Retired players are dominating the endorsement game.
Former professional athletes are increasingly inking major deals with footwear brands and, in many cases, their post-career popularity is topping that of current sports stars.
Research firm The Q Scores Co. recently ranked the popularity of 500 sports personalities according to their name recognition and likability. Surprisingly, retired pros such as Michael Jordan, Joe Montana and Nolan Ryan hit the highest marks among fans between the ages of 12 and 64, beating out current players such as Peyton Manning and Shaun White.
“For most studies that we do each year, retired athletes tend to be the best known and most likeable,” said Henry Schafer, EVP of Q Scores. “They seem to stand the test of time.”
And shoe companies have taken that to heart, using retired athletes to add a punch to their marketing efforts — whether it’s Skechers tapping hall-of-fame athletes Wayne Gretzky, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone to plug Shape-ups; Aetrex hiring former Super Bowl MVP Phil Simms as its spokesperson; or Michael Jordan continuing to dominate in the basketball category.
But not every ex-jock can be like Mike. Experts agreed that to be a viable endorser, a retired athlete should have been an elite player.
“They would have to have been at the top of the game when they retired or had a famous play or moment that everyone remembers,” said Keith Wan, director of sports and athlete marketing for the Leverage Agency. “If Tim Tebow retires tomorrow, people might remember his winning overtime throw in the playoffs or the speech he gave at the University of Florida. Things like that definitely resonate with consumers.”
Sports figures also are seen as more credible when they’ve competed at the highest levels, noted Dave Maryles, director of athlete marketing for Agency Sports Management. “They’re naturally considered as experts because they’ve had to make decisions about footwear and apparel throughout their careers,” he said. “As athletes transition into retirement, they have the opportunity after their careers to provide insight from that experience.”
Maryles, whose agency represents football legends including Steve Young and Troy Aikman, added that being a media magnet is as important as being a hall-of-famer when it comes to backing a brand. “You’ve got to be charismatic and be able to deliver messages if you’re getting behind a product,” he explained.
But that poses a problem for retired athetes, who don’t get exposure on a regular basis.
Peter Stern, president of sports marketing firm Strategic, noted that staying in the limelight is vital to an endorser’s advertising appeal. “At the end of the day, it’s all about eyeballs and associating the athlete with the audience’s passion,” he said. “Whatever the athlete can do to become a part of pop culture correlates to how well they’ll do as a post-career endorser.”
A common way for a former pro to stay connected to their fan base is by joining a major broadcast network as a sportscaster or analyst — for instance, retired New York Giant Phil Simms appears on CBS’ sports coverage, while former NBA All-Star Charles Barkley is featured on TNT.
And athletes can widen their audiences in other ways besides reporting from the sidelines, according to Phil de Picciotto, president of athletes and personalities at Octagon agency.
“Emmitt Smith had tremendously high recognition among men because of his Super Bowl championships with the Dallas Cowboys and long tenure with the NFL,” de Picciotto said of the retired football player, who is represented by his firm. “When he participated on ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and won, he added a high level of visibility among the female audience, which translated into a very successful set of business relationships for him.”
But while being on TV theoretically makes for an even stronger endorser, it can be a double-edged sword. “Every opportunity where you’re in the limelight is another opportunity to do something wrong,” cautioned Timothy Robinson, managing director of consulting firm CoreBrand. “It’s a tough balancing act as far as being an endorser and keeping that longevity.”
Robinson noted that athletes who have undergone some type of public embarrassment are less marketable to brands. One example he cited was Joe Namath’s infamous drunken interview on national television, which caused ripples in his endorsement career.
“Brands aren’t looking for an athlete who’s had a Tiger Woods-style scandal in their career that can come back and bite them,” Robinson said. “A major dimension of marketability is that [the athlete] should have done nothing wrong.”
However, other experts argue that every renowned athlete with a tarnished image has a shot at redemption.
“There are always opportunities for guys who are at the top in their sport,” said Leverage Agency’s Wan. “Johnson & Johnson may not be calling on Tiger Woods, but you may see golf-related companies go after him when he retires because he’s such a recognizable name and people have to respect what he does.”
Q Scores’ Schafer pointed out that if an athlete addresses a scandal as soon as it goes public to express guilt, innocence or regret, they have a chance of minimizing its impact on marketability.
“By not addressing issues up front in a timely manner, [a public figure] is presumed guilty by the public,” Schafer said. “The negative Q score rises dramatically, almost to the point where they totally fall off the map and are not marketable any more.”
Octagon’s de Picciotto said companies should look for athlete endorsers who align with the brand message, which isn’t always necessarily the traditional squeaky-clean image.
“There are companies that want to be more bold and a little controversial in terms of their marketing position or what they’re selling,” he said. “A Dennis Rodman type of athlete would be perfect for a campaign like that, and there are still companies playing off John McEnroe’s past image.”
De Picciotto, whose firm has represented the likes of Gale Sayers, Wade Boggs and Anna Kournikova over the years, said today’s most sought-after retired athletes are the ones who were conscious of building a brand image throughout their pro years. “The generations are getting shorter, so current, active athletes have less time to really establish a brand for themselves during their careers,” he said. “Those who participated a decade ago had time to do that, and they’re typically more well known.”
After Shaquille O’Neal ended his 19-year NBA career last summer, the manager of his branded footwear and apparel moved to leverage the publicity he gained during his playing days.
Mary Gleason, president of the Shaq and Dunkman labels, said the four-time NBA champ and three-time MVP was always conscious of having business opportunities available after he retired. “We started the brand in 1999 — before Shaq won any championships — because he always had that vision of having something that would last a long time,” she said. “Even the entertainment components of his career, such as the movies and rapping, were all things to keep himself in the public eye.”
Gleason noted that there are obstacles to keeping O’Neal significant, especially to younger generations who may have never seen him play. However, she expects O’Neal’s colorful personality will be a positive asset, as well as his new post-retirement gigs. Besides serving as an NBA commentator on TNT and NBA TV, O’Neal will host Cartoon Network’s Hall of Game Awards later this month, where kids choose winners in various sports categories.
“It is challenging, but the fact that Shaq chose to stay close to his sport will keep the brands relevant,” Gleason said. “He’s as much driving the exposure as we’re creating opportunities for the brands.”
And Gleason also is banking on gaining exposure from a new website, Shaq.com, and the athlete’s social media following.
She noted that O’Neal’s commitment to and enthusiasm for his brand partnerships is part of the reason he’s such a sought-after endorser.
“We’re very fortunate because Shaq is very involved,” she said. “If an athlete has a confident opinion on what his message is, it makes all the difference in the world.”
Post Season Picks
No matter the sport, wins and losses are determined by a player’s athletic ability. But when it comes to being a brand marketer, personality is just as important. Here, sports marketing experts pick which athletes have the attributes to be a strong brand endorser after they hang it up.
Michael Phelps and Apolo Ohno
“They both have worldwide name recognition. Both accomplished things that no one else in the history of the world’s largest sporting event has ever done. They will have long careers in terms of business partnerships that grow out of their professional athletic careers.” — Phil de Picciotto, president of athletes and personalities at Octagon
“He’s already been an endorsement superstar. His post career, in terms of endorsements, has more upside than just about anybody today. He’s going to be able to use his natural ability to connect with consumers and he seems to enjoy it. He has a relationship with Mastercard that has already been established, so you might see him remaining there [after he stops playing].” — Peter Stern, president of Strategic
“He’s always had his name out there and he’s been pretty clean of any kind of scandal. He has a great image with the media and he’s a leader. He could easily set something up for endorsements after he’s done,” — Keith Wan, director of sports and athlete marketing at Leverage Agency