While I was working at IMG in the 1990s, my sporting hero was the amazing African soccer star George Weah. My admiration for him was so great that in 1999 I travelled to his war-torn home country of Liberia to make a 30-minute television programme on the AC Milan striker, signing a waiver on my life insurance before heading off.
I’d never seen Weah play and didn’t follow him on social media or watch his goals on YouTube – as neither existed. I’d never Googled him, as the company had only been founded in 1998. We planned to meet up in Liberia over one brief phone call: landline to landline, London to Milan. See you in Monrovia…
Few athletes are capable of capturing the collective imagination and becoming famous beyond the boundaries of their background and the sport that they play. These are the icons that corporations seek, hoping to piggyback on their extraordinary talent, leadership and global appeal.
Athlete endorsement deals have been around for over a hundred years and – in spite of today’s saturated, cynical consumers, badly behaved brand ambassadors and the huge changes in advertising spawned by the digital age – sport remains an irresistible draw for sponsors.
So, what is the DNA of the perfectly marketable sportsperson, beyond the knack of being unbelievably talented at their sport?
Will Wilson of Wasserman, agent of the National Football League (NFL) quarterback Andrew Luck, who was recently ranked the sixth most well-paid athlete in the world, answers: "It’s only a tiny percentage of elite athletes that actually reach the superstar status that brands are interested in – only the very best in their sport, the real ‘difference makers’.” Even among the best only a very select few, from a limited number of sports, earn any significant income from sponsorship.
New York-based Australian Glenn Lovett, who is global managing director of Nielsen Sports, defines an ideal athlete advocate: “They have to deliver consistently high performance of course, but also he or she must possess an X-factor, a quality that stands them apart, both on and off the field. This combination allows them to transcend their sport.” David Beckham’s right foot and good looks spring to mind. Then there is the fact that Beckham played in the Premier League, for Manchester United, and then for Real Madrid: all three are global marketing giants.
“Marketability depends to some extent on where you are geographically and for which team or franchise you play for,” explains Gawain Davies, who works with men’s tennis’ world number one Andy Murray as director and co-founder of 77 Sports Management. “For example, if you’re playing for a major franchise in the NBA that has been building its brand in China for over 20 years, then you’ll have the opportunity to do business in this market.”
The fact that elite athletes are extraordinarily talented doesn’t mean we believe or expect them to be perfect human beings. The history of sport is packed with flawed geniuses. It’s only occasional misdemeanours that allow mere mortals to emotionally connect with the gods of sport. Most slip-ups can be forgiven, although murder, match fixing and doping are no-nos, regardless of the quality of the crisis communication manual.
Fans may be forgiving but the multinationals that sponsor stars rarely are, although a powerful brand can help athletes overcome the occasional bump in the road. All contracts now contain clauses regarding acceptable behaviour. You can’t really blame carmaker Land Rover for cancelling its contract with New Zealand rugby star Dan Carter after he was done for drink driving earlier this year. The more formal and prestigious the company, the better behaved the athlete is expected to be. With sponsors such as Credit Suisse, Mercedes and Rolex, no wonder Federer seems such a goody two-shoes. He can get a Mohican and tattoos when he retires.
With assets totalling US$367 billion, CaixaBank is currently sponsoring 12 of the 20 teams in La Liga, including Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. “An athlete ambassador should be impeccable,” says Alfredo Bustillo, director of sponsorship at CaixaBank, from the firm’s Barcelona HQ. “We prefer to invest in clubs rather than individuals. We avoid reputational risks at all costs and there is always a greater risk with a person than a team or an event.”
Different brands stand for diverse values, so should therefore vary in character requirements for advocates. Athletes and agents with clearly defined brand strategies tend to detect the right partners and create long-term relationships. The emergence of technology companies measuring social media value for brands and athletes, both from the powerhouses such as soccer and the NBA, but also from cult sports with incredibly engaged audiences, such as surfing and skateboarding, are creating spaces for brands to find more suitable fits away from the global icons.
Now that most advertising is digital, athletes and agencies have become more strategic. “Creating partnerships with brands that deliver a genuine fit with our athlete talent is an equally important consideration as monetary value,” explains Gawain Davies. “The content generated by the partnership is key; in order for it to be authentic and credible it needs to create value for the athlete, the sponsor and the consumers.”
Those athletes that pitch-up tired and disinterested to their corporate half-day filming sessions should be aware that brands are getting more demanding. “Sponsors are more exacting than ever in terms of ROI,” says Bustillo. “Brand presence in the mass media isn’t enough, we need to measure how this sponsorship investment has impacted our financial results.”
So it seems that authenticity from both sides is the key to successful brand-celebrity partnerships. Superstars continue to entice their multinational corporate counterparts but, just as in training sessions and matches, an athlete’s performance as a brand endorser is being measured and analysed more than ever.
No matter how much talent they have, an athlete’s chances of reaching iconic status will always be conditioned by other factors such as gender, the sport in which they compete, the era to which they belong, and of course luck, including that which determines where they are born.
Back in Liberia in 1999, I’d arrived to find that Weah hadn't shown up. After spending two days with a football team consisting of former child soldiers, I finally got to meet my hero, even though we had to go to neighbouring Ghana to collect him. The side doors of the minibus slid open and in he jumped. The African, European and World footballer of the year slapped my leg, looked me in the eye and said: “What's up my friend, how’s life?”
He’d kept me waiting, as professional footballers are still inclined to do, and there were some bumps in the road. But it was worth the wait.