Ever since shortstop Honus Wagner became the first professional athlete to receive money for allowing the use of his name on a product, athletes have been a powerful part of marketing. They’re strong, sexy, high-profile people who are very successful in intense situations. Why wouldn’t a company want to associate themselves with a great athlete?
But what about the other side of that sponsorship—the athlete? Athletes aren’t just marketing tools for brands, they are, themselves, incredibly strong brands. At SXSW, [email protected] Associate Director Daniel Jeydel hosted a panel on the many facets of the modern athlete as a brand. Joining Jeydel was Super Bowl winning tight end Vernon Davis, former professional golfer and model Anna Rawson, and Anthony Rodriguez, CEO Lineage Interactive.
The sponsorship landscape for female athletes is much different from that of their male counterparts. Male athletes can be well-known and get sponsorship based on their athletic achievements much more easily than female athletes because of the difference in popularity and exposure. When Rawson was playing golf, she decided that she needed to create exposure for herself as a model first to then get bigger sponsorship deals as an athlete, and for her it worked. But things are different now.
“Social media is changing that now,” she said. “People want to know who [athletes] are, what they stand for, what their passions are. I wish I was playing now, when I could use my Instagram and Facebook and do my own photo shoots. It’s a really interesting time.”
When Davis was busy becoming an All-American tight end at the University of Maryland, he wasn’t thinking about pursuing business or sponsorship opportunities. Fast forward to now, and he’s a shining example of a professional athlete who has a complete grasp of his own personal brand, and the role sponsorships, business dealings and social media all play in building it. And he recognizes that he couldn’t have done it without partnerships. “A lot of athletes have problems finding who they really are,” Davis said. “In order to find yourself, sometimes you need extra help. Most of the time as athletes, we don’t really think about the big picture.”
Rodriguez is one of those partners. Lineage Interactive helps athletes build their online brands, but doesn’t believe in a marketing company doing all the work for the athlete. Content created solely by companies won’t work; the athletes need to have a hand in it or the content won’t resonate. “It’s simple,” Rodriguez said. “Do what you like, and let’s proliferate that. We don’t make stuff up. We can’t, it doesn’t work. No one follows that.” To that point, Davis spoke about passing up sponsorship deals with junk food companies for similar reasons—being authentic matters greatly.
When studying for her MBA at Columbia University, Rawson realized that her life as a professional athlete taught her a lot about building brands. She’s used that expertise in her latest venture as a spokesperson and Director of Marketing for Parsons Xtreme Golf. She told a story about how when she first got hired as the spokesperson, the company wanted her to do a sexy, model-type photoshoot. Rawson knew better. “I said, ‘Look at your brand, you’re a luxury brand.'” Rawson turned out to be right; the brand decided against it, and Rawson has featured in more on-brand instructional content.
As communication has become democratized in the digital world, it’s never been more important for athletes and public figures to have a strong personal brand. But it’s even more crucial for them to be authentic in their communication.