Athlete Branding

Part I. Sports Marketing: The Landscape

Key Topic: Overview of the Sports Marketing Industry

The sports marketing industry is enormous and complex, which not only makes details and knowledge more imperative than ever, but also more exciting than ever. With all of the advancements in technology and communication in the past decade, the athlete marketing industry is now, more than ever, a very large landscape. Athlete marketing goes beyond the typical thirty-second commercials, print ads, and billboards. Athletes are a brand. They are their own company. They have the ability to connect with millions of people. People oftentimes want to associate themselves with athletes. Athletes have the relatability to interact with fan bases and millions of people that potentially could be a new base for brands with athletes because of whom they influence and whom they can reach.

Today, there are many different channels to operate and it is important to include all of these outlets and opportunities in the athletes’ contracts. For example, there are more television opportunities for athletes these days: the athlete can be a guest on a particular show, provide an interview, do a satellite media tour, co-host a show, or even host certain programs. When Michael Strahan retired and crossed over into the entertainment space, as well as being a successful analyst for football, he became an example for athletes everywhere to pursue different avenues within the television space as a professional athlete. He developed himself into his own brand, independent of the sport.

Another channel in which an athlete may choose to partake in is digital marketing. The opportunities abound as our society is turning more and more to the online space because so many people and fans are constantly using their smart phones. Companies are looking to align with athletes to deliver messages in mainstream media and to promote growth and relatability within the marketplace.

Event marketing provides opportunities for special live appearances for athletes that draw in a larger crowd because of the athletes’ popularity. Moreover, athletes are being asked to be master of ceremonies and guest speakers at events. Many times, athletes are keynote speakers for philanthropic events, golf outings, and other corporate functions. Athletes are in high demand for these sorts of events because they are recognizable and bring a certain celebrity status to the event. Oftentimes, people can interact with the athlete at these events, when otherwise, they would be unable to even meet, let alone talk to the athlete.

Finally, social media provides an exponential outlet for athletes to not only market themselves and their teams, but also to collaborate with brands and engage in sponsorships with companies. Whereas in mainstream media athletes can represent specific products on television commercials or be sponsored by them on television or radio, nowadays, brands are looking for athletes who are influencers on social media with large followings to become brand ambassadors. For example, various athletes endorse a variety of products over the Internet through social media such as a sponsored tweet on Twitter, or a sponsored Instagram photo with the athlete and the particular product.

While there may be many different opportunities for athletes to have sponsorships and endorsements, they still need guidance in gaining exposure and developing their own authentic brands. This is where a sports agent comes in, and identifies the correct ways to build each client’s brand. The sports agent coaches the athlete to stay on track and stay true to his or her own brand, and researches and facilitates opportunities and potential relationships for his or her athlete. For instance, not every company is a suitable company for an athlete to promote or become a brand ambassador for. Oftentimes, athletes have to align themselves with brands or potential sponsors that they truly believe and can get behind.

Example: To understand the growth of the industry in less than 10 years, the book The Business of Sports Agents explains, “in 2005, the top 75 athletes earned fees totaling $598 million, from endorsements. During the week leading up to the super bowl, 167 NFL players and draft prospects earned fees totaling $2.3 million, for 360 appearances. In 2006, Nike’s and Reebok’s financial commitments to internationally known athletes were $1.9 billion and $490 million, respectively.” These elements are the reasons sports agents became more prominent and actively search for endorsement and sponsorship deals for their clients.

Part II. Opportunities: How to Market Your Clients

Key Topic: Discussion on What You Should Be Seeking for Your Client and How to Do It

It is very important that a sports agent understands the sports marketing landscape in order to better service clients. The sports marketing landscape can seem overwhelming, but it becomes more manageable for the agent once he or she hones in on what the athlete is interested in and where the athlete may be a good fit. Oftentimes, brands want to have relatability tied to what their actual initiative is within the marketplace. Companies want a spokesperson with the same ethos and deliver the message in alignment with what the company’s core vision is. Many times, agents have to actively seek out the right and appropriate opportunities with brands based on knowing the athlete and finding brands and companies that would be synergistic opportunities for his or her client.

In order to do this, first, an agent needs to recognize at which stage the athlete is in his or her career. There are only very few athletes that can earn the really big opportunities in the beginning; but that does not mean other opportunities do not exist. Recognizable athletes have a much greater advantage in terms of securing larger marketing opportunities because of who they are and who is following them.

Social media is now a great platform for athletes who are able to build up a following but may just be starting in their careers and lesser known on the field or in their specific sport. Engaging social media material, such as photos, captions, videos of the athlete performing a skill (such as a slam dunk) can go viral quickly and can garner the attention of potential sponsorship opportunities. For example, if an athlete is into fishing, then a fishing company may see the athlete’s post on athlete’s post on social media and then ask the athlete to come onto their fishing show or endorse a product or event. If the athlete likes pets or collects pets, or something unique, the brands in that space may go after the athlete for sponsorships. Finally, if the athlete is into do-it-yourself projects, companies may find this out on the athlete’s social media site(s) and then contact him or her for potential sponsorship opportunities.

An experienced agent understands how to build up a client’s brand by using different marketing tools to gain exposure. Social media is one of the simplest ways to start gaining exposure. Without going into too much detail, social media accounts are able to have pre-scheduled content to be released daily or even hourly. There is no limit to the amount of content the athlete can create in order to build his or her following on social media, which is what many brands and companies are looking for: a large social media following. Moreover, social media is instantaneous. For example, if an athlete posts mainly about cars, he or she is going to attract fans and followers who also are interested in cars. Therefore, companies may be attracted to that athlete for that purpose.

Charity work is also something a great agent can use to build up a client’s brand. Find charities that the client is interested and personally invested in, and then reach out to charity organizations that may want the athlete to attend as a special guest or host an event. Aside from forming their own charity (501(c)(3)), athletes may align with a particular cause whereby it may have impacted their own personal lives, and therefore, can get behind the specific charity organization and cause. Charitable organizations really like when an athlete has a personal connection to the cause because it adds to the awareness of the cause in a heartfelt and sincere manner.

Celebrity appearances at events also build credibility. Appearance photos with fans and autograph signings can be used on social media to keep the attention going. Celebrity appearances also provide the foundation for post-career playing opportunities connecting with influential corporate executives.

Interviews always help athletes gain exposure. The agent can even coordinate interviews on local television to announce the player’s move to the city and association with his or her new team. Agents should reach out to local influencers and television stations with this idea and see who shows an interest.

As the athlete’s career grows, so will his or her own brand; and it is the responsibility of the agent to prepare the client for future opportunities. Preparing the athlete before an interview, monitoring his or her social media posts, keeping the athlete on point and on track, and even paying special attention to the athlete’s wardrobe for said opportunities are all the responsibility of the agent. Agents are also responsible for providing the athlete with the do’s and don’ts of what to say, and the key points to get across.

Example: Joe Flacco, of the Baltimore Ravens, was able to leverage his desire and hunger into a marketing relationship by having a sports agent. When he stopped at a local McDonald’s, a McDonald’s employee took a picture of him, and it was posted on Facebook. That picture happened to go viral, and led to the decision of McDonald’s offering Flacco a sponsorship deal to take advantage of the situation. Opportunities do not always just fall in an athlete’s lap; a sports agent needs to be able to identify opportunities for his or her clients, and take advantage of certain situations.

Marketing an athlete is not as simple as pairing him or her with just any product for a specific price. If an agent does not perform the correct marketing services, then that can end up harming the athlete. The agent must have the proper skills and experiences.

Part III. Multimedia: How to Use It

Key Topic: Discussion on How to Use Multimedia to Effectively Brand and Market Your Clients

With the advancements of social media, athletes are now, more than ever, connected to the fans. This can be both a helpful and dangerous tool. For example, if the athlete is shown on social media cursing or posting inappropriate or slightly offensive content, his or her team then looks at the athlete as a liability. Moreover, potential endorsement or sponsorship deals may be compromised because most brands do not want to be associated with a “loose cannon” or an unpresentable athlete.

An agent needs to understand how to use this tool for a client’s positive exposures, and how to avoid it to cause a negative public perception. Positive exposures paint the athlete in a good light, and uphold kind, caring, and generous things that the athlete is doing. The agent should always be asking, “Does this make my client look more or less appealing for future deals?” Agents often have to continually build upon and create credibility within the marketplace for companies to want to endorse their client(s).

Social media is just one of many multimedia channels for agents to explore and be knowledgeable in. However, currently, it is the most volatile and dangerous channel for agents and their players because once something is posted, anyone can see it in real time. Social media is instantaneous. Therefore, agents should assist and help monitor professional athletes with social media posts.

Example: In the last few years, the National Football League Players Association (“NFLPA”) has teamed up with the social media platform, Activate. Activate allows for NFL players to join its online marketplace that matches them with prospective companies for endorsement opportunities. More specifically, these endorsement opportunities are specifically for “pay-per-tweets.” This can range anywhere from fifty dollars to thousands of dollars just for a player to send out one tweet on behalf of a company. Activate calculates what a player’s Twitter account is worth based on several criteria: number of followers, tweets per day, the reach of his or her tweets, and positive interactions. An experienced agent will be aware of these opportunities to better serve and market his or her clients.

Part IV. The Sell: Why Companies Need Athletes

Key Topic: Discussion on How to Effectively Reach Out to Companies to Sell Your Client for Endorsement Opportunities

As helpful as it is for an agent to have plenty of knowledge in building an athlete’s brand, and navigating the sports marketing industry, he or she also has to understand how to pitch each client when the opportunities arise. Positioning the athlete in a positive light and finding the synergies between the athlete and company are both responsibilities of the agent. For example, the agent needs to find the company’s core values and see how they align with the athlete’s core values, and put them together. When an athlete has a passion for a particular interest, it is the agent’s responsibility to actively go out and find the particular company to align with that passion.

Companies spend millions of dollars each year in their marketing exploits, and they are always looking for the best way to spend their money. An agent needs to understand this process, and be able to pitch the fact that an athlete’s own brand can synergize with a company’s brand. The agent needs to know what else his or her client is passionate about and what products the athlete currently uses. Then, from there, the agent can intelligently seek out companies that may be an immediate good fit. After that, the agent can start pitching to other companies who may be looking for an athlete, and from there, figure out how the athlete would be a good fit for the company. For example, hometowns (where an athlete grew up) may provide opportunities to work with companies because both the athlete and the company may speak to people with a good work ethic. Also, the more exposure and following an athlete has, the more recognition he or she can bring to a company that creates a partnership with them.

Example: Several years ago, the famous sandwich chain, Subway, was interested in taking on a new and “fresh” approach to its marketing. Through research and planning, Subway determined that using professional athletes was the way to go. Subway wanted to have a “Famous Fans” club that consisted of notable athletes in order to gain more awareness and reach throughout fan bases. With superstar NFL players like Michael Strahan, and international sensations like Michael Phelps, it was an effective way for Subway to make the investment in aligning themselves with these established brands. The new generation of sports agents needs to understand the importance of aligning an athlete’s and company’s brand together, and be able to understand all the marketing tools that are in front of them.