In short, yes, anybody can be a brand.
However be careful who you decide to associate yourself with, as ultimately who you align yourself with reflects directly onto you. I personally have had to turn down the opportunity of working with certain brands as I felt they did not align with me and my vision.
On the flip side I have seen athletes miss out on working with brands as they portray a negative image, whether it is on social media or in the tabloids. It is like a job interview, if you portray a negative image on social media, then brands are not going to want to associate themselves with you.
The saying ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’ certainly isn’t true within sport; just look at the high profile cases of Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods.
No athlete laces up their spikes for the first time and dreams of making millions; for most, like myself, it is all about winning medals and competing at an Olympic Games. The sleepless nights visualising races, the hours of work put in during the cold, wet winter months and not being able to eat junk food, they are all sacrifices that we make to become the best in the world.
However, despite this need to be the best that we can be, we, like everybody else, have mortgages to pay and mouths to feed. A recent study by Quartz, ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games, stated ‘fifty percent of track athletes who rank in the top 10 in the US in their event earn less than $15,000 annually from the sport’. To put that into context, it is a little over £10.5k per year, or nearly 1/3rdof the average UK salary.
How does Social Media play a role in potential sponsorship?
An athlete with a large social media following is a more exciting proposition for potential brands wanting to associate themselves with you, as your voice can reach so many people. Also the way society is today, people are very quick to jump onto the trends of their favourite athletes. Just look at football and how kids want to wear the same football boots as their favourite player. But it is not only sports brands that do well associating themselves with athletes, more recently brands such as Beats (headphones) have aligned themselves with ‘superstar athletes’ (Serena Williams, LeBron James, Michael Phelps, to name a few) and that has hugely helped grow their brand.
However, the boom in social media in recent years has meant that athletes now have to compete, off the track, with reality TV stars, YouTubers, bloggers and Instagrammers for their sponsorship and endorsement deals. Sports brands are now favouring working with these ‘influencers’ rather than elite athletes. From my own personal experience, after claiming bronze at the 2015 World Athletics Championships, I wrongly expected, 1 year out from the Olympic Games, for sports brands to be throwing sponsorship contracts at me. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
So why is this?
Well, in short, we have to remember that these companies are businesses and they want to get a return on the money that they invest in people. So you have to make yourself as attractive as possible to potential sponsors.
I personally ‘only’ have 1100 twitter followers and on Instagram I have far fewer – I do tell myself that Jesus only needed 12 followers and he did okay..! Most of the people that ‘follow’ me are fellow athletes, so my voice isn’t going to generate the kind of ‘hype’ that a message from one of these ‘influencers’ will get.
Back in 2014, Made in Chelsea (MIC) and The Only Way is Essex (Towie) ‘stars’ were rated as the top celebrity endorsers for fashion brands in the UK. MIC’s Millie Mackintosh came out top, beating the likes of Pharrell Williams, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo. It was said that audiences can relate to these reality stars as we already have a connection with them, seeing them on prime time TV for an hour or more each week. These reality TV stars will have in excess of 1million followers, and the reach that somebody with this kind of following has, makes them a very attractive proposition to potential brands wanting to promote their products. To put that into context, Adam Gemili, one of the faces of British Athletics and a very successful athlete has 38k followers – this is no slight on Adam, if anything it just highlights the marketing power of reality TV stars. Which, to be honest, I find it kind of sad that today a reality TV star, primarily made famous by appearing on TV, has more of an influence and a voice, than somebody who has dedicated their life to being successful at a sport.
Similarly, Kylie Jenner was reportedly paid $1million to be the face of a Puma campaign. With that one campaign Puma could have supported 36 athletes on £20k a year. When we consider that around 50% of professional athletes in the US are living below the poverty line on less than £11,000 per year, that makes this deal quite lucrative. The campaign has caused a backlash amongst some athletes as Kylie posed as a runner, with some athletes asking ‘why not use an actual athlete?’. Well, it all comes back to the influence Kylie has on social media and with her fans. Earlier this year a single tweet by Kylie, criticising Snapchat, cost the latter over $1Billion – there aren’t many people on the planet that have that kind of influence.
So how do I compete with that?
In reality, I can’t. The followers of most reality TV stars will be aged between 13-30, which is the exact target market that companies want to reach. Added to that, athletes do not get the kind of mainstream TV coverage that a reality star will get. Some see athletics as a sport that happens every 4 years at the Olympic Games. Therefore the exposure of a reality star is far greater than any athlete.
I am just talking about my experiences as an athlete, in reality, track and field does well when you compare it to other Olympic sports that aren’t as well known or covered by the media. However with each passing year I am finding more athletes have to get part time jobs just to keep up with the financial strain that comes with living in the UK. As a knock on effect, how are athletes then meant to focus solely on being the best in the world, when they have the worry of paying bills and having to work ahead of training?
There are always going to be sponsorship deals available for Olympic champions; however those athletes outside the top 20 in the world are, more often than not, going to struggle. However, some athletes have done extremely well in branding themselves, almost turning themselves into one of these ‘influencers’ by being extremely active on all social media platforms. This in turn makes them a great prospect to potential sponsors.
Nobody can say for sure what the future holds, but I suspect as social media grows and more reality TV ‘influencers’ are created, more companies are going to align themselves with them to promote their products and services. This is turn may mean fewer athletes will get supported as brands arguably see reality stars as better faces of their company than professional athletes.