The Rise of the Athlete Influencer

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Millennials and Gen-Z’s have proven more likely to “pledge unwavering loyalty” to a superstar than a team, so brands interested in reaching the 18-34 sports fan demo have begun to shift sponsorship dollars from team or event driven campaigns to athlete-centric ones. The rise of social media, the increasing ease in which one can self-publish and the introduction of daily fantasy sports have all helped to shape the new normal. In recent weeks, Nick Foles (Lululemon) and Colin Kaepernick (Nike) have inked deals that reflect the influence athletes hold – unrelated to a team – and the “noticeable shift towards athletes playing an increasingly pivotal role in the value and activation of sponsorships.”

Howie Long-Short: Rick Horrow (The Sports Professor) – author of The Sport Business Handbook – explained that there are 3 fundamental truths driving the changing sports sponsorship landscape. “Financial agreements with the league’s superstars have become so compelling and so long-term, that the players involved almost become de facto faces of the franchise. Brand and endorsement involvement with a star athlete now transcends his value and endures on to an association with the team.

Superstar players are taking a more business-like approach to their personal brands. They now have professionals handling their social media accounts and booking appearances for them – it’s almost like they’re pre-packaged corporations; that makes it easier for branding purposes and helps corporations to see the value in a sponsorship.  

We’ve also become more adept at measuring the value that athletes offer to corporations. MVP Index ties analytics to an athlete’s social media presence – we were never able to measure that kind of impact before. Of course, the advancements in technology have also allowed these athletes to expand their reach.”

Teams and leagues have always had to compete with players over sponsorship dollars – “it’s simply more significant now because the metrics are higher and the risks are larger.” That doesn’t mean that the teams or leagues employing marketable stars need to be fearful of losing a sponsor to one. Rick says, “athletes in team sports sign endorsement deals defined to certain competitive situations or certain categories”; collectively bargained bylaws protect team and league interests.

Athletes can offer brands the ability to deliver a more authentic message, but with greater power comes greater responsibility and “there are certainly increased opportunities for a devastating mistake with social media. The reputation of the athlete and by proxy the brand is just a single bad tweet away. While corporations used to worry that a sponsored athlete would get injured or encounter morality problems, it’s nowhere near the level of the risk today – even for the highest performing and most well liked athletes.” (see: Cristiano Ronaldo)

The authenticity of the athlete endorsement is crucial to the campaign’s success – which explains why Lamar Odom’s perfume business never managed to get off the ground. Rick explained that “successful corporate relationships or marketing partnerships need to effectively incorporate the athlete as part of the brand –  the relationship needs to be more authentic than it’s ever been. If the consumer believes that the athlete is only endorsing a brand because they’re being paid, it becomes counterproductive.

Fan Marino: Speaking of lacking authenticity, Apex Legends managed to amass 50 million players within a month, after paying “top streamers to promote” the game on Twitch (and other gaming platforms) en masse on February 5th. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with paying guys like Ninja $1 million for a single stream, but because most gaming “influencers still don’t disclose sponsored deals” the “media blitz” gave off the impression that Apex Legends was the new “it” game – when in fact its rise in popularity was a coordinated effort. The game might not have honestly captivated “top streamers”, but it certainly seems to have captured the attention of gamers since – Apex has been the most watched game during the month of March by more than 15 million hours (League of Legends is 2nd).

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Author: John Wall Street

At the intersection of sports & finance.

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