In 1905, Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner became the first athlete to publicly endorse a sports product. The company paid Wagner $75 to use their signature bat in games. Recently, there has been a significant shift in how brands approach sponsorship marketing. Rather than relying solely on traditional advertising methods, many brands have begun to focus on social media influencers to promote their products or services. This trend has been particularly prevalent in industries where influencers have a large following and significant sway over their followers' purchasing decisions.
Just last month, the clothing brand Eddie Bauer laid off its entire team of professional athletes in favor of social media influencers with large followings. While this may make it seem more difficult for athletes to secure sponsorships, there are many strategies athletes can employ to ensure they are eliciting results that will entice brands. Here are some tips:
Develop a unique brand identity
Athletes can build a strong personal brand by developing a unique identity that distinguishes them from their peers. This could involve identifying a particular style or aesthetic, creating a signature catchphrase or hashtag, or leveraging their personal story to create a compelling narrative. Through personal brand development, athletes’ personas transcend beyond their sport and create longevity for brand deals.
Build a strong social media presence
Social media is a powerful tool for developing a personal brand and connecting with fans. Athletes can use social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok to share their stories, showcase their skills, and engage with their followers. By building a large following, athletes possess more currency in potential sponsorship deals.
Showcase their athletic achievements
While some social media influencers may have a large following, they typically don't have the same athletic prowess as professional athletes. Athletes can leverage their athletic achievements to demonstrate their dedication, discipline, and skill, and appeal to sponsors who value those qualities. Michael Jordan, widely regarded as the greatest basketball player of all time, has leveraged his success on the court to become one of the most lucrative athlete endorsers in history. His most successful deal was with Nike in 1984 to launch the Air Jordan sneaker brand. The brand continues to succeed: it generated over $2B in revenue last year alone.
Collaborating with the right brands
Athletes can leverage their platform to collaborate with brands that align with their personal brand. This could involve partnering with a clothing or equipment brand, promoting a health and wellness product, or supporting a local business or charity. Finding the right brands with the same values can lead to winning long-term partnerships over traditional influencers. Professional surfer, Brisa Hennessy, recently became a UNICEF Costa Rica Ambassador. This partnership builds Brisa’s brand by showing the world her passion for bringing awareness to children’s rights and her love for her home country, Costa Rica.
Create innovative content
Athletes can also build their personal brand by creating original content such as videos, podcasts, or blog posts that showcase their personality and expertise. This content can help athletes grow a loyal following and attract potential sponsors who value their unique perspectives and voice. Amber Torrealba, for example, is a professional skimboarder with her own unique style of content creation. Her action-packed drone and GoPro shots have landed her brand deals companies like Blenders Eyewear.
Work with a sports marketing team
Athletes can benefit from working with a sports marketing team specializing in building personal brands and securing sponsorship opportunities. While general marketing agencies provide some value for athletes, an agency specializing in sports can provide athletes with meaningful industry connections and help construct sports-centric storylines. These agencies often already share relationships with brands already embedded in sports. By investing in a sports marketing team, athletes can better identify potential sponsors, negotiate contracts, and manage their personal brand to maximize their earning potential and combat the influencer marketing trends.