty much the best thing ever.
There are the regular posts on their relationship status, usually lonely and single. Then there are the selfies. Massive amounts of selfies. All. Of. The. Time. Rarely are there fight updates, or inspirational quotes. Instead it’s a competition of who is the loneliest.
After all, Muay Thai fighters are ideal users. They have plenty of free time during the day and evenings after training sessions. The boxers have a somewhat stable income and no financial commitments. Room and board is paid for by the camp, so after money is sent home the rest of their earnings is disposable.
When it comes to social media usage, Thailand is top. Facebook has an estimated 50 million users there— and the Thais are very social on social media.
“In my experience the majority of Thai trainers and fighters use social media for social networking rather than in a professional way to promote themselves.” Lynne Miller owner of Sumalee gym in Phuket told ROUGH.
“My own feeling is that most have no appreciation of the power of social media as a marketing tool.”
But in Thailand, it’s not necessary for fighters to leverage their abilities on social media. Instead, it is a sport of skill and determination. Consistency in the ring is what matters here.
Some Thais, such as Buakaw, have learned to utilize social media to their benefit. Using it as a business tool they are able to extend their careers past their prime in Thailand. The can fight internationally, and teach seminars but not without an Instagram following.
Just as Westerners have the pressures of branding, social media in Thailand has its downside. Fighters can become lazy and distracted by their phones. Afterall, it can be far more appealing to chat with girls than it can be to endure another day of hard training. The dopamine addiction of likes, comments and shares can overwhelm a boxer and make their training suffer. And in a place where skill is most important, they can’t afford to slack off.
Barring the collapse of capitalism, social media is here to stay. It has woven itself into the fabric of business and community. Fighters, promoters, and businesses in the sport must negotiate the pros and cons of it. They must endure the keyboard warriors and fight through the distractions to gain a place for themselves in a competitive world.
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