As National Football League franchises convene today to have their pick of newly eligible football players at the annual NFL draft, executives from big-name athletic footwear-and-apparel companies are likely doing their own scouting.
Most popular — and even not-so-popular — professional athletes have sponsorship and endorsement deals with a variety of brands, but few of their partnerships take center stage as much as their footwear-and-apparel deals. For shoe brands and players alike, some of these deals can be quite lucrative (think James Harden and Adidas or Peyton Manning and Nike).
And while the thought of optimum brand exposure and a hefty profit boost makes it tempting for brands to lock up the hottest eligible players in the league (NBA, MLB, NFL or other), picking the wrong brand partner can have major consequences. As many insiders will tell you, athlete partnerships of this kind essentially require brands to bank on a lottery ticket.
These deals hinge on so many variables that are outside of the control of the brand itself. For example, a star athlete who had been leading his/her team to wins all season can suddenly fall victim to a serious injury (megastar and Under Armour-endorsed Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry is currently out for a few games after an injury suffered during a game against the Houston Rockets last week). Or an athlete who performs well on the court or field can find himself/herself battling legal troubles in his/her personal life (Nike recently severed ties with NFL quarterback Johnny Manziel after the Heisman trophy winner battled a host of legal issues). All of these occurrences can impact a player’s visibility, popularity and/or public perception, which can trickle down the major brands he/she endorses.
Uncontrollable factors aside, there are things that all companies should be thinking about when it comes to choosing the right endorser for their brands. Here are three of them.
1) Considering the fit
Not every trending athlete is a complement to your brand. If your brand specializes in casual-athetic shoes that target millennial moms or middle-aged men, tapping a young, fast-rising basketball star as an endorser may not make sense.
Successful brands have an identity that doesn’t flip-flop every time a new trend arises or a new, talented star hits the scene. Think about who your core customer is and the kind of person that customer respects and admires. Surprisingly — even for athletic brands — that individual may not be a professional athlete. For example, after scouting for influencers to help it tap into the women’s market more aggressively, Puma recently inked deals with pop superstar Rihanna and social-media and reality-television starlet Kylie Jenner.
2) Why have just one superstar athlete when you can have an entire team?
Individual athletes can be great for brands, but sometimes it makes more sense to align a brand with an entire team.
“I’m seeing brands move away from athlete endorsements to sponsoring teams and leagues,” Matt Powell, a sports-industry analyst with The NPD Group said. “Teams and leagues can’t get hurt or arrested.”
And, having an entire team parade around in your brand’s wares can be a major win and can also shift the pressure away from a single athlete. Under Armour, Nike and Adidas all have sponsorship deals with various colleges and universities across the country.
3) Nailing down who makes the grade
“Brands are looking for athletes who perform at a high level and have good character,” Powell said. “Brands are waiting until athletes prove themselves at the pro game before signing them to big contracts. We are seeing very few major rookie contracts being given out.”
These days, good character, Van Sinderen also noted, is becoming an even more critical factor when it comes to deciding who should receive or maintain an endorsement deal.
“Understandably, brands looking to engage new athletes tend to focus on athletes that are on the rise relevant to their performance. That is a great place to start,” said Jeff Van Sinderen, an analyst with B. Riley & Co. LLC. “However, it is important for brands to also pick athletes that are the right fit in terms of their personality and behavioral characteristics outside of the sport they play. Sometimes, the best up and coming athletic stars may not have the moral fiber to represent a brand in a way that is best for the brand.”
Van Sinderen added, “It is not just about performance in the sport. I have seen damage done when athletes behavior outside the sport is less than praise worthy.”
Shoe brands should also consider factors such as the size of the market that a player is drafted into — an athlete drafted to a California or New York-based team, for example, might be more visible than one who is drafted to a team in a smaller city.