While most 18 year olds are concentrating on finishing high school, many young athletes are already firmly in the media spotlight. Today’s sport media strive to uncover ‘the next big thing in sports’ and so do the sport loving public. For this reason, young athletes with potential need to think about creating a brand while their star is on the rise.
Most high school athletes don’t try to develop their personal brands this early, and those who do understand tend to limit their exposure to just focusing on Instagram. The mistake in taking this approach is that athletes risk getting lost in the noise of Instagram’s more than 1 billion daily users, who all come from different backgrounds, and are not necessarily their target audience.
Depending on the sport, a high school athlete’s first decision is which college program to attend, or whether to play NCAA sports at all. The decision is further complicated with the changing college athletic landscape, and name, image, and likeness (NIL) regulations. Regardless of all this, building an effective brand strategy needs to be on every young athlete’s agenda.
The biggest names in sport have all been strategically building their brand for years. From LeBron James, to Cristiano Ronaldo, to Serena Williams, all of these athletes have been in the public eye at the top of their respective craft for more than a decade. These athletes have all entered the greatest of all-time discussion in their sports, and they have also become the GOAT’s of brand management.
LeBron James: Building an empire
LeBron James began building his brand well before he ever set foot on an NBA court, recognizing the value put on his name from a young age. He also partnered strategically with brands that aligned with his values. In 2003, he famously turned down a record $115 million shoe deal with Reebok to sign a “meager” $87 million deal with Nike. He made this decision as Nike’s brand aligned more with the vision LeBron had for his own personal brand. This was a move that clearly paid off when in 2015 he signed a lifetime partnership with Nike valued at over $1 billion.
LeBron has also been particularly active on social media thoughout his career, utilizing the Instagram live feature, providing fans a real time look at LeBron’s inside life, and even allowing fans to see him interact others like P Diddy, live. Before LeBron was utilizing Instagram, he was active on Facebook and Twitter to engage with his fans and build his brand.
Cristiano Ronaldo: Crushing it on social media
Cristiano Ronaldo, on the other hand, has formulated the most well-orchestrated social media approach ever. He has become the most followed personality on Instagram, and as such has turned his personal brand into a massive revenue stream. Ronaldo committed the time and effort to building his brand to the point that it is estimated that he earns nearly $1 million per paid Instagram post. One key to Ronaldo’s branding success has been the consistency he has shown in his strategic vision.
CR7 recognized how limiting it would be for his brand to stick exclusively to the realm of soccer and has now made his brand universally appealing. He has become the brand ambassador for Armani, as well as a number of fast food and beverage chains. He launched his own hotel chain to capitalize on the hospitality industry, and acquired a majority stake in Thing Pink, a Portuguese digital agency, to launch his own tech brand.
Ronaldo posts significantly more on his Instagram about soccer and his personal life, than he does about his businesses or his sponsors. He does this strategically to maintain authenticity and expand the reach of the sponsored posts he slides in among the content his fans really want to see.
Serena Williams: The queen of tennis and business
Serena Williams took the sporting world by storm with a level of dominance never seen before. Along the way, brands all over wanted to partner with her for the guaranteed return on investment that comes with her endorsement. However, Serena only chose the brands that made sense for her, she saw value in Wilson’s products, so she partnered with Wilson; and in 2016 while she was pregnant, she extended her partnership with Berlei to promote their women’s lingerie company, to promote their maternity lingerie line.
Beyond sponsorship decisions, Serena has leveraged her brand to expand her reach with ventures outside of tennis. Serena has ties to Silicon Valley, joining the board of SurveyMonkey, as well as diversifying her sport reach by investing in the Miami Dolphins and UFC in 2009 and 2016 respectively.
She also has created and become involved in several philanthropic organizations, with aims of education on the financial impact of domestic violence, and to provide aid to families impacted by gun violence.
Serena has been active on Instagram since December 2011 and has used it as her primary vehicle to showcase her brand. Serena uses Instagram to promote her multifaceted brand; highlighting her personal life, tennis accolades, status as a fashion icon, connections to the tech world, and more. She feels as though if it is “her” it is worth posting. She provides her fans access to all areas of her life. This approach has helped Serena become supremely likeable, and relatable, to her fans.
It is clear that these athletes have continued to build their brands to become bigger than they could have ever dreamt – however these three names are the best of the best. For college athletes, branding opportunities are a little different, however these athletes set a great example for them to follow.
Building a personal brand in College
Historically, college athletics have proven to be the most effective way for many athletes to access a career in sport. However, the landscape today is greatly changing. For the first time ever, athletes are opting to forgo their final college years, or college altogether, to live out their professional sports dreams.
Katie Ledecki: Knowing the value of your personal brand
Katie Ledecky, looking to the 2020 Olympics, famously left Stanford after her sophomore season, despite winning back to back national championships. Ledecky recognized the value that her personal brand held, and since the nature of the sport of swimming sees most athletes out of their prime by the time they are 30; finishing out her career at Stanford meant two more years of limited exposure, as well as limiting her years to effectively capitalize on her brand.
Since turning pro, Ledecky has leveraged her brand and the ever growing influence and importance of social media to land sponsorship deals with swimwear brand TYR and non-sport related sponsors like VISA. Katie is a relative newcomer to Instagram, only joining in September 2014, and has used the platform to showcase her value outside of swimming.
Ledecky as a young superstar, posts more about her personal life and meeting celebrities from all walks of life from Steph Curry to Adam Sandler, than her sport. In doing this, Ledecky has opened up her branding opportunities giving the feel of being a typical relatable college aged woman, while simultaneously building her network and likeability outside of swimming by highlighting these connections.
LaMelo Ball: Finding alternatives to NCAA competitions
LaMelo Ball recognized the limitations the NCAA had on his branding opportunities and chose to forgo college entirely, opting to head to Australia to play professionally with the Illawarra Hawks. He was able to earn an income playing professionally, as well as begin negotiating branding opportunities, such as a reported $100 million deal with Nike, and recently negotiating the purchase of the Illawarra Hawks.
The value in LaMelo’s brand extends beyond his skills on the court, he has also built a massive Instagram following achieving celebrity status. LaMelo constantly posts on Instagram, with content ranging from basketball and workouts, to his off the court activities including his family web reality show “Ball in the Family.” Ball’s brand strategy and social media impact influenced fellow baller R.J. Hampton to follow suit heading to the Illawarra Hawks to play professionally and building his and off court activities.
Universities influence the potential of building a personal brand
Despite Ledecky and Ball’s lead – these opportunities are lost on countless NCAA athletes. Many top NCAA universities restrict the use of a public Instagram page for their athletes. Programs such as Louisville, FSU, Clemson, and UConn, restrict some of their teams from using any social media during their season, controlling the athletes’ voices and subsequent branding opportunities. Contrarily, some universities actively promote the social media profiles of their athletes. For example, Temple University put the Twitter handles of their athletes on the jersey for their 2018 Spring Game to provide exposure and help them build their personal brand. This shows athletes need to consider their personal brand building potential when they are getting recruited.
The NCAA provides a platform to build a personal brand
However, it isn’t all bad as the NCAA does provide their athletes with an enormous amount of exposure. The women’s Final Four saw record attendance and viewership in 2019 with a peak of 5.6 million viewers tuning in for the championship game.
Sabrina Ionescu: Breaking records & gaining followers
Sabrina Ionescu has been able to build a massive following over her illustrious college career, and earlier this year became the first NCAA basketball player, female or male, to record 2000+ points, 1000+ rebounds, and 1000+ assists. Sabrina made a strategic decision choosing to play at Oregon, a school which had never even made it to the final four before, over schools with continued success in order to become the cornerstone for the program.
Sabrina has built a massive social media following, building out her brand by highlighting her life outside of sport. She willingly shares her personality, and her beliefs on her Instagram profile, to highlight herself as more than just an athlete to expand her branding potential. Her success and her strong brand makes her the likely no. 1 pick in the upcoming WNBA draft with countless branding opportunities set to come her way. This was all made possible due to college athletics and strong brand development.
NCAA regulations are changing
The NCAA has long been criticized for making billions of dollars off of their athletes, while the athletes themselves have not been able to take in any form of revenue. However, California Governor Gavin Newsome flipped the college sport landscape on its head when he signed bill SB-206 into action, which will allow California Athletes to capitalize on their name image and likeness (NIL) beginning in 2023. This started a domino effect with New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, South Carolina, Florida, and Illinois following suit.
This doesn’t mean that schools will have to start compensating athletes, but rather that athletes will be able to capitalize off of their own brand. In the time before the NIL regulations go into effect, leagues like the Professional Collegiate League (PCL) have sprung up. The PCL will be the first college basketball league that will allow athletes to directly benefit from their talents, treating athletes as a single-member LLC, helping them to build their personal and professional brand and maximize capitalizing on their brand. This will allow athletes to play at the top level and garner exposure, have their college paid for with scholarships, all while earning $50,000 – $150,000 per season.
With the drastically changing sport landscape in North America, athletes need to be prepared to effectively build and capitalize on their personal brand. We don’t live in the world that LeBron, Serena, and Ronaldo built their dominating brand in, however, that does not mean that the lessons learned from them are not still applicable.
SPRTER helps athletes build and monetize their personal brand
Athletes need to be proactive in starting to build their brand at a young age. With these changing NIL regulations there is sure to be significantly more content put out there by college athletes, and as such it’s important for all athletes to not get lost in the noise. SPRTER is here to help with that.
SPRTER is an iOS platform for athletes to build out their brand, connect with other athletes, fans, media personalities, coaches and more, and monetize. Regardless of age, gender, sport, or ability, SPRTER helps athletes build and develop a targeted brand, provides exposure at no cost, showcases any and all philanthropic activity, and rewards active users by bringing relevant branding opportunities to them.
For athletes looking to capitalize on the upcoming changes in NIL, SPRTER provides a platform to do just that and is proud to state that it is fully NCAA compliant. We are close to launching our experience store feature which will allow athletes to sell virtual experiences to supporters and businesses. With NIL regulations changing, we anticipate that collegiate athletes and those looking to go on to collegiate sports will be able to take advantage of this feature too! Currently, we encourage you to speak to your school’s compliance officer if you are interested in using this feature to see if you are allowed.