Changing The Rules Of The Sports Endorsement Game

Across the nation, fans support their local sports teams with great passion and near-religious devotion. Hometown players aren't just members of the team but part of the extended family. In a single swing of the bat or release of a last-second three, everyday players morph into mythic heroes. They're remembered as saviors and honored as legends. Yet despite the meaningful connections between these beloved athletes and their fans, marketers rarely tap them to endorse products.

Endorsement deals remain primarily open to a select few superstars, offered only by a handful of large advertisers. The reason for this is simple. The endorsement business has long been predicated on large national television campaigns and the complex, six-figure deals that come with them. However, as advertisers focus on new ways to break through online ad clutter, this tried-and-true offline marketing strategy is being reinvented for the Web.

Consider this real-world example during the Detroit Red Wings' run at the 2009 NHL Stanley Cup. A sore subject for Red Wings fans, assuredly, but there is little doubt that the excitement elevated the team and its players to the height of their popularity. A leading American automaker took advantage of this unique situation and quickly implemented a Detroit-targeted online campaign featuring the team's captain and top NHL defenseman, Nicklas Lidstrom. Up and running in just five days, the campaign was able to achieve critical efficiency for the company, unthinkable in the traditional endorsement world.

The Lidstrom campaign demonstrates how advertisers -- large and small, regional and global -- are changing the rules of the endorsement game. They're now able to access a once-exclusive marketing strategy and combine it with the speed, accountability and targeting capabilities of online advertising. Moving online -- and "going local" -- has the potential to level the endorsement playing field without sacrificing the power of brand associations.

Many consumers have greater affinity for and a deeper bond with home-team stars than the current go-to endorsement talent. Still, stars like Tiger Woods, LeBron James, Peyton Manning and Derek Jeter top Sports Illustrated and Fortune lists of the highest-paid celebrity endorsers, year after year. This is unsurprising; when the model is based on large-scale national advertising, companies require figures with the broadest appeal.

If the goal is to connect with consumers online, however, the opportunities to leverage local affiliation increase. In the New York market, Giants running back Brandon Jacobs evokes stronger consumer affinity than Peyton Manning. Similar dynamics are at play in nearly every market, where high-performing hometown players elicit stronger consumer response than do nationally recognized stars.

Moving past the elite superstars and employing local favorites instead actually results in campaigns that are more relevant to the target audience and more cost-effective for advertisers. The roster of athletes available for these types of campaigns is incredibly deep, but because the traditional television-driven endorsement model has ruled for so long, these players have been routinely overlooked and grossly underutilized. But this is changing, and rapidly.

Two major shifts are likely as athlete endorsements gain traction online. First, big brands, that in the past would have done anything to sign Tiger Woods exclusively, instead will assemble "dream teams" of professional athletes who deliver stronger brand associations in local markets than the likes of LeBron James and Derek Jeter.

Second, smaller advertisers, who have never considered celebrity endorsements because of the high price and complexity of the traditional arrangements, will recognize the opportunity and realize the value and cost-efficiency of the new online model.

The idea of connecting with sports fans as a distinct demographic may be new to these advertisers, but it is hard to think of a more passionate, emotionally invested group of consumers to target. Brands are always looking for ways to create "die hard" fans. Tapping athletes who already have them is a good place to start.

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7 comments about "Changing The Rules Of The Sports Endorsement Game ".
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  1. Tom Perry from net radio, June 30, 2009 at 2:56 p.m.

    how did Peyton's Q Score slip below that of Brandon Jacobs? maybe it was the superbowl MVP

  2. paul myers, June 30, 2009 at 3:54 p.m.

    Hey Ryan - let me know if you have any clients looking for "Action Sports" endorsement deals or anything outside of traditional stick and ball sports. We specialize in youth or alternative sports (often referred to as "extreme" sports) such as skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing as well as Supercross, Drifting, Rally and Off-Road Racing.

    Brands looking to connect with the youth market can do so via action sports considering more kids own skateboards in the US than baseball bats!

    We even have very young athletes in these sports via our client partner

  3. Harold Cabezas from Cabezas Communications, June 30, 2009 at 5:41 p.m.


    Thanks for a great post. I could not agree more. I believe sports are as cultural as music. I am working on a project which ties sport with culture and the research I have done indicates exactly what your premise is: Sport culture is a distinct demographic that affects consumer lifestyles + purchasing behavior.

  4. Bill West from Comcast Spotlight, July 1, 2009 at 11:57 a.m.

    Sounds like a great idea provided the talent understands the need to keep their endorsement fees sensibly scaled. A local client wanting to coat-tail the image of a Steeler in W.Pa. might be stunned to hear what players expect based on fees that I've heard of in the past. Hopefully this strategy can be managed across all media, not just the net if a client chooses to jump in.

  5. Stephen Dolle from Dolle Communications, July 6, 2009 at 7:05 p.m.

    My gut tells me that fans would prefer to see their athlete heroes perform on the field of play, rather than quirky TV ads. Having said this, however, I believe it is productive for athletes to appear in ads providing they are featured in the character or personna for which they are known, on and off the field. You have to be who you are first. Then, let others fall in love with this person and player.

  6. Jim Burnette from, July 7, 2009 at 6:24 p.m.

    To: Tom Perry from Net Radio.

    Local Q scores are undoubtedly different from the National scores.

    Jacobs was not the MVP, Eli Manning, Peyton's younger brother won the MVP for Superbowl 43.

    Best, JB

  7. Jim Burnette from, July 7, 2009 at 6:31 p.m.

    Sorry, Superbowl XLII.


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