Why Individual Athletes May Have Upper-Hand in Sponsorships

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Superstar athletes in today’s day and age are transcending the business world and may just be revolutionizing the power of the modern day athlete. With social media at an athlete’s disposal, all athletes are capable of marketing themselves on many platforms globally.

What does this mean? This is indicating that owners of professional sports franchises and sponsors may not hold as much power as they previously did. If an NBA or NFL player for instance, refused to wear a sponsor’s logo on their jersey or even refused to play for a franchise that was sponsored by a company the athlete did not approve of, they could potentially do something about it.

This all stems back from an incident in the 1970s where a youth sports team was set to receive a sponsorship by a rather traditional company in a controversial sector as the company associated children with health care. However, one young athlete named Maria Pepe, who was influenced by her parents to refuse to play for that sponsor.

Because of Maria Pepe’s protest, she was ultimately denied the privilege to play in Little League baseball, until a lawsuit was filed. The National Association of Women in conjunction with the young girl’s family sued Little League Baseball. In 1974, New Jersey’s Supreme Court sided with the Pepe family.

Today, lifetime endorsement deals such as Nike’s new deal with LeBron James, may suggest that sponsorship power and decisions are shifting to individual athletes. Players and agents are playing a pivotal role in leveraging to make marketing plays to expand their individual brands for current and future sponsorship value.

On the downside, that would indicate that many of the big talent athletes would be “above” the team, sort of like how high profile actors are bigger than the movies they star in.

Yet, when viewing the side of the sponsors, companies such as Nike and Adidas, have traditionally leveraged athlete sponsorships “brilliantly”. There is a principle in the industry which suggests that teams, events, and leagues can and will provide more reach and less risk than a typical player endorsement. Marketers can capture all members and participants of the team and the respective league and event with a comprehensive sponsorship.

Again, sponsors’ power is dwindling in the business of sports and athletes are not afraid of going after powerful advertisers and sponsors. Just recently an athlete sued DraftKings for the unlawful use of his name and statistics.

It is important to realize that while most players do not possess the power over leagues and sponsors, the power distance between them is decreasing. International superstars however, may be the exceptions to this rule. Sponsors, leagues, and teams need to embrace the change in the power of the players and adapt accordingly to remain successful.

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