Athletes Make Us Rethink Sports Sponsorship

In the good old days, advertisers would spend large amounts of cash to get their name on a jersey, a field, a car or a venue. Then they would follow that up by spending another large amount of cash to create ads proclaiming that they are “proud sponsor of…” Finally, they would spend an even larger amount of cash on ad breaks and media sponsorship, so they could wrap the sponsored sport with ads to proclaim their association with the sport or event.

This last step often leads to (in my mind) completely worthless on-air sponsorship stings like “The Coca-Cola Charlotte Motor Speedway 500 brought to you by Geico and Bass Pro Shops.” Or “this aerial shot of the Coca-Cola 500 brought to you by Goodyear.” Pointless money wasters for the most part.

What should give you pause to rethink your approach to sports sponsorship is that many athletes have enormous followings on social media, and some are incredibly good at building, maintaining and engaging their fan base.



Here is a link to a handy chart, “The World’s Top 50 Influencers Across Social Media Platforms.” Looking at Instagram sports stars, the top four largest accounts are those of soccer players Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar and David Beckham. The first non-soccer player is basketball great LeBron James, who placed fifth. Tennis player Naomi Osaka has 2.5 million followers, gymnast Simone Biles has 4.3 million and swimmer Katie Ledecki has 425,000. Those are all big numbers.

What is even more impressive is that they all use (mostly) their authentic voice to talk about their lives, their causes and of course their commercial partners. Simone Biles posting about Olympic partner United Airlines on July 8: “It’s time to fly! Flying is kind of my thing but now it’s really time to fly. I’ve been traveling with @united for years and they’ll once again be my ride to the Olympic Games in Tokyo with @TeamUSA. #ad”

Or Katie Ledecki about chocolate milk: “Hard work in the water also means hard work out of the water. Recovering with @builtwithchocolatemilk #RealWorks #Ad”

Are there risks? Of course! Just over the last few weeks we witnessed the controversy of Ronaldo dinging Coca-Cola at a  press conference, which exploded all over (social) media. The funny thing was that Ronaldo’s actions were completely authentic and in the moment. Coca-Cola’s presence on the podium was bought and out of place. “Agua” (as Ronaldo verbalized) would have been the natural product placement.  The world agreed and gave Coke a red card.

There is also the risk that your athlete ends up in a self-made controversy, like track star Sha'Carri Richardson getting banned from the Tokyo Olympics (2.5 million on Instagram alone with personalized ads from Nike and About Vintage watches), or Naomi Osaka withdrawing from the French Open. Or a political firestorm like Colin Kaepernick. Funnily enough, fans and followers usually stand with the athletes regardless, or perhaps even in defiance of, the controversy, thus demonstrating the power of the athlete’s personality and platform even more.

So, it really is time to rethink your relationship with sports as a sponsor. I believe the best value in sports sponsorship is in direct commercial relationships with the athletes. Their fans and followers are all part of an “intimacy” that cannot be bought by slapping your name on a jersey, a pitch board or a blimp. And certainly not with a bombastic “this segment brought to you by…” on-air sting. Just do it…

2 comments about "Athletes Make Us Rethink Sports Sponsorship".
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  1. Russ Klein from AMA, July 11, 2021 at 2:52 p.m.

    There's another perspective that athletes themselves have given cause for us to rethink athletes as emmissaries for our brands. To characterize athletes as a pristine group of untouchables who would never dare take a dollar for a product they don't use or even like is no less bombastic. With respect.

  2. Fran Richards from Hookit, July 12, 2021 at 10:54 a.m.

    Top athletes understand that their image and likeness is their brand, and for the most part, choose wisely who to align with based on the fit and authenticity of the relationship. Alignment can increase the longevity and engagement of an athlete's brand.

    It is key to note is is that while athletes and their followers are important, to drive brand value, engagement is the true currency of social, along with the quality of branded promotion and share of voice. Many times athletes with 2 million followers can be more effective than some with 20 million based on engagement and quality.

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