In the good old days of athlete marketing, the big names got the national headlines, and maybe the local stars scored some local brands. Joe Namath for Faberge and Pantyhose...teammate Matt Snell with a local Chevy dealer for the World Champion New York Jets. That's the way it worked--Madison Avenue loved their stars. These days, with the advent of hyper-local advertising combined with social media, the opportunity for unique athlete brand partnerships has never been stronger. Sure Packers star quarterback Aaron Rodgers is working with State Farm Insurance and Derek Jeter with Ford, but Kia and Subway hung millions on Blake Griffin as his star rose, while other unique partnerships have been realized throughout sports. Tennis star Rodger Federer partnered with Lindt Chocolates and Novak Djokovic with the emerging Japanese chain store Uniqlo. Golfer, Jim Furyk, even aligned himself with Five Hour Energy. Like Federer’s and Djokovic’s, endorsement deals, there are not exactly direct ties to golf or tennis. Then you have up and coming brands like MISSION Athletecare, who bring in athlete pairs like Serena Williams and Georges St. Pierre to not just endorse but develop and invest equity in products like the Enduracool towel, and you see more how diverse brands are looking for pull in areas where they have not before.
Josh Shaw, CEO of Mission Athletecare, described how carefully the athlete partner recruitment process is approached. “Unlike most brands in the market that simply pay the athlete for an affiliation, our business model literally brings the athlete into the center of our business – both in terms of their involvement in the product innovation and their vested (equity) interest in our success," said Shaw. "We look at a variety of key metrics when reviewing new athletes – from professional accomplishments to personal achievements, and philanthropic interests to personal goals and aspirations – it all counts. At Mission, the athlete is a true “partner”, in every sense of the word. We certainly look at the paper (resume), but we’re much more interested in the person. We want partners who are super engaged, highly motivated and driven to win – essentially champions in business."
One of those non-traditional approaches is with popular Philadelphia 76ers center, Spencer Hawes. Hawes, who helped key Philly's playoff run a year ago and re-signed with the team in the offseason, has experimented with non-traditional brand partnerships. Last year, he partnered with Heys USA, a world leader in travel goods and accessories, known particularly for the innovation and fashion imbued in the hard-side luggage lines. Heys handpicked Hawes as their athlete brand partner based on how well his lifestyle fit the brand image. Heys created a three pronged endorsement around Hawes for maximum brand engagement. Spencer traveled to the Headquarters of Heys USA in South Florida where he partook in a photo and video shoot for the Forza Luggage line. The Forza luggage pieces are specifically designed to be masculine and indestructible, while still being luxurious and aesthetically pleasing, perfect for the professional athlete who needs to stay organized on the road during the season. While in Florida for the shoot, Spencer attended the Diamond Ball, a marquee charity gala that benefits the Miami Children’s Hospital Foundation, an event where Heys USA was a sponsor. Appearing as a Heys brand ambassador, he met with children from the hospital and took pictures with them on the red carpet and exhibited both his and Heys’ philanthropic spirits. In the following weeks, Heys promoted Spencer’s endorsement and charitable appearance through social media outlets to forge a connection between basketball fans and the Heys travel brand. The result was mutually beneficial exposure to markets where previously, neither Heys nor Hawes would have reached solo.
Brand partnerships with athletes are steadily becoming more about the athlete’s ability to fit the essence of the brand. "It is all about finding the right athlete who will not just show up and shake hands or pose for a billboard today," said Chris Lencheski, CEO of Philadelphia-based Front Row Marketing Services, which monitors the ad exposure for brands and also is a global player in the brand activation space. "For the dollars invested these days, brands need to see clear return in the demo where they hit home, so selecting the athlete to represent you means you have to look extra hard to make sure he or she fits the profile perfectly. It's not an exact science but it’s leading to some very non-traditional approaches."
So while it remains true athletes have to perform on the playing field, the partnerships that work also deliver in ways well beyond the game, as business looks for more ROI in their selection of who they work with. It certainly is as diverse a game now as ever before, as the winners in athlete marketing may bring more to the table than ever before.