Think about the most well-known athletes in sports today. The pack is led by LeBron James, who started his career in Cleveland before making pit stops in Miami, back to Cleveland and now in Los Angeles.
In baseball, the biggest stars are Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, with Harper going from Washington to Philadelphia and Mike Trout staying put in Anaheim, Calif. for the richest contract in history.
In football, we have Odell Beckham Jr. making the jump from New York to Cleveland, and we have Patrick Mahomes settled down in Kansas City.
While each of these players has been nestled in or around a high-media city, their fame speaks to the fact that region no longer matters — because digital media has globalized celebrity in a way unseen in previous years.
Let me explain.
It really doesn’t matter where you play, if you play better than everyone else. Mike Trout quietly puts up numbers better than every other player and although his team doesn’t make the post-season, the whole sports world knows how good he is. He is an anomaly in that he is not interested in celebrity, but celebrity seeks him out.
On the flip side, OBJ does everything he can possibly do to make himself famous and will continue to do so, regardless of the fact that he is moving from the world’s largest media market to the number 19 DMA in the U.S. His fame comes along with him regardless of where he is playing the position: Cleveland or New York, he will be an endorsement dream.
In the last off season, LebBron made the move from Cleveland to Los Angeles in what appeared to be a media and business decision more than anything else. He went from the number 19 to the number 2 media market in the U.S. In doing so, he tarnished some people’s view of his career by missing the playoffs for the first time.
What if LeBron had gone to another small or mid-market like Charlotte or Atlanta or Boston? These are media markets that fall numbers 22, 10 and 9 respectively. Would his fame have taken as large a hit as it did by venturing to LA and not seeing success?
LeBron’s case is an outlier because the expectations for him are so much higher than for anyone else. This is the case partly because of statements he has made about being the best player ever and partly because of his track record to date.
If you look at other players like Trout, Harper and OBJ, they prove you can be famous regardless of where you play. Case in point: OBJ doesn’t seem to mind the downsizing of market for his career. He knows he is bigger than Cleveland. It’s about performance and resultant coverage from the national press, which is not tied to any single market or set of stars and expectations.
The national sports news reports on performance and loves to compare the old with the new, and the current with each other. ESPN leads this globalization of sports media, but close behind are tons of other outlets. You would think the category is saturated and has been so for years, but then along comes Bleacher Report, followed by Barstool Sports, and whatever brands are coming right behind them.
Sports is a passion-driven business and the global digital media landscape taps directly into that passion and juices it like Jose Canseco in the ’90s. It’s sports on steroids, and there’s no asterisk here.
These days athletes can become celebrities almost overnight by one of two methods. They can court fame by being outrageous, or they can simply outperform all of their peers. If they can do both consistently, they can overcome any perception of being a “small market player” and leap into the stratosphere of sports celebrity. That’s when they become a business unto themselves.