How Athletes Get Endorsements and Sponsorships

How athletes earn endorsements and sponsorships

Not every athlete signs a contract worth millions of dollars, and if they do, they can always make more.

Many athletes today can make just as much and sometimes even more off the field as they do for playing the game they love.

Enter Endorsements and Sponsorships. Music to the ears of agents and athletes. It’s how today’s athletes can earn even more income, support products and brands they love, and further connect with fans beyond the lines of their sports.

En masse, these deals include everything from the national TV ads with sports’ biggest stars to the local ad for a car dealership that features a hometown all-star to the social media #ad you see on your Twitter timeline. It could also be the reason the athlete is always decked out in Nike or another sportswear provider.

The avenues for earning have changed

From highlights to behind-the-scenes shots, fans crave access. When athletes successfully build their personal brands on social media, it creates a connection between the two, naturally leading to more followers — and just as importantly, engaged followers.

Social hasn’t only offered fans deeper access to athletes – it has provided athletes an avenue to share a more personal, interesting look into their lives than traditional commercials, press conferences, and the occasional one-on-one interview. Social has allowed athletes to be ever-present and more personable than ever.

And that’s when the sponsorship and endorsement opportunities come calling. Brands crave ambassadors because they desire avenues to authentically promote their product or service in front of as many eyeballs as possible. They want to enhance engagement and connect with audiences on levels that are rarely possible through other mediums.

When the athlete is a fan of a brand, it shows, and it’s why brands are successfully paying athletes to support products, promotions, and messaging via social media. Because athletes today understand their impact, they are typically very selective and often choose to work with brands and causes they believe in. Marketers realize that building a long-lasting program with one or multiple athletes is more successful than one-off activations. They’re looking for more than just the guy who will do his four social media posts in a span of a few weeks to check the box in their contract.

How do endorsement deals work?

So, how does that work? There are many ways, but it’s certainly a two-way street.

There’s the most common way a deal goes down: stars in major professional sports have countless opportunities thrown their way, typically routed through their agent or marketing representative, who act as gatekeepers. The athlete and their representation will analyze the offer’s terms, deliverables, the brand-fit, and determine whether or not to enter an agreement.

Notice how we didn’t necessarily say “and Player A LOVES the brand” … hold that thought.

And then there are the partnerships sparked by the athlete. Maybe Player B isn’t as well known as the 10-time All Pro, or maybe there’s a brand he’s loved since he was a kid and can’t wait to endorse, so they do the legwork to start the connection.

For example – PJ Tucker of the Houston Rockets is a successful NBA veteran, but is unlikely to ever make an All-NBA team. However, Tucker has become the league’s preeminent ‘sneakerhead,’ wearing hundreds of unique styles and sharing his favorites with his 670 thousand Instagram followers. Cementing his status as the NBA’s sneaker king led to  myriad endorsement options from sportswear brands. Tucker eventually inked a multiyear six-figure agreement with Nike with an emphasis on co-creating his looks alongside the shoe giant.

While brands like Nike are afforded the flexibility and budget to work with both superstars and passion projects, many brands simply seek athletes with a large, engaged audience that matches theirs. From the brand’s perspective, it’s a high-wire balancing act between cost, impact, expected outcomes, impressions, and image just to name a few. There’s almost always a social media audit and background check, to ensure both brand-fit and to catch any red flags that could appear after the deal is signed.

Beyond potential red flags, it’s vital to remember that more than ever, consumers have become skilled in identifying brands who collaborate with athletes as their ambassadors just for the awareness and without having a real connection. Publishing a Instagram post is unlikely to drive significant business outcomes on its own.

What can athletes be doing to earn more opportunities?

The bottom-line for athletes? Be authentic, active, and work to understand what content your audience engages with.

Athletes shouldn’t just grow their followings – their fans need to be engaged. Brands prefer ambassadors with fewer followers but a more engaged audience. This is where content can be king. Better content means more engagement, more followers, and a stronger channel to sell to marketers.

As you’ve probably entertained by now, social media is at the center of almost any athlete-driven marketing deal today. Some deals might include a TV ad but many spots are distributed primarily through social platforms. That places immense value on the athlete’s channels.

Of course, there are a number of things that an athlete should be aware of when developing their personal brand and thereafter entering into brand partnerships or sponsorships. The red flags we briefly discussed are easier to find than ever. Brands will often err on the side of caution. Athletes must always have this in the back of their minds.

But when it all works together – it can truly boost a brand campaign and drive tangible growth and revenue outcomes. 

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