Faces of change: how digital sports and media disruption could upend athlete marketing

In an era of digital disruption, those in the business of athlete marketing are having to pivot to unprecedented challenges and newfound opportunities. As they do, it could be that the perception of what makes an individual marketable must adapt with them.

Faces of change: how digital sports and media disruption could upend athlete marketing

On the face of it, the complexion of SportsPro’s annual list of the world’s 50 Most Marketable Athletes has remained pretty well unchanged since its inception in 2010. With the usual mix of unproven potential and global superstars who boast well-established brands but, crucially, are yet to reach their commercial peak, the list has rarely strayed far from its founding principle of identifying bang for a marketing buck across the world of traditional sports.

Over the course of the past seven years, the key criteria used to compile the list have remained similarly unchanged. Each year, athletes from across the world are ranked against criteria including age, value for money, home market, charisma, willingness to be marketed and crossover appeal, following several weeks of analysis by the SportsPro team and external industry experts. The forward-looking nature of the list ensures that, each and every year, a handful of the sporting world’s biggest names are omitted as they top out commercially or near the end of their careers, and leave room for a collection of youthful new arrivals whose perceived appeal lies chiefly in their potential for future success.

Simply put, the list’s basic premise has been constant from the beginning, even if the faces that comprise it have evolved from year to year.

Yet times have changed, that much is eminently clear. While the planet’s top sportsmen and women continue to enjoy a degree of exposure to rival any of the best-known public personalities from other walks of life, and although many command endorsement income befitting their status and visibility, there can be no overlooking the trends and developments permeating the world at large.

Media fragmentation

Recent years have seen consumption behaviours change in line with broader trends such as dwindling attention spans, the growing prevalence of mobile devices, and the so-called ‘cord-cutting’ phenomenon that has swept across many countries with highly developed media. Audiences have splintered and, on the whole, gravitated towards newer and increasingly numerous forms of digital media, rendering it increasingly difficult for marketers to reach a target demographic en masse. The impact on both the sports and advertising industries has been profound.

In pursuit of their coveted millennial audience, sports organisations and brands have begun tailoring their marketing and communications strategies to a digitally disrupted landscape, while the metrics once used to evaluate the success of a campaign or sponsorship have grown increasingly redundant.

In sport, traditional TV ratings and linear viewership numbers no longer hold the same sway among advertisers – even if there remain the big draw anomalies like the Super Bowl in the US or the Fifa World Cup globally. The days of logo-counting and measuring campaign effectiveness in discrete terms are all but over. Instead, the time a consumer spends engaging with a piece of content, and the manner in which they choose to, has usurped impressions as the top key performance indicator when it comes to evaluating the costs and benefits of an ad buy – a shift reminiscent of the sports marketing industry’s move away from the traditional logo or banner-based sponsorship model to a more integrated, content-led approach to activation.

From its more analogue origins, the brand-athlete relationship has been forced to adapt, along with the wider industry, to the demands and opportunities of the digital age. If featuring on the cover of Sports Illustrated or appearing on Wheaties boxes were once held up as benchmarks for the off-field appeal of top American athletes, it is the more easily measurable social media campaign – complete with customary hashtag and, more often than not, a video ostensibly created in hopes of going viral – that has come to represent the staple of a global business that is always bending to the contours of a progressively more fragmented, omni-channel landscape.

It is against this backdrop that marketers are beginning to get more targeted and creative in their efforts to stand out from the crowd. The rapid and ongoing proliferation of live streaming and on-demand video has naturally precipitated a greater focus on digital advertising, leading the vast majority of brands and sponsors to value content, especially video content, above all else. Media owners and content creators, including the major sports properties and mainstream athletes with substantial followings, retain considerable value in this new world order. But there is a sense that the impact they have is being eroded all the time, cannibalised by a growing number of forces that are now impossible to ignore.

The democratisation of celebrity

The past decade or so can be charted by the rise of the social media influencer, with the explosive growth of YouTube since its launch in 2005 and the concurrent surge in social media use having created the next generation of celebrities.

Today, there are countless social accounts and YouTube profiles that boast followings running well into seven figures, and viewership numbers totalling many more. Those behind them have been able to earn a healthy living through advertising revenue or brand partnerships. Indeed, if an individual’s marketability can be neatly quantified in numbers alone, social influencers with large audiences now offer a commercial proposition to rival many professional athletes.

Generally speaking, the perception of what a viable brand ambassador looks like has evolved, just as the traditional concept of celebrity has been democratised in today’s YouTube generation. More and more people can attest to maintaining a reach and profile previously only enjoyed by the likes of sports stars, musicians and others in the public eye.

Examples of those who have capitalised on this new economy abound – from specialist bloggers and YouTubers who critique food, entertainment or fashion to outdoor enthusiasts who document their adventures for legions of avid followers. A late 2016 article by Outside magazine detailed how Kelly Lund, the 30-year-old American traveller behind the Loki The Wolfdog Instagram account, purportedly makes up to US$10 per thousand followers per post. With Loki having amassed 1.5 million followers at last count, that equates to as much as US$15,000 simply for posting a photo. Now Lund, who has struck deals with major corporations including Google and Toyota off the back of Loki’s success, expects to make “almost six figures” in his first year running the account full-time – an income few professional athletes would scoff at.

One knock-on effect of this more fragmented, individualised media landscape is that marketing budgets are being spread more thinly than ever before. On Instagram, the amount brands are spending with influencers has risen to over US$1 billion per year and could grow to more than US$2 billion by 2019, according to a study by Mediakix, which says that influencer marketing is now one of the fastest-growing categories in advertising. Yet those brands have never had so many options, which raises questions over whether athletes in traditional sports will retain the same commercial value in future.

More savvy athletes have long cottoned on to this shifting marketplace, of course. Many of the names on this year’s 50 Most Marketable list have amassed larger followings on Instagram than on any other social network, while some have developed entirely new ways through which to express themselves and connect with their fanbases.

Platforms like The Players’ Tribune, founded by baseball star Derek Jeter in 2014, and LeBron James’ (above) Uninterrupted, which debuted in late 2015, are two prominent examples of how athletes and their business partners are exploiting the opportunities inherent in this new media landscape. By generating their own content and circumventing traditional journalism, they have found an unfiltered outlet to get their voices heard and, perhaps more importantly, to provide a unique hook for collaboration with their sponsors.

Moreover, the technology already exists – through live distribution platforms like Facebook Live, Twitter’s Periscope, Snapchat and, of course, YouTube – for anyone to document and broadcast their private lives 24/7, should they so wish. Even if the idea of round-the-clock coverage may not be workable for many elite athletes in reality, it would not be a stretch to envisage how they would go about monetising daily clips and exclusive behind-the-scenes content, either through revenue sharing, a direct-to-consumer subscription offering, or by selling integration opportunities to brands.

Conventional wisdom would say that effectively harnessing these new distribution outlets would make an athlete more marketable. Yet without the scale and reach of the traditional mass media, it is unclear how much value, and what kind of value, such outlets offer to sponsors.

A new type of athlete

Another factor at play, one which could have a profound impact on the complexion of SportsPro’s Most Marketable list in the coming years, is the evolving definition of what constitutes an athlete – and indeed what makes a sport a sport.

If online followings and social media numbers are a good indicator of an individual’s reach and, by extension, their value to brand marketers – a supposition that is, admittedly, not without its pitfalls given the prevalence of fake accounts and inflated follower counts – compelling cases could also be made for some of those who exist outside the realm of traditional sports.

Viewed purely in terms of online audience numbers, the top professional gamers, for instance, are already forces to be reckoned with. Some are making seven-figure salaries not only from competing in elite events, but also through signing sponsorships with companies looking to tap into the young, engaged and impressionable demographic competitive gaming attracts – and which brands investing in sport so covet.

SportsPro has not considered gamers for inclusion in the 50 Most Marketable list until now but with attempts to embrace and codify eSports in the sporting mainstream – the Olympic Council of Asia plans to make eSports a medal event in the 2022 Asian Games – that restriction may be revisited in the years ahead.

Ryan Morrison, an attorney whose New York-based law firm, Morrison Lee, represents dozens of pro gamers for their team and marketing contracts, believes the numbers involved in those deals will only grow as more and more companies look to get in on “the hot new thing on the block”. In five years from now, he says, eSports could “dominate” even the largest of traditional sports in terms of viewership numbers.

“Too many people play video games now and too many people are interested in watching people better than them do it,” he says. “It’s not going away and I think it’s only going to get way more popular. We’re seeing a lot of non-endemics come in who are starting to see this as foolproof money, and it’s less the amount of viewers – it’s just gauging the demographics and everything else.”

As mainstream money continues to find its way into various forms of eSports, and as the profile of the sector and its leading exponents continues to grow, it could be that pro gamers find their way on to SportsPro’s list in future. But there are others whose activities will also redirect the attentions of marketers.

Going on audience numbers alone, one could justifiably argue that popular YouTubers like F2Freestylers (above), the soccer freestyle duo whose channel boasts nearly six million subscribers, are more marketable than many a top 20 tennis player or elite footballer. Is a skateboarder, climber or parkour practitioner with two million followers on Instagram any less valuable to a brand than a golfer with a fraction of the following? That, of course, would depend largely on the individual and the brand in question, but if athletes are, generally speaking, no longer confined to the limitations of their chosen profession, what importance should one continue to place on the mainstream media coverage their sport receives?

In short, there are countless factors that contribute to an individual’s marketability. SportsPro has set its criteria and stuck by it, but the very notion of marketability is a nebulous one. The difficulty is that, despite attempts to employ a more objective, scientific methodology for assessing commercial value, there is no fool-proof, industry standard definition for marketability. And besides, no two contributing factors are the same, just as no two athletes, no two platforms, no two followers and no two brands are, either.

For now, it is a compelling enough proposition to focus on traditional athletes alone. But there are no guarantees that what applies today will hold true tomorrow. As the world at large changes, as the boundaries of the sports industry warp under the weight of a multitude of outside forces, it could be that the process of ranking the world’s 50 most marketable athletes – and indeed the very notion of marketability – must change with it.