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Volume 20 No. 42
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When current stars aren’t the best choice

Once again, the risks taken by sports marketers when becoming too closely identified with sports stars and promoting them as role models and product endorsers have proved to be questionable.

Some of baseball’s biggest stars have been rejected for inclusion in the Baseball Hall of Fame. A former National League MVP, Ryan Braun, has been suspended for the rest of the season for violating Major League Baseball’s rules on performance-enhancing drugs. Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and sued or dropped by multiple former sponsors, including the U.S. Postal Service, after he confessed to using performance-enhancers. After tight end Aaron Hernandez was charged with murder, the New England Patriots’ once-proud motto “The Patriot Way” was ridiculed in the media rather than being praised as a formula for success.
In addition to descriptions of home runs, first downs, game-winning jump shots and action on the ice, the media on an almost daily basis now reports on another aspect of the sports scene: steroid use, domestic violence, doping, gun charges and DUIs. In football alone, there have been 47 arrests during the offseason involving NFL players.

Still, it seems that marketers are mesmerized by current athlete headliners when seeking product spokesmen. Are they even considering that the media darlings of today will be tomorrow’s fallen stars at the hint of a scandal?

Sports marketers also seem not to take into consideration that journalism has changed. The days when writers would cover up the antics of a Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle are gone. Even with TMZ Sports and the advent of social media, marketers seem slow to realize that misdoings of athletes are now a staple of sports reporting.
Does this mean that marketers or publicists should avoid using athletes to gain publicity for products or events? Not necessarily. However, the following should be capitalized in bold type in every marketing or public relations play book: The most attractive athletes of the moment are not necessarily the best choices.

I’ve been involved with the sports scene for many years, first as a sports reporter and then nearly 25 years at Burson-Marsteller. I have witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly on all levels of the sports world, from high school to the Olympics. In the 1970s and ’80s, when managing for eight years the publicity efforts for Gillette’s MLB All-Star Game fan election, I thought there was a safer way of using athletes than following the conformist marketing strategy of partnering with big-name athletes. Despite warnings that my approach would surely fail in gaining the publicity that I said it would, I suggested using retired stars for publicity efforts. Some of the athletes urging fans to vote in elections were Lefty Gomez, Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Sparky Anderson and Ralph Kiner. Based on the success of that campaign, Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts and Olympic standout Bob Mathias were recruited in Olympic-related campaigns.

There are four main reasons for suggesting retired athletes:

• They are easier to come to terms with than current stars.

• Current stars are interviewed by reporters frequently, usually not about product endorsements, but about the last or next game.

• Nostalgia is a big part of sports reporting, so bringing back stars from another era provides fresh copy.

• Importantly, they are less likely to get into trouble that results in bad publicity for a sponsor.

So my public relations advice is to consider using well-known athletes who have been out of the media spotlight for awhile. A well-crafted program is sure to gain brand identification publicity and, importantly, the spokesmen are less likely to embarrass sponsors by ending up before an investigating committee or appearing on the police blotter.

Arthur Solomon ( is a former journalist and Burson-Marsteller senior vice president.