As relationships between athletes and brands become more meaningful, more integrated and more measurable, a lot of brands are moving their marketing away from a traditional product endorsement model and seeking out deeper and more tangible relationships with those that they partner with.
As an athlete, your social platforms are a place where you can help brands with their business objectives, but how can you maximise the commercial opportunities and returns?
I have an affinity to minority sports. Born out of the early days of my career when I was the press officer for the Professional Darts Corporation, I fell in love with championing athletes who were at the top of their game but were totally unknown to the person on the street, and working with sports and events which need an explanation before you can even start selling in the story to brands or journalists. Give me a sport like sailing, darts or swimming to work on any day over football – that’s far too easy!
But what does frustrate me about these sports is that many of the athletes seem to have resigned themselves to the fact that they aren’t well known, they hide their light under a bushel or believe that their sport is too hard to explain, or even don’t bother as their profile is only raised once every four years when the Olympic bus rolls in to town.
In my experience, it is often these athletes that have the best stories to tell: they are approachable, engaging, authentic and inspiring. And when they get it right on their social media channels, they reach audiences far beyond their immediate sport fanbase and can transform themselves into enterprises in their own rights. And often with this transformation the benefits can include increased revenues through highly effective and authentic partnerships with brands.
We see a lot of sponsorship decks, either sent directly to us, or shared by our clients who want our thoughts on whether they should partner with a specific athlete. We initially use a very simple formula to help guide them on whether the affiliation would work:
- Does the athlete believe in your brand values?
- Is there a natural and authentic affinity between the brand and athlete?
- What’s their social following, are their followers real/fake and what’s their engagement rates?
- What is their marketability and profile?
- What is the cost versus the potential ROI?
- Gut feeling: do you like this athlete?
So on the flip side for athletes approaching brands there should be a similar formula:
- Does the brand share your personal values?
- Is there a natural affinity between you or your sport and the brand?
- How can your social following support the brand’s targets and messaging?
- How can this brand build your profile?
- What value can you provide in return for compensation?
- Gut feeling: do you like the brand and its people?
On meeting with an athlete a brand might be hugely impressed with them in person, but often the aim is to communicate to an external audience and your social media channels will potentially be a key tool in their communication armoury.
For those athletes that have the Olympics as their pinnacle event, there is the additional challenge that just once every four years they become public heroes, and then they disappear from view again. In SportPro’s top 50 Most Marketable Athletes 2019, just 10 are from Olympic disciplines – athletics, swimming, winter sports, skateboarding (new for Tokyo 2020) and gymnastics. How can these athletes help maintain their value throughout the Olympic cycle?
How to expand your reach
Authentic content is the key: brands and the media want content that will resonate with audiences. And as an athlete you should see yourself as a brand. You wouldn’t produce a new clothing range and never tell anyone about it, so why would you hide away your own brand story?
The athletes that are creating their own user-generated content, hosted on their own or partner channels, who are creating an excitement and buzz around them, are the ones who will benefit most from endorsements and commercial deals.
Athletes have a powerful voice: whether it is for a brand you love or a cause you care about, use your voice to make a difference.
For the record, I’m a total hypocrite: I don’t use social media myself except for work, and so I have a certain respect and awe of the athletes that are prepared to share so much. It is these athletes that are, most often, benefiting financially from being at the top of their game. By sharing a hint of their lives both on and off or in and out of the pitch/pool/track/water they reveal their personalities, their likes, their loves and their values and it is this that brands are looking to buy in to.
An Olympic Gold medal is of course hugely impressive, but this alone isn’t enough for a brand to share their story effectively on social media if you have a dis-engaged audience and you don’t have a following.
Max Barnett, Senior Vice President, Head of Digital at Nielsen Sports in their recent report Power of One – Athletes as Endorsers said, “For brands that are focused on social media-first activation and reaching Generation Z consumers, athletes and celebrities are becoming increasingly attractive parts of the sponsorship strategy. Not only can they be more flexible when planning campaigns versus dealing with leagues and teams, but more importantly, individuals are more influential in changing brand perception and promoting purchases for the majority of younger consumers.”
As we build up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics now is the time for those athletes who haven’t yet taken advantage of the commercial opportunities to get cracking.
- Decide, and write down so you can clearly see it laid out, what you are and are not prepared to share. Decide on your values and have a position.
- Consider how much time are you prepared to commit to your social channels – it doesn’t have to be a huge amount, but does need to be consistent.
- Tell great stories. What have you got coming up that will be of interest to your followers, and what content will you produce on the hoof?
- Find someone you trust to give honest feedback on your output and also to keep an eye on you to ensure you aren’t oversharing.
Many athletes are more than happy for a press release to be sent out championing what they do, but aren’t prepared to share it on social – this is your time to shine and for those athletes who rise to the top once every four years, the changes in the IOC’s Rule 40 could well give you and the brands you are working with a real benefit.
Athletes are becoming content producers and unless you are part of this wave, you will be left behind. See the work that top athletes including three-time NBA champion Stephen Curry is doing with his partnership with Sony Studios, or LeBron James with Uninterrupted or former pro baseball shortstop Derek Jeter’s Players’ Tribune. It’s about finding a voice while you are an athlete and then continuing that voice into business when your career finally ends.
Speak directly to your fans, be yourself and be authentic; and let the rewards come to you.
To learn more about finding your digital voice as an athlete, get in touch here.
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