Social media has brought sporting stars closer to their fans than ever before, athletes are increasingly using their platform to support social and political causes and movements, and salaries and prize money continue rising to staggering levels. Whilst these changes are certainly not negatives, they do present challenges.
Over the coming months, in partnership with the Sports & Entertainment team at Miller, we’ll be going in-depth on this new landscape and what we, the sport industry, should be thinking about and doing to ensure that the wellbeing of athletes is safeguarded and prioritised.
The modern athlete is expected to represent all manner of things beyond their sporting calibre, while success and endorsements place the individual in the public spotlight. Miller Insurance’s Alex Mendis discusses the implications of the athlete’s heightened exposure today and the risks to their reputation, safety, and future earning capability.
The value of an athlete was traditionally measured, once upon a time, on their employer’s ability to sell tickets on the back of their performance and whether they could leverage the athlete’s name to market playing shirts and merchandise to fans.
It didn’t matter whether they scored goals, baskets, or touchdowns; won championship rings, gold medals, or green jackets; it all added weight to an athlete’s stock and saw a special few elevated to global ‘sports-star’ status.
Nowadays, the landscape looks very different for the modern-day athlete. The value they offer to their respective sport reaches far beyond their playing ability and, in many cases, holds the potential to raise a rights holder’s capital simply by association.
While social media has brought athletes closer to their fans and given them a platform to voice their opinion on important social causes and broaden their commercial portfolio, the athlete’s sway over public appeal has never been greater.
Though a massive coup for the athlete and their ability to earn away from their respective sport, the heightened exposure that comes with social media adds several layers of risk to their personal and professional development, giving rise to new areas of concern that should be accounted for by the athlete’s management and representatives.
In the digital age, athletes and their advisors have to learn and adapt at the coalface when it comes to understanding the pros and cons associated with their public profile, especially when endorsing brands willing to pay high fees to an athlete with millions of followers online.
Not only is there a risk to the athlete’s reputation if a brand they put their name to suffers public humiliation, there’s also the risk their heightened profile places on their privacy and personal safety. Not to mention the potential loss of future earnings if their performance and reputation suffer as a result of a poorly executed endorsement deal, as well as the public nature of contractual disputes.
These concerns also extend to the brands the athlete’s team or organisation choose to partner. As sport looks to open new and exciting revenue streams with innovative startups, they must also consider the risks they might place on the rights holder and the athlete whose image they use to advertise the partnership. This is presenting the athlete management sector, in particular, serious food for thought when working with clients who draw global and commercial demand.
High-profile athletes need the right support
Let’s consider the challenges that come with earning big money at a very young age. Whether through playing contracts or lucrative endorsement deals, athletes who show promise during their youth receive greater interest from the media and sponsors.
With that, the individual is propelled into so-called celebrity, much earlier than their peers, and the athlete becomes a public personality even if it wasn’t their intention.
Although heightened interest offers welcome exposure for their sport and the brands they endorse, their success can often place the image and reputation of emerging stars out of the athlete’s control, which places the athlete’s reputation at greater risk before they’ve had a chance to truly establish themselves in their sport.
It’s evident in today’s sporting climate that success breeds stardom. Just like the athlete’s performance, an athlete’s reputation is cultivated over the long-term.
However, the difference between the two rests on the speed that one’s reputation can be detracted from an isolated incident. While the athlete’s playing ability will naturally ebb and flow throughout their career, threats to their reputation, on the other hand, can lead to irreparable damage and loss of future earnings.
Although there is an element of risk to both parties, sponsorship contracts tend to lean protection towards the brand more often than not, which exposes the athlete to a greater risk of damages if an endorsement deal does eventually go south.
Therefore, as the reputation of an athlete’s brand is subject to more than their success or failures in their respective sport, ensuring that an athlete’s off-field image and dealings are protected takes just as much care as the measured approach of their coaching staff deciding when to throw an athlete into the limelight.
Unlike the earliest sports stars such as American golfer Arnold Palmer, who in 1960 was among the first to recognise his true value to his sport after joining the International Management Group (IMG), the heightened exposure high-profile athletes live by nowadays also puts their earnings and which companies they choose to endorse under greater scrutiny.
In order to build trust among their fans and reduce the risk their celebrity status carries, an athlete requires a broader selection of commercial opportunities to choose from. Though this level of demand takes time to cultivate, by building a sponsorship portfolio that aligns with their values and beliefs, an athlete can become more selective about the brands they choose to work with.
In some cases, the athlete’s influence supersedes their employer whereby the individual’s profile gives him or her the power to challenge their team or employer on the brands they choose to partner with and presents a vehicle for keeping their sport and its values in check.
An athlete’s voice travels further
As sports around the world count the cost of the Covid-19 pandemic and come up with new strategies to monetise their physical and digital assets, the athlete is in fact playing an invaluable role in the industry’s recovery.
So, by nurturing their status as role models to a whole new generation of fans, it is imperative that both established and emerging sporting talents are given the space to grow their brand responsibly and requires the help of a strong support network around them.
While their management and coaches give them focus in the arena, the brands and rights holders with whom they entrust play a vital role in telling the athlete’s story.
After a year in which has seen many athletes speak up for causes close to them, the year ahead is likely to see more of the same, as sportsmen and women continue to shed light on societal and political issues. These include the fight against social and racial inequality, their personal challenges with mental health, and the ongoing threat of online abuse faced by athletes whose profiles, particularly via social media, expose them to hate crime.
In order for athletes to develop a platform through which they and others can draw inspiration, it’s vital that their image and values align with those of the sports and brands they are attached to. Only through greater collaboration can an athlete and the brand mitigate risk to their collective reputation.
Though the athlete’s brand is ultimately built on their success in the sporting arena, by addressing the risks associated with their public profile can help the individual succeed in other areas of their life, too. Again, this requires collaborative support between the athlete’s management, employer, and brand portfolio.
Although risk is heightened when working with high-profile athletes and rights holders, by accepting mutual risk, collaboration helps the athlete’s management and sponsors manage that risk and minimise the financial consequences when something goes wrong.
Looking forward, through common goals, an opportunity is granted to our sporting icons and the sports and brands they represent, not only to secure their future post-retirement, but also to build a legacy worthy of their name and one that sets the tone for a safer and more equitable market for sport’s future stars to navigate.
Images supplied by Shutterstock.