Sports’ main actor in marketing has become a dominant force, reshaping the way athletes are perceived and how they connect with their fans. Gone are the days when athletes were solely known for their performance on the field or court; today, they are brands unto themselves, and their marketability has transcended their sporting achievements.
It’s a seismic shift occurring that is redefining the role of athletes in our society. Athletes are no longer confined to their roles as players on the field; they have become multi-hyphenate influencers who wield immense reach and impact. This transformation can be attributed to a confluence of factors, including the rise of social media, the allure of brand endorsements, athletes’ foray into media personalities, their entrepreneurial endeavors, and their increasing engagement in activism.
In this blog, I will delve into the evolution of the multi-hyphenate athlete and explore the strategies that brands can employ to harness this phenomenon for effective engagement.
The Multi-Hyphenate Athlete
It’s a new breed of influencer, isn’t it? In the not-so-distant past, athletes were primarily celebrated for their athletic achievements, and their connection with fans was limited to game-day experiences and sporadic interviews. However, the contemporary athlete is a multi-dimensional personality who extends their influence far beyond the confines of the field. This transformation is underpinned by several key factors.
The advent of social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok has democratized fame. Athletes now have direct access to their fans, no borders, bypassing traditional media intermediaries. These platforms provide athletes with an unfiltered stage to showcase their personalities, interests, and day-to-day lives.
Moreover, athletes have become highly sought-after brand endorsers. Their marketability extends beyond their sporting prowess, encompassing their unique persona and personal brand. When an athlete endorses a product or company that aligns with their values, a powerful synergy is created between fans and brands. A 2022 Nielsen study found that consumers view athletes as personalized connections and trust influencers’ recommendations about brands and products more than other channels like online banners and mobile ads. The younger generation is more attracted to relatable athletes than superstars.
Furthermore, many athletes are now venturing into the world of media, hosting TV shows, podcasts, vlogs and YouTube channels. These platforms offer athletes a broader audience and more opportunities for engagement. Athletes are no longer just subjects of media coverage; they are now the creators of their content.
Athletes are also increasingly using their platform to advocate for social and political causes they are passionate about. By taking a stand on issues that resonate with their values, athletes engage with fans who share similar beliefs, fostering a sense of community and shared purpose. In terms of messaging, fans seek athletes and brands that advocate for societal issues they support. However, even with the growing attention on societal issues worldwide, only 9% of people strongly believe that the actions taken by big brands concerning relevant issues are enhancing the connection between brands and fans.
Approaches for Brands
Brands have a unique opportunity to leverage the multi-hyphenate athlete phenomenon to their advantage. To capitalize on this transformation and effectively engage with fans, brands can employ the following with these actions; authenticity, storytelling, interactive content, cause marketing, and collaborations.
Authenticity is a cornerstone of successful athlete engagement. Athletes who maintain authenticity in their interactions with fans are more likely to garner genuine engagement. Brands should encourage athletes to be themselves on social media, sharing their interests, values, and daily lives. Athletes have compelling stories to tell, both on and off the field. Brands should leverage these narratives to create emotional connections with fans. Sharing the journey of an athlete’s rise to success or their philanthropic efforts can resonate deeply with audiences.
Content is the queen. But how to make the content more engaging is the king. Interactive content, such as live Q&A sessions, polls, challenges, and giveaways, allows athletes to directly engage with fans. Brands can facilitate these interactions, creating memorable moments that strengthen the athlete-fan bond.
In addition to key action, as I mentioned before, brands and athletes can collaborate to support social or environmental causes that are meaningful to both parties. When such initiatives align with an athlete’s values, they not only generate positive publicity but also foster a sense of shared purpose among fans. Brands can partner with athletes on product development or co-branded campaigns. These collaborations leverage the athlete’s expertise and personal brand to create unique and enticing offerings for fans. Whether it’s a signature sneaker, clothing line, or exclusive merchandise, these collaborations can create a buzz in the market.
Nike, Colin Kaepernick and Social Activism
Colin Kaepernick, a former NFL quarterback, took a bold stand against racial injustice by taking a knee during the national anthem. While this act led to controversy and backlash, it also galvanized a movement. Kaepernick’s commitment to social activism has transcended his football career, and he has become a symbol of the intersection between sports and social change. Brands like Nike have not only supported him but also embraced his message in their advertising campaigns, sparking conversations and connecting with socially conscious consumers.
Nike’s 2018 campaign featuring Kaepernick is an emblematic case study that vividly illustrates the principles of authenticity and calculated risk-taking in marketing. Kaepernick’s involvement in the campaign was nothing short of polarizing, given his status as a symbol of protest against police brutality, racism, and social injustice in the United States.
His decision to kneel during the National Anthem had ignited passionate debates, with some interpreting it as disrespectful to the nation and its military personnel, while others recognized it as a poignant means of highlighting systemic racial inequality. Kaepernick’s stance had not only divided public opinion but had also impacted his NFL career, during which he remained unsigned throughout the 2017 offseason, resulting in allegations of collusion by NFL team owners.
Nike’s deliberate choice to feature Kaepernick in their 30th-anniversary “Just Do It” campaign was indeed a calculated risk. They were acutely aware of the potential backlash from consumers who might perceive Kaepernick’s protest as unpatriotic. Nevertheless, Nike made a resolute decision to stand by him, thereby elevating his status among their stable of athlete endorsers. The campaign garnered considerable attention and engagement, sparking intense reactions on social media, ranging from staunch support to fervent boycotts.
This campaign’s reception showcased the formidable power of authenticity in marketing. By aligning themselves with Kaepernick, Nike demonstrated that they stood for something far more profound than their products; they stood in solidarity with athletes, advocates for civil rights, and those critical of the Trump administration. This demonstration of authenticity resonated deeply with a specific segment of their consumer base, even if it meant estranging others.
In a world where consumers possess a keen ability to discern inauthenticity, Nike’s unwavering commitment to taking a stance underscored the enduring importance of authenticity in marketing. It served as an enduring reminder that brands, at times, must stand for something greater than their products and be prepared to navigate the tempest of controversy.
Ultimately, Nike’s decision to support Colin Kaepernick not only captured widespread attention but also reaffirmed the principle that authenticity can be a triumphant strategy, even in the face of divisive and contentious issues.
The Evolution Continues
The rise of the multi-hyphenate athlete has ushered in a new era in sports marketing. Athletes today are more than just sports figures; they are influencers, activists, and entrepreneurs who shape our cultural landscape.
Brands that understand the power of athlete engagement can create lasting connections with fans, leveraging the authenticity and reach of these multi-hyphenate athletes.
As this transformation continues, athletes and brands alike must navigate the evolving dynamics of sports marketing. The strategies outlined here—authenticity, storytelling, interactive content, cause marketing, and collaborations—serve as a blueprint for building meaningful connections with fans in an age where athletes are more than just players; they are influential voices and powerful brands.
The journey of the multi-hyphenate athlete is one of continual evolution, and it is a journey that will continue to shape the future of sports marketing for years to come.