There have always been meeting points between sport and popular culture but brands are now more calculated than ever before in how they place athletes in an entertainment context. For stars like Anthony Joshua, top of SportsPro’s most marketable athletes list in 2017, and brands like Adidas and Beats by Dre, it has an amplifying effect.
By Adam Nelson
Anthony Joshua is a man used to receiving attention. Olympic gold medallist, heavyweight champion of the world, SportsPro’s most marketable athlete for 2017 – the accolades keep on rolling in and, at six feet and six inches high, he knows what it feels like to have the eyes of the room upon him.
To catch him at something close to speechless during a one-to-one conversation, then, is rare. Yet that is precisely what happened when, during his preparations for his April fight against Wladimir Klitschko – the biggest night of his career, possibly his life – a laptop was placed in front of him and Joshua found himself on one end of a FaceTime call. On the other was rap icon, production mogul and headphone magnate Andre Young, better known to millions around the world as Dr Dre.
“What’s up, brother, you good?” said Dre. “Wish you good luck. You know what, I gotta tell you, right now you’re one of my favourite fighters, man.”
A visibly stunned Joshua responded: “You’re one of my favourite musicians! When I saw you on the phone, I was like, ‘Oh shit!’”
Compared with the rest of that astonishing evening, the encounter between Joshua and Dre will not be seen as defining or live especially long in the memory. But it was a moment emblematic of a recent trend which has seen the worlds of sport and entertainment collide like never before, as leading figures and brands from both sides of the divide recognise the value in crossover success.
The video call was not, of course, a simple case of a fan wishing luck to an athlete. Joshua has been made a major priority for Beats by Dre, the hip-hop star’s headphones brand which has cannily placed itself at the forefront of an ongoing trend. Its clever marketing strategy – which was propelled by an inspired ambush campaign at the London 2012 Olympic Games, where it gave free devices to athletes to circumvent International Olympic Committee (IOC) rules on sponsorship – has made it nearly impossible to visit any sporting event and not see a Beats product being worn, as a fashion accessory as much as for listening to music, by a high-profile athlete.
Given how heavily sport dominates the global calendar – events like the Olympics, the Fifa World Cup and Wimbledon have becoming not just sporting occasions but defining cultural moments – it is no surprise that a brand like Beats should attempt to leverage that attention. Meanwhile, more and more rights holders are attempting to deliver something akin to the Super Bowl’s half-time shows, with Formula One routinely hosting large-scale music concerts after races, bringing the worlds of sport and entertainment even closer together and representing the perfect space for Beats’ marketing campaigns to occupy. A set of headphones draped around Lewis Hamilton’s neck is now potentially able to reach two key demographics.
The surprise, perhaps, is that it didn’t happen sooner on this scale. This trend is not especially new, and examples can be found throughout the history of sports endorsement. But whether it was National Basketball Association (NBA) star Michael Jordan’s starring role opposite Bugs Bunny in Joe Pytka’s 1996 film Space Jam or the early-00s ubiquity of ‘brand Beckham’, when the superstar couple David and Victoria seemed to take over the world, earlier instances were usually novelties or serendipitous one-offs. Over the past few years, there has been a far more conscious, concerted effort to marry the two, with major athletes now wielding ‘entertainment’ as an area of persona inventory, alongside more traditional ambassadorial roles for sportswear companies and other adjacent brands, as a matter of course.
NBA superstar Stephen Curry, who topped the SportsPro list last year, has appeared in advertisments with actor Jamie Foxx
Joshua is now among the highest-profile of Beats’ ambassadors, and it is no coincidence that the other two members of 2017’s top three most marketable athletes have found themselves straddling that divide.
While Stephen Curry has not yet followed his NBA MVP predecessor Michael Jordan into Hollywood – though rival LeBron James was a star turn in the 2015 Amy Schumer vehicle Trainwreck, and has been connected with a potential Space Jam sequel – he has made a lucrative sideline in playing himself, most prominently in an advert for Apple’s iPhone 6S, in which he appeared alongside Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx to promote the video-taking capabilities of the device.
"Beats see exactly that potential, they want to lead with sport and music so to find someone [like Anthony] who can fit in between both and is relatable to the everyday customer is quite unique."
Sportswear brand Adidas, meanwhile, has taken the phenomenon to perhaps another level altogether in its collaboration with UK grime artist Stormzy and French soccer star Paul Pogba. The two appeared together in several commercials during Adidas’ ‘first never follows’ campaign throughout 2016, with the promotion running both ways. By this point, Stormzy was still a year away from releasing his debut album, while Pogba was ‘just’ a leading player for the previous year’s Uefa Champions League finalists, Italian champions Juventus.
Then, during the summer of 2016, when the world’s soccer press was fixated on Pogba’s potential world record-breaking move back to his boyhood club Manchester United, Stormzy posted a video of the Frenchman wearing a United kit to social media before quickly deleting it, ‘accidentally’ leaking the news. The stunt seemed to have been orchestrated by Adidas, which supplies Pogba’s boots as well as Manchester United’s kit, in order to drum up maximum visibility for its ambassador’s eventual UK£90 million (US$123 million) transfer.
The club’s official announcement of the move was accompanied on social media by the full 48-second clip of Pogba and Stormzy, the latter rapping a verse from his song, ‘Nigo Duppy’. The video had been watched six million times by the end of the day. UK-based fan culture platform Copa90 combines soccer and music artists, particularly from the world of grime, to similar effect, and also works with brands to reap the benefits. Copa90 head James Kirkham, writing for The Drum last year, described the process as creating ‘the marketing equivalent of a particle accelerator’.
UK grime superstar Stormzy was central to Adidas' campaign around Paul Pogba's transfer to Manchester United last summer, and is also close to Anthony Joshua
But the success of all of the above examples lives or dies on whether the audience believes in the relationships involved. Would Steph Curry really record his training sessions on an iPhone? Do Stormzy and Pogba actually hang out, wearing Adidas gear, in real life?
In the case of Joshua and Beats, Cunningham says that authenticity is one of the first concerns whenever he and his team are approached for an endorsement deal.
“From the outset we target products that Anthony actually uses, so it’s not something that’s forced on him,” he says. “He’s going to listen to music when he trains; he would probably wear headphones at a press conference anyway to get him in the mood. To have them round his neck isn’t a forced thing, it’s part of what he does anyway. We target those partnerships.”
The upshots, explains Cunningham, are that these kinds of crossovers help to open up a completely new demographic of fans on both sides. It is not simply about getting eyeballs on a product – “everyone can just target lots of people through mass advertising these days” – but creating a certain personal engagement with a brand.
“Anthony is influential, but he’s relatable to the culture that Beats is targeting,” Cunningham says. “It’s less about numbers, it’s more about general engagement. What Anthony does, because of who he is and what he’s about and how we manage output of everything, is he gets huge engagement levels with a hugely varied fanbase. From teens with no earnings, all the way up to research we’ve seen that show 55-year-old plus middle-class people are one of his biggest fanbases.
“For Beats, it’s that crossover between sport and culture and he sits in that category very nicely in that he is a sportsman achieving a huge amount in the ring but he is relatable to a youth culture, he’s very passionate about music.”
While the call with Dre at Wembley was, of course, carefully choreographed by Beats’ PR and Joshua’s management team, part of the thrill was that Joshua’s surprise and his reaction were genuine – as were Dre’s well-wishes.
Freddie Cunningham (centre left) with Anthony Joshua and his team
When Joshua and Cunningham set up AJ Boxing Management, their goal was to create a brand around the boxer that “got to the real Anthony Joshua” and would ensure that every commercial deal he signed was “part of the Joshua story”.
“We had an outlook and a model that we wanted to continue, we believed that commercials led by PR and brand building helps, we’d rather do less but do the right things to drive up value,” explains Cunningham. The idea was to have brands feel close to Joshua, and vice-versa, so that each endorsement was a genuine partnership and not simply a case of taking the money and putting his face to a product.
“We took the line of thought that we could have him on the cover of Boxing News every month or we could have him on the cover of GQ in three years.”
He has since been on the UK cover of the leading men’s lifestyle magazine twice – something which Cunningham feels fits into the same trend as entertainment brands involving themselves in the world of sport. “GQ is targeting that fashion and music culture that Anthony wouldn’t necessarily be relatable to, because he’s a boxer and sportsman. But because of who he is, we can target it.”
The entertainment crossover, particularly for Joshua, solves the problem Cunningham surmises as “being a Sky pay-per-view fighter”. While that might mean he has reached a certain level of standing within the boxing world, it also means that his audience is limited. By pairing Joshua with Dr Dre, by putting him on the cover of GQ or on the couch on the BBC’s Graham Norton Show, he reaches an audience outside that which already knows his story.
Anthony Joshua appears on the UK's highest-rated chat show, The Graham Norton Show
In the run-up to the bout at Wembley, the BBC aired an hour-long documentary entitled Anthony Joshua: The Road to Klitschko, which for AJ Boxing Management represented the culmination of several years’ worth of work.
“Anthony is one of the few people outside the hour-long Wayne Rooney documentary to have his own show on BBC One,” notes Cunningham. “And that’s purely out of our strategy.
“Two years ago we started filming and owning all the content and then we came to a point of what we do with it – do we sell it now? Or do we put it together, pitch it to the BBC and get an hour-long slot before the biggest fight of his career when all eyes are on him to the mass market? That might not have come off, but Anthony is such a force of personality that we had the confidence that making his story into an entertainment format would work at the right time. It was by attaching it to the name of Klitschko that it finally happened.”
"We took the line of thought that we could have him on the cover of Boxing News every month or we could have him on the cover of GQ in three years."
Ultimately, any entertainment brand getting into the world of sports endorsements is going to be looking to make its products as much a part of the activation as its logo, which for an organisation like Beats means foregrounding music and utilising its connections across the business. The company helps to provide Joshua with music for his ring walks, for instance, and always tries to break a new song or artist with its campaigns. Its last advert featuring the boxer was soundtracked by English soul musician Michael Kiwanuka, using an as-then unreleased single. Because Joshua has a genuine connection to and love of the music, he has become the ideal figure for Beats’ campaign.
“Beats see exactly that potential, they want to lead with sport and music so to find someone who can fit in between both and is relatable to the everyday customer is quite unique,” says Cunningham. “His engagement levels are way bigger than any of their other ambassadors.”