In today’s market, athletes are one of the most sought after groups of professionals for endorsements of products across a wide range of industries and categories. Companies look to leverage an athlete’s appeal, recognition, and following within the general public to create a strong, positive association between a fan favorite and their brand(s) to drive increased awareness and conversion within their target audience. This is not by any means a “new” marketing technique or trend in the industry – this has been going on for decades. However, what worked in 1995 doesn’t necessarily work in the same way in 2015. A lot of things have changed, including technological advances, the advent of social and digital media, as well as the professional sports and athlete landscape.
One of these changes, especially in the U.S. market, is that due to the growth of soccer over the last 20 years with Major League Soccer (MLS), the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), and the continued progression and success of both the Men’s and Women’s National soccer teams, and broader access to foreign league play on television, we are starting to see more and more professional soccer players enter the upper tiers of recognition and appeal among the general public. This has been great for the continued development of the sport and especially for our growing domestic leagues on the Men’s and Women’s sides, but it takes more than just a player and his/her agent to make these deals happen and make sure that the activations and management of the player’s and brand’s image are both maximized to their fullest potential.
That’s where companies like James Grant Sports (JGS), one of the global market leaders in athlete management – particularly in soccer – come into play. JGS represents over 140 professional soccer players, among other sports, in the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, German Bundesliga, French Ligue 1, Italian Serie A, Scottish Premier League, Danish Superliga, Mexican Primera Division and of course, Major League Soccer. Business of Soccer got the chance to speak with the Global Managing Director at JGS, Lyle Yorks, to discuss the growing soccer industry and ever-changing marketing landscape and how they help today’s professional soccer players and brands navigate through it all.
Soccer in this country is really gaining momentum. Look at the growth of MLS, the number of clubs, the cost to buy an expansion franchise, the new TV deal, the TV ratings for the women’s world cup. You can really see that shift and see it really taking hold and it’s great to see brands wanting to get involved. It’s different than other US sports because it’s truly a global game and they can activate in different ways than with other sports. This sport has really grown into something that you could never imagine back in the 70’s and 80’s to where we are now.
The game most certainly has progressed leaps and bounds, just as Yorks describes, and not just in the US, but globally. Pro soccer players are now some of the most recognized professional athletes in the entire world, and brands across a wide variety of industries and categories are looking to leverage that awareness now more than ever before. Take Cristiano Ronaldo for example – the 2015 ballon d’or winner and Real Madrid star tops Repucom’s list of most marketable European soccer players, with 83% of the global population having heard of him, according to the report. Ronaldo’s top sponsor in terms of revenue, Nike, has leveraged that global awareness, along with other top stars in the game, to great effect over the last several years, propelling the brand to contend for tops of the soccer industry with rival Adidas. Ronaldo may be at the top of the list and an extreme example, but even the impact that one of the world’s best soccer players has in the market has grown leaps and bounds from what it used to be, even just a few years ago.
Just as players have agents to look after their interests when negotiating their contracts with their clubs and national federations, often times there are professionals looking after their marketing interests as well. JGS has both of these areas covered, and with respect to the marketing side of things, their new hire, Brendan Fitzgerald, is looking forward to helping his clients further the growth of the game and maximize their potential off the pitch as Director of Marketing for JGS. Business of Soccer also spoke with Fitzgerald about his new role and the current landscape of things…
My role is unique in that I’m more on the marketing and endorsements side working with players that elicit marketing endorsement deals, making sure that they’re optimizing the categories that they can have, making sure that there’s no category conflicts with other sponsors, leveraging their social media channels. Just overall bringing in and managing the endorsements for our guys.
As mentioned earlier, the industry has changed, in more ways than one, but especially when it comes to technological advancements and the doors that have been opened in the marketing industry for brands and athletes alike with regard to digital and social media. As technology advances, the methods and vehicles available to marketers does as well, as does their ability to gather information about their consumers and target audiences, which is becoming increasingly important to brands and driving an effective strategy. Fitzgerald gave his thoughts on the ways social media can have an impact for brands and players,
The social media angle is great and exciting because there’s so many different things that you can do with it. Social media can be packaged into a larger, more strategic deal with a traditional endorsement deal that would last for 1 or a few years, or it could be as simple as a one off.
The marketers and player agents aren’t the only ones getting smarter with the advancements in technology and the growth of social media, however. As fantastic of an opportunity as social media represents for brands to interact with its consumers, it can be extremely easy to over do it. Too often brands run into social media and marketing pitfalls that make the consumer interaction feel forced, or even fake, which is not at all what you want. Fitzgerald remarked about how today’s analytical capabilities enable folks like him to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Data and analytics helps a lot because at the end of the day it has to be an authentic fit. There’s so much out there now in terms of marketing messages and consumers are more savvy than ever, sniffing out something that’s forced and inauthentic, so I think the name of the game is authenticity. There’s software that can go into a player’s social media following and break it down demographically across age, gender, geography, behavioral attributes, etc. so that the brand knows exactly what it’s buying and it can pinpoint the athlete that it wants to put its message through. That’s great, because we have such an array of guys in the sport of soccer that we can really come up with a great solution on the social media side for a lot of different needs that a brand may have – all the while being able to package the social aspect into a larger, more strategic deal that would leverage all that the player has to offer.
As Fitzgerald stated, social media is but one lever that he and other marketing professionals can pull when it comes to leveraging players to help drive brand awareness and growth. There are opportunities everywhere, across all sorts of categories, but Fitzgerald thinks that even though we’ve seen strong growth for soccer interacting and partnering with new brands and industries, it will be a while yet before any “new” category unseats the traditional big spenders at the top of the money list.
I think traditionally the top spending categories are going to remain the same, like auto, insurance, beer, certainly there’s more one off brands in the consumer packaged goods industry that are starting to see the value in aligning with players. As long as the brand sees value in the sport, then there’s value in looking to align with a player in terms of some sort of marketing agreement.
We hear a lot about the high dollars that commercialization has brought the game of soccer, especially over the last few years as the globalization of the sport continues to increase and top clubs continue to spread their brand in new markets. Players represent a great opportunity for brands and companies who may not be able to afford a multi-year, multi-million dollar sponsorship deal with the likes of a mega club like Manchester United or Real Madrid, or even at the league level like perhaps MLS, to capitalize on the growth of the game, particularly in the U.S. After all, the players are the face of the game and their clubs, and are the reason fans spend their hard-earned money to go see the magic on the pitch on matchday. Aligning to a popular player can be just as effective in certain cases as a club in reaching a soccer-specific target audience. It’s Fitzgerald’s job to help the players on JGS’s client list optimize that potential and help brands understand the value that they and the sport of soccer bring to their portfolio. At the end of the day, it’s all about finding the win-win scenarios that drive joint value creation for the player, the brand, and ultimately the beautiful game.