Sponsors have doled out billions to share, just for a moment, the power of an athlete's image for a specific audience that only a celebrity personality can bring.
Athlete personalities used to be one way to segment society's opinions. You wanted a brash audience, you got Rodman. You wanted clean cut, you got Jordan. You wanted unknown, you got Darko Milicic and certainly paid the price. Whatever your brand, whatever your audience, whatever your budget, there was an athlete to fit the bill.
But things are changing. Today, we have all sorts of social filters with social media. Want to know who loves Ocho Cinco? There's a fan group on Facebook. Want to know who loves Frisbee Golf? They're loud and proud on Twitter. Whatever type of target market you want, you don't need a superstar athlete to find them, you just need the most passionate fans. Not only are they as credible as feature athletes, they've also already found your audience by social networking.
There's been a lot of discussion about the popularity of soccer in the U.S. Our studio, Archrival, recently teamed up with American Outlaws, who are the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team's official supporters. Not official as in they were adorned by the U.S. Soccer Association, but official because they claimed it: They're at every game to dominate the stadium.
If you can't hear them, you'll see them in "Outlawed in American flag" bandanas. They seize the streets and bombard the bleachers on game day, making them the pre-eminent fan group for soccer by sheer desire. And if you want into the soccer community, American Outlaws holds your ticket.
Sponsors could spend money for the popular goalkeeper to hawk their product, or drop some serious cash on stadium logo placements, but going direct saves you the costs of a high-priced middle man. To be sure, you'll definitely reach way less people on the surface, but you will make greater strides with those whom you seek to have the most brand equity.
The Red Rowdies are known for providing the Houston Rockets with the true home court advantage. You could sponsor Tracy McGrady for $$$$$, or you could hang your logo in the Toyota Center for $$$, or you could get the Red Rowdies to pump up your product all game as they throw off the defense for $. The Rowdies always get noticed and are always up to something entertaining. And they'd probably do it if you bought them pizza and beer before the game (¢).
It wasn't until the advent of social media that fan bases could truly organize. American Outlaws is spread out across the U.S. and stays in touch with its fan leaders in each city via Twitter and Facebook. Add in blogs, YouTube and Flickr, and you've got a whole social media smorgasbord for sponsors to tap into. Getting local street cred can be achieved by brands who couldn't have done it just five years ago.
A word to the wise: These groups, by the nature of being fans, are not always organizations that you can control, nor should you try. Being a big corporate sponsor with an iron fist will only ruin the relationship you seek. Having an organized youth-smart strategy before jumping in will help your cause immensely. Sending the Baseline Bums a bunch of All-State coozies will do more damage than good.
And, lastly, it should be noted that all of this must be tempered by realizing that no fan group can replace the complete exposure an athlete sponsorship gives. In fact, sponsoring athletes and fan groups might be the most powerful one-two punch a brand can muster. But for those products that desire to get on the field but can't afford the Manning, fan groups prove to be a worthy play.
It may not turn the sports world right-side up, but it certainly will win meaningful brand relationships. Go, Huskers.