Every great athlete has a sponsor. It’s a symbiotic relationship. The athlete gets the much needed financial support required to succeed and in return the sponsor gets to attach their brand to a popular figure, in particular popular among a very specific audience: football fans who buy football boots, tennis fans who buy rackets. Some would say these relationships create synergy – that combined sponsor and sportsperson are more valuable together than they are apart. And historically speaking they could be right. Michael Jordan and Nike come to mind. They’re relationship made Air Jordan line the most popular basketball sneakers in the world, while propelling Jordan to be, not only one of the greatest basketball players of all time, but an all-time sporting idol and not just within basketball. Nike and Jordan. Jordan and Nike. Their names are synonymous.
In the past sponsors were only interested in fostering relationships like this. Finding the best athlete in their respective sport and plastering their brand across their kit and jersey. There’s an important premise to note in this situation. The sponsor pursued the best athlete because they were the most well-known athlete in their sport. By being at the top of their sport everyone knew them, and knew them to be the best. The sponsor gained exposure to their athlete’s fan base while associating their brand with “quality” and “performance”. However this is becoming an outdated logic. Previously we only knew athletes by their results in competition and how they behaved in formal interviews, but today we can google an athlete’s name and instantly have access to all their social media pages. We can get a glimpse of their lives in real time. What they’re thinking, the food they’re eating, how their training is going. The public perception has totally changed. We now “know” our favourite athletes better than ever. So what are the implications of this for sponsorship? Well, what if the #1 tennis player in the world wasn’t present on social media. They didn’t nurture their fan base by sharing their journey online. And the #4 player? They had 1,000,000 followers on Twitter who avidly followed what he did and were wholly invested in the decisions he made and the brands he endorsed. Well then to a Sponsor that athlete is worth a whole lot more than their ranking might suggest.
In the last 5 years the sponsorship landscape has radically changed. For a sponsor, results are no longer quite as relevant but a large following is. We can gauge following by simply checking the social media stats. Modern brands have already realized this and have started endorsing the athletes who are engaged with their audience over social media – athletes who tell their story through pictures, video and script. Progenex and Rogue Fitness are supplement and sports equipment brands respectively. They specialise in catering for Crossfit, a new sport that is almost completely amateur across the board. Crossfit, The Sport of Fitness, was born on the web. It has spread virally across the globe by publishing articles and videos online. The Crossfit community is deeply involved in their sport. Some of the most well-known Crossfitters are NOT the best Crossfitters, but they were characters involved in the meteoric rise of the sport. They were a part of the story. Progenex and Rogue realised this and endorsed the athletes the community knew so well through social media. With massive presences on social media, especially through visual channels like Instagram and YouTube, Progenex and Rogue have built their brands by letting their athletes do the branding. They’ve leveraged their athletes’ followers to the point that they have become THE supplement and equipment brands of Crossfit.
That’s why we see crowdfunding as a perfect vehicle for brands to get behind an athlete – because by using crowdfunding an athlete is appealing to their fans for tangible support, creating a deep emotional relationship with them. When a sponsor joins in they become a contributor and even those with only some interest can relate to a sponsor at much deeper level. It’s powerful advertising.
In the end sponsorship is a relationship based in mutual interest. Sponsors want a return for their investment and an athlete wants investment. When done well the rewards for both athletes and sponsors can be huge. Social media has changed our relationships with sport stars and in turn that has changed how brands choose athletes to endorse. In this hyperconnected world, brands are finding new ways to connect with us. They are becoming intrinsically linked to our interests, no longer just sponsors but familiar characters a part of our lives.