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Volume 21 No. 2


Many readers may have noticed a large number of ads in August featuring female Olympians during and immediately following the London 2012 Summer Olympics. Kerri Walsh Jennings, Sanya Richards-Ross and Canadian Christine Sinclair seemed to be everywhere. And, after winning gold in gymnastics, it was no surprise Gabby Douglas suddenly smiled back at us from the front of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes boxes.

It’s certainly fitting female athletes were finally receiving more commercial endorsements, especially given American women won 58 medals, a number better than the overall medal tally for all but three countries (China, Russia, Great Britain) and more medals than the U.S. men.

But how many of those women will be able to cash in on their fame as endorsers and how many will get featured in effective ads? Researchers John Antil and Matthew Robinson from the University of Delaware will soon publish data in the Journal of Brand Strategy suggesting American companies rarely employ female athletes as spokespeople and when they do, many use them poorly.

We know from our own research and experiences that, with the exception of the superstars, most female Olympians and Paralympians do not “cash in” as many believe they should. Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us.

Historically, baseball players have promoted commercial brands since the late 1800s when tobacco brands first used celebrity cards to boost sales. In fact, Yankees slugger Babe Ruth got so popular they named a candy bar after him.

Still, the use of female athletes like tennis star Suzanne Lenglen or golfer Babe Didrikson lagged well behind their male counterparts and it wasn’t until 1933 that Didrikson got endorsements deals with Wheaties, Dodge cars and Wilson golf clubs.

Was that a function of male-controlled companies moving slowly to recognize the influence and buying power of women? In that pre-World War II era, advertisers often signed female entertainers for their glamour and lavish lifestyle but female athletes were all but invisible.

The founder of the modern Olympic Games may have started that thinking. Baron Pierre de Coubertin didn’t believe women should compete in the Olympics and prohibited their participation at the first Games in Athens in 1896. Even as late as 1912, de Coubertin was writing in the Olympic Review “the Olympic Games should be reserved [only] for men. Can one grant women access to all Olympic competitions? No.”

De Coubertin’s anti-feminist stance was felt for decades and aspects of his sexism endured easily for another century. Remember, women weren’t allowed to run the Olympic marathon until 1984 and can’t start ski jumping until 2014. In fact, it wasn’t until London 2012 that men and women participated in each of the athletic disciplines at the Summer Games.

Interestingly, Antil and Robinson’s research found advertisers have long focused on a woman’s youth, beauty or sex appeal at the expense of characteristics like courage, reliability and performance. Perhaps they feel only males can showcase those traits.

Female athletes are more visbile today, but Torres’ ad didn’t impress many of the women surveyed by researchers.
As an example, Antil points to a “Got Milk” ad from 2009 featuring a then 42-year-old Olympian Dara Torres in a bikini-style swim suit. While Torres was obviously in world-class shape, it didn’t impress many of the women surveyed.

“Female respondents said this was a poor image for an outstanding athlete who achieved so much while raising a daughter,” Antil said. “Featuring Torres as a middle-aged single mother, able to balance family with work commitments, might have been more effective than highlighting her physical attractiveness in her 40s.”

For many readers, the previous sentence represents a “gotcha” moment. It seems sexist however it’s read, and particularly if the researchers (or columnists) relating this information are males. Torres was a swimmer. She had every right to pose in her swimsuit. That was her brand identity.

But during Antil and Robinson’s focus groups, female participants watching ads featuring an attractive female athlete frequently provided negative responses. When an endorser was much younger than the consumer, the age difference made it challenging for female consumers to relate. In these instances, both the credibility of the young female athlete endorser and the product suffered with older female participants and didn’t seem to move the needle with younger respondents.

Further, ads highlighting blatant sex appeal, such as ones featuring Danica Patrick in the shower for Go Daddy, seemed to produce heightened negative results especially when female consumers compared themselves to the spokeswoman. That’s not surprising, but Go Daddy might not have cared. They were targeting men, and women’s feelings toward Go Daddy probably didn’t matter.

Research has long shown that many men relate strongly to male athletes like Michael Jordan or Michael Phelps and male consumers aren’t put off by appearance or achievement. Gatorade’s legendary ad campaign “Be Like Mike” used song lyrics where men dreamed they were Jordan so they could fully emulate him.

Female consumers, however, appear to react differently to heroic endorsement by their own gender and may look less for recognition of heroic performances and more for an understanding of a shared struggle. Given that women are believed to purchase or influence 85 percent of all brand purchases, it’s an interesting research question to ask why female endorsers aren’t more visible. But if they are visible, should their use incorporate and feature the journey, not the destination?

In a year when more women than men participated on the U.S. Olympic team and won more gold medals (for the first time ever), one would think these women would enjoy increased endorsement opportunities. But perhaps this will only happen when advertisers better understand female customers.

Women may control the majority of household disposable spending and heavily influence household purchase decisions, but they appear to be very particular about who tells them what to buy and when to buy it.

Rick Burton ( is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and was a co-author on the research referenced above. Norm O’Reilly ( is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa.

Going through some notes, quotes and quips from our recent IMG Sports Marketing Symposium in New York City:

We conducted a “fan panel” at the conference where a focus group of five hard-core fans talked about their sports consumption habits and behavior with five sports marketing executives. The most surprising takeaway to me was when they were asked where they go first for their sports news and information. All five said Twitter simultaneously, without hesitation. I anticipated a split among ages and more mention of local online news sources or major online sports sites. The second avenue for sports news was team blogs, but not a team’s website, which was mentioned as a place for merchandise/commerce but not news. Also of interest, not one of the fans on the panel has ever bought concessions at a venue from their mobile phone.

From left, fans Larry Levy and Shane Reid share thoughts with WWE’s Andrew Judelson and MLS’s Howard Handler.
Tom Shine, senior vice president of sports and entertainment marketing worldwide for Reebok, acknowledged that his company losing the NFL on-field uniform and apparel deal to Nike was a blow. “It was a difficult pill to swallow, but the number that was out there didn’t make economic sense,” he said, citing a reported $1 billion deal over five years. Shine, however, said that the old business model around licensing deals is gone. “The model of being a guarantor and royalty collector is gone,” he said. “There are no more companies that are willing to take on this financial pounding in the future.”

John Bello, former NFL Properties president and SoBe co-founder, on if the NFL’s referee lockout hurt the brand: “They are succeeding in spite of themselves. I don’t even know why they advertise, because I don’t think they can do anything wrong.”

“Obviously they must be doing something right with their brands or people wouldn’t want to work with them anymore.”

IMG’s Alan Zucker,
on the overexposure of some athletes
A few highlights from a fun panel on the state of athlete endorsements. The market is tight and competitive with today’s reality stars encroaching on athlete deals, while celebrities and musicians have delved further into the endorsement realm as well. The market is one of “haves” — athletes getting major and multiple deals — and “have-nots” — everyone else. That makes talent agents and brands focus more on authenticity and storytelling. Unilever’s Rob Candelino talked about how athletes representing the much-acclaimed Dove Men+Care brand creative has worked. “Every one of them has told a story or a sentimental moment that has shaped them as men. We think that has been a winning formula because it resonates with our brand. If we started trying to be a sports brand, then we’ve lost the plot,” he said. “I think far too often nowadays, brands, particularly ones that don’t have both feet firmly entrenched in sports, subcontract their responsibility of brand equity to the athlete. If you do that, you’re done.” … IMG’s Alan Zucker on whether he fears overexposure when it comes to some athletes: “People talk about overexposure all the time. Whether it’s Tiger Woods or Peyton Manning or Danica Patrick. ‘I see them everywhere,’ people say. Yes, they are everywhere, but people keep calling. So obviously they must be doing something right with their brands or people wouldn’t want to work with them anymore.” I know I’ve been critical of the hype regarding Patrick over the years, but she does understand the brand/endorser relationship — and like Peyton — is really good at it. Watching her in multiple ad efforts for Nationwide proves how comfortable she’s become in front of the camera and, to me, she comes across likable and as though she really cares.

Jockey International CMO Dustin Cohn outlined how the brand has been quick to respond to Tim Tebow-mania over the last year. But when asked if Tebow is overexposed, roughly 60 percent of the audience in attendance said yes. Cohn was not concerned by the number, saying, “He is a guy who transcends sports. He is a role model regardless of what happens on the field. So off the field, we’re still going to want to associate with him. If we can break through with our message, then we are accomplishing our communication goals.”

Matt Jauchius, Nationwide Insurance executive vice president and CMO, on what he expects in his property relationships: “A property needs to understand my business. I do this because it’s fun, but I’m trying to sell insurance, which sounds funny, but if you don’t understand how insurance works then it’s hard to do business together. And a sports partner that just uses me as a source of writing a rights fees check, that doesn’t go very far with me.”

CORRECTION: In my column last week, under MLB’s Biggest Let-Down, I let myself and the reader down in misidentifying the Miami Marlins. After a million-dollar makeover that we reported on early and often, and one I found to be well-done, I should have known better. My apologies for the error.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at

Athletes spend years working on their game: trying to lift more, run faster, throw harder and earn the most money they possibly can in the shortest amount of time. But the truly great athletes understand that their overall brand is just as important as what they do on the field or court.

Emmitt Smith is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. Kids today know Smith more for his victory on “Dancing With the Stars” than they do the star he wore on his helmet with the Dallas Cowboys. But not many athletes have grasped the concept of personal brand quite like Smith has. The hall of famer spent years working on his brand, defining it in a time when social media didn’t exist. Today, he’s a powerful brand in sports — and he has been retired since 2004.

Smith’s NFL brand was appealing, believable, consistent and distinctive. But once he retired, the former Cowboy knew he had to work on evolving his brand off the field. So he took a chance, and put himself in a position where the risk of failure was high, but the reward was higher. And by winning “Dancing With the Stars,” not only did he endear himself to his already vast fan base, but he picked up thousands of new fans who loved his persona.

“There’s a lot of things that were said about me that were pretty good,” Smith told Donny Deutsch of CNBC. “People say I have fun, they talk about my personality, talk about my smile; just a lot of good things that they say about you that are tied to corporate brands; credibility, consistency, and durability.”

Smith has bought into the fact that he is the CEO of his own brand. Not all athletes are wired that way or have ever thought of themselves as a brand. The great ones know how to take advantage of their power and their ability to influence millions of people. Whom you allow in your inner circle are your board of directors, and you can vote them in or out at any time if they aren’t working to promote your brand.

That’s why many athletes choose to hire outside of their family to help promote their brand. Some, like

Former NFL running back Emmitt Smith built his brand on the football field, then took it to the dance floor and won the celebrity competition on “Dancing With the Stars.”
Photo by: AP IMAGES
LeBron James, have had success but also have been criticized for allowing friends and family to make business decisions. But if there is controversy, they have a tough decision to make. Do you stand by those who have been with you from the beginning, or do you fight to protect your brand? Your reputation is all you have, and athletes can’t afford to let someone tarnish what they’ve spent their entire life trying to build.

People buy positive brands; in fact, studies show that people pay at least 10 percent more for brands they trust. Why do we spend $4 for a pumpkin latte at Starbucks when you can make one at home for much less? It’s because you trust the Starbucks brand. Smith has prospered off the field because people buy into his brand; they trust it.

Brands do change over time. Sometimes it’s because it hasn’t been cultivated. Other times, brands change because fans and corporate America lose trust. The Tiger Woods brand is not what it used to be. A few years ago, he could do no wrong. He promoted everything and made more money in a weekend than most people will in a lifetime. Woods is still considered one of the greatest golfers of all time, but if he wins a tournament, finishes second or misses the cut, somewhere in the message is the underlying story of his fall from grace.

How to develop brand recognition

Appealing: A brand must be appealing to create buy-in. People don’t buy brands that aren’t appealing.

Believable: Volvo calls itself the safest car on the street — if consumers believe it, they will buy the car. If Volvo said its cars could fly, it would not be believable.

Consistent: Brands change, but if they change too much it raises the red flag. Brands must be consistent to maintain believability.

Distinctive: What makes a brand better than the competition? It’s hard to stand out in the crowd, and every business tries to distinguish itself as an industry leader — athletes can do the same.

Evolving: Where an athlete is as a rookie is different than where he or she is as a five- or 10-year veteran. An athlete must think ahead about how his or her brand evolves over time.

Social media is a great way to promote a brand; it’s also a great way to ruin it. Let’s face it, athletes have power. They have the power to influence and the power to persuade. The average Joe doesn’t have 2.5 million Twitter followers as many of the top athletes do. So why wouldn’t an athlete use that platform to promote something positive?

The question athletes need to ask themselves is how do they want to be perceived? Do they want to be known for what Emmitt Smith wanted to be known for? His brand is reliable, durable, and consistent — these are powerful words and most companies work years to earn that type of brand recognition. Athletes can create that brand for themselves in far less time.

“You have to ask yourself the question, What do you want to do in the game? What do you want to take away from the game, and what is it that you want to leave with the game?” Smith said. “How do you want to be perceived from the beginning to the end? It’s something I took serious. I wanted to leave a legacy within the game.”

But like the game, an athlete has to exercise his or her brand. Elite athletes don’t sit on the couch and expect greatness to come to them. An athlete can’t lower his 40-yard dash time by willing it to happen, he needs to make it happen.

The same can be said of great brands. Starbucks didn’t become what it is today because it rested on its laurels. In fact, Starbucks closed its stores one evening in 2008 to make sure its brand evolved and stayed strong. Apple didn’t become a fixture in society by taking it easy. The Apple brand continues to evolve, and people count down the days until the newest technology goes to market.

Lee Gordon (, who spent 15 years as a television anchor at CBS and served as a sideline reporter for the NFL on Fox, is the vice president of corporate communications at 180 Communications in Tallahassee, Fla.

Editor's note: This letter is revised from the print edition.

The following letter is in response to the Sports Media column (“I’m still bullish on BeIN Sport, but not all of you agree”) in the Sept. 10-16 issue of SportsBusiness Journal.

I agree that BeIN will last. They’ve really stepped up production values and their studio presentation approaches ESPN-level quality, is much better than Fox Soccer and much, much better than GolTV, which consists mostly of dubbed English programming. And I think that having La Liga rights, meaning Barca, will help to establish them here, where there are tons of Barca and Spain fans. La Liga is less important than a Barca "game of the week." Barca and the USMNT will carry the network, and if Al Jazeera decides to spend big to get the Premier League, which I think they will and they have the money, international soccer will have a media home in the US.

Larry DeGaris

DeGaris is president of Sponsorship Research & Strategy and an associate professor of marketing at the University of Indianapolis.