Many athletes aren’t natural marketers — and that’s okay.
While creators and influencers rely on marketing instincts and strategies to build valuable audiences, athletes have an audience built-in — their fans.
But to take the leap from ordinary athlete to endorsement marketing superstar, athletes need to define their personal brand and commit to a series of activities to promote themselves to a specific audience. In other words, they need to market themselves.
Part of that personal branding mix for athletes at every level is finding a niche.
A niche is a specialized market: a subset of a larger market with interest in a specific topic or vertical. The potential interests are nearly endless. They can include specific fashions, cooking, sustainability, gaming, and more.
When an individual can identify and commit to representing those interests, they can find their niche market. For athletes, that niche is generally a sub-section of their current potential fan base, including fans of their sport, league, or team. This sub-section may be smaller, but has the potential to be much more focused and passionate about their shared interest with the athlete.
The Value of Find a Niche?
Finding a niche is beneficial for athletes for a variety of reasons.
For one, understanding passions and values is a key driver to a successful social plan. This can help an athlete better identify what types of content they want to publish on their channels and help to develop a more targeted social media strategy. Rather than the overwhelming feeling of not knowing what to post, athletes can instead focus on creating consistency and publishing content they are versed in and comfortable with.
Once this consistency is established athletes will find it easier to better connect with fans on a more personal level. Once a connection is established between an athlete and their audience, social engagement will increase, and it becomes more likely that brands in that target niche market will begin to pitch endorsement offers and partnerships to eligible athletes.
Steps to Finding your Niche
1. Identify hobbies, passions, and interests.
Everyone has hobbies and interests beyond their day-job, including athletes. Even still, it can be difficult to pinpoint these interests and often begs the question: “what do I do every day?”
For example, an athlete might be vegan. This part of their lifestyle might reflect their passion for cooking, healthy eating, or environmental sustainability. Another athlete might de-stress after practice by playing video games. It’s simple, but gaming is a popular hobby that will relate to a large audience.
Hobbies and interests can vary significantly and athletes might find themselves with a variety of different niche activities that deserve space on their social feed.
Take Lindsey Vonn. When scrolling her social feed, it is immediately clear that Vonn enjoys traveling, hitting the gym, and spending time with friends. These are three niche activities that she’s recognized for and reflects in her feed. Each connects with different (and overlapping) corners of her fanbase, as they’re all day-to-day activities many participate in.
2. Identify what you can post about frequently.
Analyze how often you participate in an activity. If it’s something performed daily or weekly, It could be an excellent niche to focus on via social platforms.
If an activity is less consistent, say monthly or a few times per year, there’s nothing wrong with sharing it. But sporadic events will not be a core theme in a social strategy, and likely will not add to an athlete’s marketability or endorsement opportunities.
Consider Ronda Rousey. As a ranch owner, she consistently posts about farm life, her animals, and her dedication to living sustainably. Rousey has identified her ranch among her niche topics.
Another niche topic for Rousey is gaming, which has resulted in partnerships that she now posts about.
3. Understand what your audience is interested in.
Take a look at your fan base and see what they’re posting about. As an example, Juju Smith-Shuster has a strong connection with the Gen Z audience. That connection wasn’t built by accident.
JuJu’s interest in gaming and social media trends connect seamlessly with this demographic. Athletes who are married and have kids often show their daily lifestyle of juggling family life with their profession. This attracts them to a large niche market, naturally connecting young families who can relate.
Athletes also need to ask themselves: How can I engage my niche audience(s)? Giving the audience a voice by asking for recommendations, responding to questions, and posting interactive content can build the foundation of a valuable athlete-audience relationship.
4. Identify sponsors and other opportunities to monetize your niche.
While it can seem like athlete endorsements just happen, partnerships aren’t always the one-way street that it appears. Rather than waiting for brands to come calling, athletes who proactively approach brands who fit their niche can build valuable, mutually beneficial endorsement deals and partnerships.
JuJu’s expressed passion for gaming has led to multiple partnerships with FaZe and HyperX in the space. PJ Tucker shared his love of sneakers for years and was ultimately rewarded with a multi-year deal from Nike. Madison Bumgarner’s status as an offseason outdoorsman led to an endorsement deal with Carhartt. The list goes on and on. When athletes share their passions beyond their sport, they’re able to build a niche that can eventually cash in.
Beyond traditional endorsement deals, it’s common to see athletes invest in companies that fit their niche, and support causes tied to their passions. By identifying their position, athletes can be better prepared for the moment when an investment or charitable opportunity arises.
Finally, athletes can leverage their niche to build their own businesses. Merch lines, media companies, and even food and drink brands have come into play in recent years.
Dwyane Wade and CJ McCollum both leveraged a love of wine to launch their own wine brands, with McCollum’s becoming a hot commodity in the 2020 NBA Bubble. Mike Clevinger created “the best fake coffee shop in the MLB bubble” and sold merchandise to benefit the Boys and Girls Club of San Diego while healing from a season-ending injury.
There are countless examples of athletes who have captured their niche and monetized it in creative ways on and beyond social media. By capturing what makes them unique, athletes at every level can identify areas to build their brand and unlock opportunities.