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Athletes are turning obscure skills into big-money endorsements, thanks to social media

  • Indi Cowie became a freestyle soccer star after she injured herself during college.
  • Her niche sports and others like them are in demand, drawing between $50 to $10,000 a social media post according to influencer marketing company Trend Pie.
Soccer player Indi Cowie.
Gilbert Carrasquillo | FilmMagic | Getty Images
Soccer player Indi Cowie.

When Indi Cowie tore her ACL her freshman year at University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, she initially thought it was the end of her professional soccer career.

"I was a little worried," she admitted to CNBC. "You don't want it to be over."

But instead of giving up, the athlete focused on her recovery. She honed her trickshot skills and stunts, and dedicated her efforts into the niche sport of freestyle soccer. To document her progress, she began posting her clips on Instagram, YouTube and Facebook, which would get tens of thousands of views.

"These days if you have a passion about something, there's no reason why you can't do it on social media," she said. "Social media is amazing at reaching people."

Sure enough, her viral potential got the attention of brands. Today, she's an athlete for Nike and has deals with companies like AT&T, Macy's and Champion's League/Playstation.

Traditional athletes have long been able to cash in sponsorships. The highest-paid athlete according to Forbes -- Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo -- earns $35 million a year in endorsements alone.

However, viral clips from niche sports are also in demand, regardless if the games can fill a stadium. Brodie Smith has made a living from frisbee trick shots, while Dude Perfect scored TV and toy deals for sinking seemingly impossible basketball shots. Influencer marketing company Trend Pie said niche athletes can take home between $50 for a simple tweet to link to existing content to $10,000 for a custom video on Instagram for a bigger brand.

"Social media has that power to amplify that content," said Victor Ricci, founder of marketing strategists Trend Pie. "These trick shots are essentially spins on standard and essential sports. Every kid grows up playing soccer and basketball. If you can do anything in a different and unique way it generally attracts people's attention."

Cowie in particular has become an in-demand spokespeople for teen-focused lifestyle brands said Moj Mahdara, the CEO of a beauty product festival called Beautycon. Although traditional beauty influencers are still popular, the genre has expanded past makeup tutorials and fashion to include fitness figures.

Cowie, who has more than 565,000 followers on Instagram and 71,000 followers on YouTube, rose to international fame after being crowned the FIFA Street World freestyle champion by soccer star Lionel Messi in 2012. She's also juggled a soccer ball an impressive 102 times with her heels to earn a Guinness World Record. In 2015, she became the first woman to complete a three revolution, moving your foot three times around the ball while it is still the air.

"It seems overwhelming, but every trick is made of a few basic tricks," she explained.

It also helps that today's teens are particularly interested in fitness. "(Health influencers) are an increasing space because health and well-being is such a priority for the pivotal generation," Mahdara said, using her term for today's teens.

"These kids and teenagers are so intrigued and interested in their image, their fitness, their beauty," Trend Pie's Ricci said. "It's all tied into one thing: The package they want to brand themselves and who they want to be."

Physical health and mental wellness is part of the whole beauty package, Cowie pointed out.

'Being fit mentally as well as physically is very important," she said. "I don't think you'll be able to succeed if you're not taking care of yourself mentally as well as physically."