Piecing it together - The journey to number one

Commercial interest in Steph Curry is inevitable, but managing a sportsperson’s profile, and making proper use of them in campaigns, is a careful process.

Piecing it together - The journey to number one

Stephen Curry has been named the world’s most marketable athlete by SportsPro for 2016 after a two-year spell of form that has put him in the pantheon of basketball’s great talents. Commercial interest in the 28-year-old is inevitable, but managing a sportsperson’s profile, and making proper use of them in campaigns, is a careful process.

 

By Eoin Connolly

 

The gym is dark. There is a small explosion, and a familiar voice.

“How long does it take to change the game of basketball?” asks Jamie Foxx, an Academy Award-winning actor and a man who once pretended, on film, to be a marketable sporting superstar.

The tonal music kicks in, heavy on bass and mood and minor key. “How about 0.4 seconds?”

Here is Stephen Curry, the man of the moment in the National Basketball Association (NBA), rolling an Under Armour ball between his hands as if weighing up the content of Foxx’s monologue. Then the spark: Foxx lobs a firework on to the court, and suddenly there are flashes all over the place as Curry sets off shots from range.

“From the elbow to the rim,” says Foxx, “the threat now comes from everywhere.”

For 60 seconds, an era-defining talent is expressed in prose poetry and pyrotechnics. And then, the viewer is asked: how about some new shoes?

It isn’t a new marketing trick, but it is an effective one: the attachment of sportsperson to brand, and the positive associations that come with it. Curry, SportsPro’s pick for the world’s most marketable athlete in 2016, has performed the same routine for the likes of Muscle Milk, Apple and Foot Locker. Campaign after campaign highlights his humility, his work ethic, his sense of humour and, above all, his outright excellence. 

Every shot goes in. Every smile or wry glance is right in frame. Every line is amped and on cue.

But that’s show business. Reality often needs a few more takes. 

“Four times a year you would walk into a room, a vast room, that had been set up with just thousands of basketballs for you to sign,” recalls John Amaechi, the former Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz centre, reflecting on his own experiences of promotional activity. “And you’d walk down the line, and you’d sign them, and then you’d get a bit of food, and you’d sign some more, and then eventually, two hours later, you were done. Even though you know those basketballs are often going to charities and really good causes, young people who are desperately keen, it’s hard to make that actual moment exciting.

“The other stuff is different, though. The parts where you actually get to go out to schools, or where you get to bring bunches of schools into the arena, and you have events that involve the athletes stepping up to say a few words and sign some autographs, that’s different. I always loved that part. Even when you were exhausted because you came back off the road at two o’clock that morning, you weren’t in practice and here you were with a bunch of kids – it’s like their energy transfers to you. The very excitement that they have about meeting you – well, at least for me – made you feel very humble.”

Curry is not a stereotypical Basketball player, but he's changed the whole sport to suit him

During his own NBA career, Amaechi, now a psychologist and professional consultant at his own Amaechi Performance, did almost no personal marketing activities.

“But this is the thing,” he says, “people seem to be mistaken about this. I’m sure many if not most of the athletes on your list will do massive amounts in a commercial sense. The vast majority of athletes – more than 95 per cent of athletes – never do a touch of it. The most they’ll do is stand by a car that they’re getting from their hometown Jeep dealership or something. But they won’t ever do anything substantive or ongoing that’s part of a programme. That’s the domain of an incredibly rare few athletes indeed.”

One of those athletes is Stephen Curry. His achievements with the Golden State Warriors over the past two basketball seasons are legion, with back-to-back most valuable player (MVP) awards in the regular season, a championship in 2015 and, at the time of writing, another still possible. He has set new marks and captured the imagination. His buzzer-beating three-point winner from half-court against the Oklahoma City Thunder in February was shared in video clips around the world; his return from injury to score a record 17 points in overtime against the Portland Trail Blazers in May was the feat of a player easing toward greatness.

Octagon’s Jeff Austin, Curry’s agent, has a long history with his client, having also represented his father, Dell Curry, from 1986. “Truthfully, going way back then, nobody, not even his father, anticipated this kind of success,” admits Austin, speaking to SportsPro in mid-May. “Obviously he’s had a really good marketing profile the last couple of years but this last year it’s really been taken to a whole other level.”

Austin notes that the scale of opportunity for Curry has increased exponentially in the past 18 months, but the one thing that the player lacks, between his on-court commitments and his responsibilities to his young family, is time. 

“We’re looking at getting equity in some startup companies that require less of his time, we’re looking at doing some content deals and some entertainment deals,” Austin explains. “So we’re looking at a lot of different opportunities that don’t require a personal appearance and a television production day, which is sort of your typical endorsement. We’re trying to get away from that because there’s only so many production days he can do, and also we’re trying to be conscious of not diluting his brand too much by doing too many high-visibility things. He’s obviously making more money on the court and off the court, so he can afford to be even more careful with his time, and that’s obviously changed a lot in the last 18 months.”

As Amaechi remembers it, while competition for places might disrupt the dynamics in a dressing room, seeing a teammate take time out for commercial obligations typically elicited sympathy – and some gentle ribbing. 

“What I know,” says Amaechi, “is that when I’m exhausted, and I’m getting another two hours’ sleep during the day because we’ve just had back-to-back games and we’ve only had a shoot-around today, I know that my teammate who is uber-famous, and who has all these endorsements, is spending the rest of this day in a studio doing mind-numbingly boring voiceovers until he gets it right. So I feel sorry for him.”

Amaechi adds: “You know, I just think it’s really hard to be jealous when you’re already getting paid – if you’ll excuse the language – just a shit-ton of money. I really find it hard to think, oh, if only I had even more ridiculous amounts of money... I don’t want to spend the day in a studio doing that stuff. I don’t want to spend a day pretending that this burger is delicious. I don’t want to spend a day wearing a pair of shoes that I wish I didn’t have to actually wear.”

Not least given the frequent monotony and time-consuming nature of campaign work, then, keeping the day job in focus is an important challenge. For his part, Austin puts rigid boundaries around parts of Stephen Curry’s calendar.

“For example, from 1st April, which is when the regular season is winding down, to the end of the play-offs, we’ve told all of his partners that he won’t do anything – even sending tweets,” he reveals. “That’s his time to focus on basketball. And we’ve also told him that we won’t discuss any business with him. So he’s really got a moratorium on any business from 1st April through the end of the play-offs.

“So anyone I’m talking to right now about opportunities with him, I’m having conversations – and we’re maybe diving deeper with some than others – but I’m not discussing that with Steph until the play-offs are over. And we have certain periods where we block out for personal reasons, and we make it clear to sponsors that we’re talking to that there’s blackout periods. We’re going to respect his time and his ability to be with his family and continue to work on his game, and those parameters they’re going to have to live with or else we just can’t do it.”

The burden on players, however, extends some way beyond the new entries in their diary. As Amaechi points out, from the moment a sportsperson excels even at a youth level, they are being viewed as a brand, and something separate from their individual self. 

"A brand should realise that they are not buying the person on court, they’re buying the person."

“You get involved in this equation where you recognise that the people you meet will know you from your stats, they’ll know you from the highlight clips that they watch, they’ll know you from the snippets of footage from post-game interviews, and that will form their entire idea of your identity.

“One of the smartest things I think individual athletes can do, or that leagues can do for their individual athletes, is to help them really be resilient and solid around their own identity. Who am I really? So that they can be the showperson – man or woman – on the court, on the field, in the ring – but when they step off, they don’t feel this unnatural pressure to be something else.”

Amaechi cites the NBA’s own work with rookie players as a good example of how sporting organisations can prepare youngsters for the unique demands that come from their status. “Smart leagues train their athletes to understand that,” he adds, “and smart athletes seek out support to help them manage themselves – and I don’t just mean financially or commercially, I mean help them negotiate the fact that they have a group of people on the commercial side who are interested in how good you are now. They’re not interested in how good you are in the future and they don’t care, particularly, if you fail to be as good as you can be beyond the three years of your contract.”

From the brand’s perspective, too, the logistical elements are small pieces of a much bigger puzzle. In order for any athlete partnership to be successful, the association between individual and brand has to have some basis in logic, and it has to be expressed in a way that makes it seem a comfortable fit. 

“I don’t eat tofu, I’m not interested in vegetarian food, but if you look at the Mo Farah kind of ‘fake meat’ adverts, they fit absolutely congruently with who he appears to be – but he also seems to naturally quite enjoy what he’s doing there,” says Amaechi, in reference to the serial long-distance champion’s sunny advertisements for Quorn, where he pushes healthy eating and an active lifestyle.

Conversely, as Amaechi suggests, a promotional campaign that lacks that level of coherence can be a thoroughly self-defeating exercise.

“A good example: Shaquille O’Neal advertised a type of Buick car back in the day and the only visual you have of him in it makes it very clear that he could never have driven that car,” he says. “So it made him, in that moment, look like he was in it for the money alone – and technically there’s nothing wrong with that but it doesn’t look good when that’s what it looks like – but it also made the car company look desperate because it’s like, ‘You couldn’t have found somebody else who could fit in your car to do this?’ So the congruence between the brand and the athlete needs to be there.”

Brands need to understand what is fundamental to their endorser’s appeal, and what is real about it. In a May article for the New Yorker which, ironically enough, mused on how a middle-aged Michael Jordan had become uncool, writer Ian Crouch perfectly hit upon what it was that made the 90s version such a commercial phenomenon.

‘It has become difficult to separate Jordan from the images of him that were sold to consumers,’ Crouch wrote. ‘But he was no marketing cipher. The things that advertisers said were cool about him were actually cool: the wagging tongue; the acrobatic leaps; the clutch shots on the biggest stages; the shining, perfectly round bald head; the deadpan sense of humor and easy smile. The Jumpman logo that adorns his sub-brand of Nike shoes and apparel? He could really jump like that.’

Drawing on sporting excellence and achievement is the most obvious way of using an athlete’s image, especially as not every sportsperson is going to have the necessary performance chops to carry a campaign as a more expressive ambassador.

“Don’t forget that the persona that you are when you’re on the field is you, it’s just you amped,” says Amaechi. “It’s you in the middle of peak flow. It’s you in the middle of a very specific context.

“People do, but nobody in their right mind should expect the guy who is an angry beast on the field, for example, to necessarily be that when they’re sat in Denny’s or at breakfast in a restaurant or something. Too many fans do expect that. Maybe too many brands do expect that. They think what they’re buying is the person on the court. But that’s their own fault.

“A brand should realise that they are not buying the person on court, they’re buying the person. They sure as heck realise that the moment the person does anything wrong, because the moment they do something wrong they accept that, yeah, that’s a part of them, entirely.”

Recent history is littered with examples of endorsement campaigns that fit a veneer that completely obscures the real person beneath. At the extreme end of the spectrum are the appearances in the 1970s, 80s and 90s of National Football League (NFL) star OJ Simpson for car rental brand Hertz, in a series of advertisements whose mercilessly upbeat tone is bitterly ironic today. Less grimly, the tendency of brands like Accenture to position Tiger Woods as a relentlessly professional winning machine seemed empty once the golfer’s more human flaws came to public knowledge.  

“If you’re going to pay huge bucks for somebody,” argues Amaechi, “it seems to me that the basic due diligence that you do – because essentially what you’re doing with these individuals is a merger, a temporary merger – the monitoring and evaluation that you would expect to happen before that process with two companies is sometimes absent when you do it with an individual, and it shouldn’t be. And I don’t mean just scrutinising them to make sure that they’re squeaky-clean – because nobody’s squeaky-clean – but just making sure that they’re the kind of person who can deliver for you what you want, because if you think they can deliver like they do on court for you all the time, you either don’t care how they perform in the long term or you’re kidding yourself.”

Amaechi adds that properly interrogating an athlete’s background can produce pleasant surprises for a brand, as well as unpleasant ones.

“Say you’re an education company and you were just going to use any old athlete,” he suggests, “and you suddenly find out that here’s an athlete who’s actually studying for their doctorate while they’re playing. And you’re suddenly in this position where you say, ‘Well, this really works. This guy’s never talked about it, but because we asked a few questions we’ve found out about it. This really works for us.’”

For such campaigns to work, it is important for those questions to be asked on the athlete’s side as well. Stephen Curry will have more suitors now than at any point in his career but careful selection is essential, not least with his time at a greater premium than ever.

Austin hopes that Curry's image will outlast his playing career, like Michael Jordan or David Beckham

“The next priority for me is to sit down with him at the end of the play-offs and spend a day to just talk about the things that he’s interested in,” Austin explains. “Does he want to produce some content? Does he want to act in a movie? Does he want to write a book? He’s got so many opportunities to do so many things and I just need to really sit down with him and find out what’s important to him and what kind of direction he wants to take all of this.

“We haven’t spoken to him about a lot of this. We didn’t want to bother him during the season; we said we’d put all of this off until the play-offs and in late June, early July, we’ll sit down and we’ll spend a full day and we’ll chart a course in terms of the kind of opportunities he wants to pursue. He might even be surprised at a lot of the stuff that’s waiting to be discussed with him. The good thing for him is that he knows what he wants to do and I’ll get pretty clear answers from him. He likes this; doesn’t like that; want to pursue this; he thinks this is interesting.”

"The Curry brand with Under Armour can grow into something that’ll transcend and grow past his playing years."

From this point on, the association that Curry carries with his major partners will change. Last September, the 28-year-old signed an extension to his endorsement deal with Under Armour that will take it to 2024.

“The new deal with Under Armour has really evolved where we’ve made it more of a partnership,” Austin confirms. “He’s got a fair amount of equity and his royalties are a bit higher, and we’re planning campaigns several years ahead of time now as opposed to just going along and seeing what happens. We’re now involved in the marketing strategies and the campaigns going out one, two years. We’re looking at product for him, developing two years out, and we’re very involved in that process. So it feels a lot more like a partnership now whereas before it was really just an endorsement arrangement.

“We really believe that the Curry brand with Under Armour can grow into something that’ll transcend and grow past his playing years, really. It’s obviously his most important relationship.”

Austin now envisages the association with Under Armour as one that could last a lifetime, as his client moves towards a bracket where – like Jordan or soccer stars David Beckham or Pelé – his image is now one that far outlasts his sporting career. “Time will tell if other brands will [look for similar longevity] – I guess it’s a little too early to say that – but that would be our hope,” he adds. “If he stays healthy and continues to do what he’s doing, that’s what I would expect.”

With the stakes being raised to that point, it stands to reason that someone in Curry’s position would be grateful to have a team in place around him that have followed him to this point, and knew the man before he was a superstar. Austin, though, is modest about the contribution he can make.

“I would just hope that it means he’s got a level of trust,” he says, “so that when we sit down and talk and he asks my opinion, that he values my opinion and he knows that I’ve got his best interests at heart. I would hope that that trust would be important but I don’t want to speak for him.

“It’s been a nice journey along this way, that’s for sure.”