As time has gone on, all major sports have trended in a certain direction. In the beginning, players were not individually marketed, and every dollar that was made for sports came from the team. The players were controlled by their teams, giving players very little freedom. An example of this comes with Major League Baseball (MLB). This holds relevance right now, as the MLB has come to its first work stoppage in 25 years. In 1994, there was a strike over many of the same issues that are being argued over today. Freedom for players to be individual and to not be controlled by the organization's owners is an issue that is driving the lockout that was just put upon the MLB just weeks ago.
Control is an ongoing issue in all sports. However, in recent years, athletes can go off on their own tangents, and market themselves as individuals, and not just as an athlete. Athletes now have a platform, in large part because of the rise of social media, that can be used as a tool to boost their image, as well as help to improve the lives of others. When there is a work stoppage like there has been in Major League Baseball, all guarantees go out the window. Players have to depend on themselves and their brand to generate revenue if playing in their respective sport is not an option. That also comes with sports outside of the core four. Athletes who cannot depend on their salary from their team alone, or easily receive a partnership deal due to their status, should focus on their personal brand to achieve long-term sustainability.
An athlete who does this well is Katie Ledecky. Ledecky is the most decorated female athlete in Olympic history. She has won 7 Olympic gold medals and 15 more world championship gold medals. She is considered one of the greatest female swimmers of all time. Ahead of the planned 2020 Olympics, Ledecky famously left Stanford University during her sophomore season. Despite Stanford winning two national championships in a row, Ledecky left because she felt their was more value in building her brand. Since the nature of the sport of swimming sees most athletes out of their prime by the time that they are 30, if she had finished her career at Stanford that would mean two more years of limited exposure, limiting her years to build and capitalize on her brand. Since turning pro, she has leveraged her brand and social media presence and has landed sponsorship deals with companies like VISA, as well as the swimwear brand TYR. She has also decided to go in the direction of showing her full self on social media, as she posts about her personal life and her hobbies outside of swimming. In doing this, Ledecky has opened up her branding opportunities to give a feel of being a typical relatable college-aged woman, while also building her network outside of swimming by using these hobbies and her platform. Ledecky understands that her sport itself will not be able to sustain the lifestyle that she hopes to live, turned to her personal brand to live by and thrive in the athletic community.
There has to be a certain sense of authenticity to a personal brand. Francis Reimers is the CEO and founder of Firestarter, a company that helps athletes, coaches, and executives develop, manage, enhance, and protect their brands. Reimers said, “Authenticity is vital for two fundamental reasons. One, athletes want to ensure that the persona that appears online, is the person they are in real life. Few things kill a brand faster than the discovery that it’s not genuine. Two, remaining authentic allows for differentiation. In the crowded sea of professional and amateur athletes, the development of presenting your authentic self helps an athlete find a way to stand out.”
It can be seen that building a personal brand is something that has layers and needs to be thought out. With the way that sports are currently trending, a personal brand is as important as ever. It is clear that in baseball, there is a chance that there is a stoppage of games. Superstars like Mike Trout, Jacob DeGrom, or Max Scherzer, can live comfortably without everyday competition and survive the climate without losing too much. However, there are thousands of players that are dependent on playing in those games to put food on their tables, especially those in the minor leagues. Athletes need to understand that building their brand can give them options, and perhaps give them the chance to avoid the suffocation that comes with a work stoppage. A personal brand gives options and allows an athlete to prosper outside of competition.