SBJ/April 29-May 5, 2013/Opinion

How future NBA rookies are making themselves marketable

Editor's note: This story has been revised from the print edition.

Spring is an exciting time for basketball. March Madness is behind us, the NBA playoffs are in full swing, and sports analysts are tweaking their draft prospect lists as they predict who will go in the top 10. Scouts, coaches, team owners, sponsors and players are all looking for the same thing: Who can make me the most money? Be it ticket sales, product sales or contract value, each of the above has one eye on the game and the other on their bottom line.

Some players are focusing on getting draft ready to give their draft stock one last bump. They want the best rookie deal they can land with a team that will not only allow, but will help, them to shine. The really smart and ambitious players are focusing on their total profile, hoping to make as much off the court as on.

Of course, a player’s stats are the major factor in deciding who gets the big endorsement deals. But with the number of scandals that have rocked the sports world and damaged the brands the athletes promote, marketers are looking for players with the stats and a concern for their own personal brand. Look at Charles Barkley. He used his gregarious on-court personality to land his next career as a basketball analyst, setting himself up for several non-sport-related endorsements with T-Mobile, Weight Watchers and Capital One.

So why does endorsement potential matter? It has been documented that some NBA players struggle financially within five years of retiring from the game. Let’s be real: Retirement is likely the furthest thing from anyone’s mind at age 20 or 21, so it’s easy to see why a player entering the draft today isn’t concerned about what will happen to them later in their 30s or 40s. Those with a good head on their shoulders or those receiving strong parenting and coaching are positioning themselves now.

Noel’s style reads as fun, and his community service is admirable.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
This year’s draft class has a number of players who are doing just that. March Madness is always a time when we get to see all of the athletes in rapid succession. There are pregame and postgame interviews to determine who seems comfortable with the media. I took notes through the tournament, then pulled old interviews for comparison and reviewed Twitter feeds for a number of players all the way back through November to see who’s really marketing themselves, their school and their teammates.

Nerlens Noel is doing it the best so far. On the court for Kentucky he led the SEC in rebounds and blocks. Off the court, he brought back the Kid ’n Play high-top to show his own fun flair. In interviews, he is quick to mention that he tries to bring a great attitude and work ethic to his game. If you visit his Twitter page you’ll see him tweeting about school visits and trips to nursing homes to cheer people up. That’s marketing material right there. A full physical recovery from knee surgery will get him ready to bring big numbers on the court. Noel’s biggestspokesman challenge is to eliminate
verbal fillers (um, like, you know) from his speech pattern while keeping hisvolume up when he speaks.

McLemore’s humble personality will help him connect.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
If you visit the Kansas player page for top draft hopeful Ben McLemore, or watch his March 23 Rising Up interview, you’ll hear his personal story of rising above negative neighborhood influences to make it to a top-flight school and see that he’s humble and likable. So his Twitter handle @Humb1e_Hungry23 is spot on for promoting his personality. He’ll have some other ground to make up, however, because his Twitter pictures are a little less wholesome than those of Noel’s. Strong brands that market to families will probably want to see some of his social media usage toned down a bit to guard against scandal. Finishing his words when he speaks will make him more easily understood along with cutting back on his use of slang in interviews and social media. Time, practice and maturity will help eliminate his conversation fillers, particularly, “stuff like that.”

Otto Porter of Georgetown is taking to social media to bond with fans, share stories and show his personality. He just needs to settle down his nervous body energy on camera and show a little more of his personality. His pregame interview before facing Marquette in March didn’t exude his true level of confidence. There, he appears too cool. Not rude, just subdued. He’s leaning back and fidgeting a lot, and speaks with almost a whisper. He can work the “cool” for the right product, as long as his on-court game does all of the talking.

Other prospects with endorsement potential include UNLV’s Anthony Bennett, who proved he’s not too macho to show emotion during his draft announcement on April 1. He showed respect for his teammates and coaches as he passed compliments around liberally. Kelly Olynyk from Gonzaga may not go in the top 10, but he has that “aw shucks” charm that warms a crowd. It’s most recently seen in his April 19 draft/birthday announcement. He continues to shape his public image through Twitter, boasting pictures of his experience coaching Special Olympics.

Finally, keep an eye on C.J. McCollum. The Lehigh senior may go later than the others, but as a journalism major, he may already be preparing for his off-court opportunities to supplement his contract and extend his career.

Players, and those helping them along, should pay attention to their off-court potential while they fine-tune their on-court performance. Why have one career in sports when a little preparation and practice can help you have two? Some spokesperson training before and during a career can only expand a player’s life possibilities and lessen the risk of becoming a negative statistic after it’s over.

Karlyn Lothery (Karlyn@lothery.com) is a strategic communication consultant, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant and founder of Lothery & Associates. Her practice focuses on preparing spokespeople for media interviews, public appearances, speeches and social media strategy. Follow her on Twitter @Prepare2Speak.


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