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Volume 21 No. 1


Is an athlete the best choice as a spokesperson for a company’s sports marketing campaign?

Today, my answer to that question would be different than it was during and after my nearly 25 years at Burson-Marsteller. I worked with many athletes on significant national and international campaigns. Often, I was the “decider” on which athletes to use for publicity purposes.

But over the years, my thinking has changed. Based on practice, experience and observation, and the unpredictable behavior of many athletes, I would now advise clients to often consider the non-athlete spokesperson route for their sports marketing publicity campaigns.

Athletes are often seen as the best way to gain publicity for marketing campaigns. That’s not always true. There are many non-athletes who can be productive spokespersons. It all depends on how the PR program is structured. In many cases, a simple tweaking of the program can accommodate using a retired athlete or another professional — psychologist, physician, historian, trainer, author or retired journalist — to deliver the client’s message.

I’ve seen more media coverage than I can remember that includes a one-line sentence saying, “Athlete X is a spokesman for XYZ.” And the PR account executive is proud of the accomplishment. In today’s media environment, with more outlets for sports marketing publicity opportunities than ever because of talk radio and social media, the scant client tie-in should be the minimum expected, not the end-all.

I’m a believer that publicity programs should cover all aspects of the media, the old and new outlets, instead of just concentrating on the sports scene. That could often mean not falling back to the hackneyed playbook of using an athlete to deliver the client’s sports marketing message points. Too often the athlete becomes the story, and the message that the client wants and expects to be delivered is given short shrift.

I can immediately think of two cases where using a retired athlete or another sports professional best fit the client’s needs.

A client wanted to promote its educational products. We selected a school-room game called “Math Baseball.” Baseball hall of famer Monte Irvin was designated “commissioner/spokesman.” The publicity program was designed to produce results on and off the sports pages. The importance of math was stressed and resulted, importantly, in as much coverage off the sports pages as on them.

Retired athletes can offer a brand or company a tie to sports and sports nostalgia but without the risk of losing focus on message points because of current performance on the field. In my experience, brands also face fewer conduct issues when dealing with retired players.

For another client that wanted to promote its television series of sporting events, we used game play-by-play announcers, instead of athletes. The gimmick was, “How to watch an event on TV.” Because it was sports, it was covered by sports media. However, because of its emphasis about what to look for during the action, it was covered extensively on TV pages, which was primarily what the client wanted. Result: A happy client for nine years.

Today, because of the growing importance of new media techniques, PR agencies have to be more cautious than ever when deciding on athlete spokespersons. Social media has made it imperative that spokespersons are both media savvy and good citizens. The last thing you want is to have an athlete spokesperson be a loose cannon and tweet comments that can cause discomfort for your client.

Arthur Solomon ( was a senior vice president/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller and is a consultant on public relations projects.

One of the most consistent criticisms of our editorial products over the years has been the emphasis on white men. Simply put, we have been taken to task many times for the lack of gender and ethnic diversity within our pages, especially within our annual lists, the Most Influential in Sports and the Forty Under 40. My response has been consistent: It’s very unfortunate, but until there are more concerted efforts to increase the roles, responsibilities and sheer numbers of diverse executives in the sports industry, the predominantly white male makeup of our pages will likely continue.

That said, we recognize that there are great stories of all kinds of successful executives to be told. It’s our hope that this week’s inaugural list of “Game Changers: Women in Sports Business,” will shed light on the careers, accomplishments and perspectives of some women who are taking the lead across all areas of the sports industry.

The hope is that highlighting the talents of these worthy executives and finding out what makes them tick could help develop professional relationships or personal outreach; maybe mentors will be sought or future CEOs will be shaped.

I know many will ask, “Why do they have to do a list of women? Why can’t women just be a part of their regular coverage and lists?” It’s a fair question. I would argue that women already are a part of our “regular lists,” it’s just that there are not enough of them. The women who have already appeared on our Forty Under 40 lists were not considered for inclusion in the inaugural Game Changers. That explains the absence of Heidi Ueberroth, Jennifer Storms, Kathy Carter, Rita Benson LeBlanc and many others. We felt our readers know those women and are familiar with their success. Instead, we hope these new names and new accomplishments will shine the light on another generation of talent and leadership.

We started this project before the summer, when Assistant Managing Editor Mark Mensheha began compiling a massive list of names to be considered. Taking that initial list of more than 600, we began paring it down — looking for representation across certain segments of the industry. People were considered because of their influential voice or deal making, their ability to make a mark on the sports business or the fan experience, their willingness to innovate, their stomach for entrepreneurialism or the compelling nature of their personal journey. This list is not a “best of”; it’s simply a way to tell the stories of women who are having success, serving as leaders or just kicking ass in a largely male-dominated industry.

Special thanks to all those who gave us suggestions and feedback; your contributions to this inaugural feature were greatly appreciated. In addition, kudos to two people behind the scenes: Mark Mensheha, who ran point on this project for months; and Susanne Corrado, who brought her vision and design talents to bear to create a dynamic and eye-popping feature.

Our goal is to offer compelling stories of women in sports every year going forward, but the first one is always special. Please let us know what you think. We welcome your thoughts and ideas on what we can do better — and most importantly, suggestions on future Game Changers.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at