(Thanks to Spencer McIntosh for submitting the following article!)
On November 16th, BDA’s very own Bill Sanders spoke at the Ivy Sports Symposium at Columbia University in New York. The annual Symposium, touted as one of the premiere Sports Business conferences in the world, featured many different topics and panel discussions throughout the day. Bill joined fellow agents and athlete representatives to discuss Athlete Marketing and Representation. Bill shared his thoughts to an audience of aspiring sports leaders and young professionals in the industry. The topics in the panel discussion included building a players brand, managing their expectations, and the growing emergence of social media to connect with fans.
BDA Sports Management’s Marketing division is the only agency in the industry dedicated exclusively to player marketing. Here are a few notable excerpts from the panel discussion, which was moderated by ESPN’s Business Analyst Andrew Brandt.
On Penetrating the market for clients:
“As marketers, we’re ultimately judged by our success of generating revenue for our clients off the court. But to me, that’s the end of the process, that’s the fruit of your labor. The first step is to help build the athlete’s brand, tell their story through social media, traditional media, community work, and by working with their team and league.
We live in the age of authenticity and transparency. As an athlete, you have to be who you really are. We’ve seen so many athletes fall from Mt. Olympus. Over the last ten years, as sports fans we have seen athletes who we thought we could look up to and to revere. Then you find out their not who they said they are.
In basketball, you start with a client who’s 19 years old and making millions of dollars. Often times that player is surrounded by friends who are telling them that they should be on a Wheaties box or have a deal with McDonalds. We try to slow them down and explain that brand building takes time. The more time you’re willing to invest in this process, the more patient you are, and the more you follow our lead in terms of building a good reputation in the community, the better you’ll be. By doing media training so and having your personality shine, brands can feel that you’re charismatic, charming, and have integrity. The more time and effort you’re willing to put into that, the more benefit you’re going to see down the road n terms of long term sponsorship.
In basketball and other team sports, revenue for the player comes mostly from their contract. So a small percentage of their revenue is going to be marketing dollars. The deals are generally short term, for the household names the deals will be longer with brands such as Nike, but the average deals are for a 2-3 year term. They turn over relatively quickly. But to make that steady and long term, you need to build a solid brand that’s authentic, that people can trust, and where you’re not too worried about some fall from grace.”
Controlling Clients Expectations
“As the marketing person, I rely on the agents a tremendous amount. The agent has the closest relationship with the player. I have relationships with these guys and I work with them on brand building, but the agent has that close relationship. As for handling a player’s expectation, we’ve had some success in telling our clients the following: Your marketing will always follow a step behind your progress on the court. So when you get to the place where you think you’re at your peak as a player, the marketing is going to follow right behind that. But if you’re not in the starting lineup, or if you’re not making the all star game and your stats aren’t great, then you shouldn’t be worrying too much about marketing yet.
We tend to have the best luck with clients who are willing to trust our input and follow our lead.
We recently had something work really well with Rajon Rondo. He’s really into fashion. Not many people know that, but he wanted people to know that. So we suggested that he do an internship at GQ. At first, he was reluctant. But he trusted us on it and it went really well. He told us afterwards that he enjoyed it and was a great experience. That’s how one would go about building trust with their clients.”
Challenges in the Player Marketing Industry
Friends Being in Control of a Players Business Responsibilities
“One of the biggest threats is that a few high profile athletes are entrusting their friends with their marketing. That’s a dangerous precedence, because whatever expertise the athlete is need of, whether legal advice, marketing advice, or contract advice, to put yourself in the hands of someone who doesn’t have experience, bad things can happen and have happened. In basketball, this is almost now becoming the norm. I think there’s going to have to be more high profile setbacks before athletes to limit the amount of influence their friends can have on some of these areas.”
Image Control: Contracts and Social Media
“Using social media is an opportunity to tell your story to your fans in an authentic way. Over time, athletes realize it’s a critical branding tool. It’s a challenge for them to tell their story to the fans and to present it to potential brands and partners. But when they understand how to do it, then it really can shine.
The way in which we connect with athletes has evolved. In the old days, you could send a check for ten dollars to the Pittsburg Steelers, and then in return receive a fake autograph from Terry Bradshaw. That was it, but at the time you really felt connected to him. Now, our athletes are responding to questions from fans and encouraging fans to upload content of their own, it’s a more robust connection now. The biggest reason why we do sports marketing is because brands want to borrow that fan loyalty. Being a life long Steelers fan is generational. Your children will be lifelong Steelers fans too, meaning that there is a lifelong loyalty to teams. Brands want to borrow that fan loyalty, and social media gives us the ability to lend that to them. This makes for a much more rewarding relationship between the brand and the athlete.
Thinking through the benefits of a partnership are important as well. We love working with Red Bull for example. They won’t just want to re-tweet something, but they’ll offer ideas for a promotion. They suggested a “ball drop” with Rondo, where we were going to put a signed basketball of his in various landmarks throughout Boston. Fans would tweet hints about where it would be, and the first fans to find it would get to keep the signed ball. Fans enjoy things like that, and they certainly don’t mind some sponsor engagement and social media channels. But it has to be authentic.”
**Spencer is the founder of Ball Abroad, a company that provides resources and insight on the global basketball markets. After graduating from the George Washington University in 2009, Spencer was based in London, Prague, and parts of Spain. While abroad, he joined the staff of various teams where he helped with marketing and sales, as well as scouting talent, and produced video profiles for players. Spencer continues to write for basketball websites and consult for players and agencies.