Many in the sports marketing industry will be slowly becoming familiar with the concept of athlete branding. For those who aren’t, here’s a breakdown of how the marketplace has changed to allow athletes to build a personal brand, how it can help them make more money outside of their sport, and how brands can leverage it to achieve their marketing goals.

Brands are beginning to realise the potential of the opportunity to reach their target audiences through athletes’ social platforms. Whilst traditional forms of media such as TV, radio, and print are providing advertisers with ever diminishing ROI, more brands than ever understand there is a huge quantity of underpriced attention to be leveraged on social media via influencer-led marketing strategies. 

Conor McGregor


In the pre-social media era, athletes could only communicate with their audience through the press – meaning the top athletes had more opportunities to build their audience, and in turn enter long-term image rights partnerships with top sports brands. For example, it was the likes of Beckham, Rooney, Tiger Woods, Ronaldo, Georges St-Pierre who were getting the money-swilling endorsement deals. 


Today, the opposite is true. Athletes of all levels, in all sports, have the power to build and engage with audiences which they can seek to monetise, all thanks to the internet. The difficulty is, whilst many athletes have inherently large audiences because of their athletic abilities, most athletes do not truly understand how to capitalise on the attention they have captured. 

Athlete branding


This also means brands are still figuring out how to most effectively execute athlete-based marketing campaigns. Currently, brands generally partner with athletes for a small number of paid posts – which merely ask the audience to purchase with a discount code – without providing any valuable content to the audience. 

In my opinion, this is just the beginning. Athlete marketing is still in its growth phase, and as it matures, brands will seek to execute long-term partnerships with athletes, similar to what was commonplace in the time of traditional marketing – the variable being the creative output required because today’s consumer attention is on social media, not traditional media. This is because social media gives brands the opportunity to create value-based content at scale in partnership with athletes, which will be far more effective in achieving lower acquisition costs and greater customer lifetime value than the aforementioned, simplistic, paid post tactics. To understand why this is the case, we need to understand the fundamental difference between traditional media and social media. 

Marketing through traditional media was so expensive, brands had to use paid ads to ask consumers to buy because they required an immediate ROI. Some brands still use social media in the same manner but to little effect – simply because of the psychology of consumers when they’re scrolling through social media. People on social media are looking for valuable content – any content the market considers to be not valuable, will likely be ignored by consumers because they have the ability to scroll to the next piece of content on their feed. This is why brands need to create valuable content for their audience, which transcends a few simple posts which ask the consumer to make a purchase. 



‘Valuable content’ can mean something different to every brand and every consumer, but as Gary Vaynerchuk often points out, ‘valuable’ usually means content which is either entertaining or useful in some capacity. Take the ‘Wingmen’ series for example, which featured Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson. It quite simply showed the stars cruising around Loverppol in Trent’s car, answering funny questions, competing in funny challenges, with the loser completing funny forfeits. Despite there being an approximate total of 60 minutes of content, each of their personalities really shone through, giving viewers a real taste of who they are beyond athletes.

So, we know any brand looking to reach a sports audience can do so by partnering with athletes. But how can they make these partnerships successful, and how can athletes build a brand to attract these partners in the first place?

Athletes need to start by knowing what brand they want to build. What will they talk about in their content? What are their interests and lifestyle outside of their sport? What are their core values and beliefs which define who they are as people? 

By communicating all of this on social media, sports consumers will make associations in their mind about what the athlete stands for and represents, and consumers who can relate to the athlete, or find the athlete’s content entertaining and interesting, will follow and engage. This is where the athlete can really start to build a meaningful relationship with their audience engaging with them. Whether it’s replying to comments, or talking to them in an Instagram livestream, there’s a multitude of ways athletes can engage with their audience. Not only does this mean the audience will be more invested in the athlete, and therefore more receptive to advertising, it means the athlete will learn more about their audience. And an athlete who can clearly define their audience will have more success in building a portfolio of brand partnerships.

Israel Adesanya athlete branding


These are just the basics of athlete branding, which above all gives athletes the leverage to build a larger, more valuable, sustainable portfolio of brand partners. Israel Adesanya, UFC Middleweight Champion, has done exactly this. The absolute bedrock to his commercial success is his ability to show how he is completely unique compared to any fighter to ever grace the octagon.

Fundamentally, brands will seek to sponsor athletes who have built a brand which aligns with theirs in terms of values, positioning, and target audience. This is where the opportunity is largest for brands. Brands can pay an athlete to reach and build a relationship with their target audience with value-based content which tells engaging stories to show what the athlete and brand represent. By providing value, brands can build trust and relationships with that audience. It’s amongst this valuable content, brands can begin to integrate promotional posts (where they can ask for the consumer to purchase) into their content plan. 

The most important lesson here, for both athletes and brands, is to understand consumers now have complete control over the media they consume – so if your social content does not entertain or inform – you will lose the game of athlete branding and marketing, in a time where the opportunity will never be so large.

To read more from our insight series and other athlete branding articles click here.

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