Super Stars Exit ... Leaving Sports Marketers In The Wake

  • by , Columnist, March 13, 2012

Many posts ago, I evoked the rather (Jerry) Seinfeldian observation that with the proliferation of player movement in team sports today, fans truly are rooting for a shirt. But the last 15 months or so have been littered with the defections and separations of superstars who were often emblematic representations of the very franchises for whom they are no longer affiliated. First, LeBron took his talents to South Beach, leaving the vitriol of the team owner and much of the Cleveland fan base in his wake. This was followed by the defections of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, respectively. But perhaps most riveting was the official separation of Peyton Manning from the Colts last week.

I happened to be in Indianapolis when the official news broke, and observed first hand, albeit directional, fan reaction. Certainly, the Colts’ move was widely anticipated, but a morbid analogy can be drawn to the gravely ill relative who lingers for months in hospice before ultimately passing. The initial sting of the possibility of an unhappy ending is revisited and amplified with the final announcement. And I choose the term riveting, because while Manning’s separation vastly differed from the above examples in that he was released, the potential lessons and implications for sports marketing are still profound, as we consider fan sentiment and its impact on the future marketing of both the Colts franchise and of Manning himself.

It is not lost on anyone that LeBron did not do himself any favors in the Cleveland area and beyond. Kris “Kardashian” Humphries withstanding, our firm’s research still shows “the King” to be among the most polarizing, if not reviled professional athletes, today. Cardinals fans like myself, while shocked by the Pujols defection, were still basking in a World Series victory and harbor a confidence possibly bordering on rationalization, that our pitching staff and the resurgence and emergence of Lance Berkman and David Freese, respectively, still leave a formidable RedBirds unit. But the overarching lesson here is that it is incumbent upon sports marketers to go beyond their own visceral and personal reaction to dig deeper into the possible impact and, dare I say, opportunity present in superstar movement.

As the head of a firm that specializes in sports marketing research, I suppose it’s probably not unexpected that one recommended generic strategy emanating from these events is to scientifically and consistently monitor the sentiment of your target audience. Twitter and sports talk radio aren’t surrogates for well-designed research, though they do qualitatively capture a vocal, if not extreme minority of the overall fan base. Player movement certainly suggests that lines of demarcation must be drawn between marketing around players and around the brand essence of a team or property.

Organizations like the Colts and LeBron-led Cavaliers were clearly built reputationally on the fortunes of their superstar players, whereas research and general intuition can argue that franchises like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Boston Celtics and New York Yankees channel a reputation and allure that transcends that of any one player. The better that sports marketers can understand this both from the perspective of the property and the athlete, the more effectively they can plan resonant activation and the more confidently they can justify the sports marketing investment in lockstep with their understanding of the inherent risk and opportunity.

An understanding of the above dynamics also lends itself nicely towards solving a quandary that has irked many of our golf equipment and sporting goods clients for years … that is, the strategic decision between quantity and quality of endorsements. I recall a study we conducted several years ago for a leading golf club manufacturer, who was searching for the proper PGA Tour player that could move the needle forward on its brand perception. Without delving into our specific approach or the findings, suffice it to say that for this brand, there was a solid fit with the personality of the player ultimately signed and the desired brand identity, which ultimately reaped significant dividends. For other brands that we’ve worked with, both financial pragmatism and fan dynamics suggested that a better course of action was to gain widespread acceptance by a large number of successful first- and second-tier professionals, thus supporting marketing claims of category dominance and widespread competitive success for the brand at the highest levels of competition.

There is no single generic answer for the quantity versus quality question. Just as every good brand seeks to differentiate itself, the best endorsement strategy will be predicated on the unique dynamics of a brand’s current and desired market position and the resources available to activate around the endorsement. If the need to do one’s homework is not already evident, consider what the Colts and Peyton Manning’s handlers and sponsors must now contemplate in the wake of last week’s latest announcement.

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