Sportsmen have always had passionate and devoted fans, but becoming more visible implies the development of one’s own personal branding – but what is it? It is the practice of actively positioning oneself in the market and building a “valuable narrative”, creating a brand, a mark or a “mnemonic” to support this message, association, expectation and/or “faith” in the mind of a “consumer” (or enthusiast, team, sponsor, etc).
The term “personal branding” was coined by Tom Peters, a business management expert, in the late 1990s, in his essay “The Brand Called You”, which examines the role of marketing in creating a distinctive image in the American corporate world. Although that essay is over 20 years old, its contents are even more relevant in today’s hyper-saturated, hyper-competitive and hyper-connected world, in which differentiation strategies are becoming increasingly complex. The sports market is in fact characterised by a high degree of complexity as it encompasses a multitude of actors, each of them with certain characteristics and interests.
Following the categorization of sports marketing, personal branding can be understood as being incorporated into the marketing of individual athletes, and as a branch of sports marketing.
Initially, sports marketing exclusively pertained product placement and product sales. Only towards the end of the 1970s did the use of sports as a marketing tool really begin to catch the collective corporate imagination. However, a distinction must be made between sports sponsorship – which mainly concerns brand awareness – and sports marketing, which focuses on the creation of sponsorship contracts. Personal branding is about creating a connection between the sports icon and the brand, then communicating it to the consumer, trying to find as many points in common between the company’s history and that of the icon in order to create a “narrative” that has to be understandable and appreciated by the consumer. The increasing popularity of sports and the resulting media coverage meant that the best players were able to capture the hearts and minds of the public, thus starting to transcend their own discipline. Interestingly, companies don’t just look at investment return in money terms, their primary aim being to create emotional bonds with consumers. Sports marketing is now based on creating passion for the consumer and gaining their hearts and minds, an outcome that advertising campaigns alone are not always able to achieve.
THE NIKE-JORDAN PARTNERSHIP MARKS A WATERSHED MOMENT
An experience that has certainly changed sports marketing has involved basketball icon Michael Jordan, who, signed to the sports giant Nike, has become so important that it is felt by consumers as being a different branch, separated from the Oregon company. We often hear “these shoes are Jordans”, or “this shirt is a Jordan”, completely omitting the fact that the full brand is “Nike Jordan”. On this account, at the end of 1997 the Portland company realised that the “Jordan” brand was so strong it could become a sub-brand of Nike, and that was how “The Jordan Brand” was born. To celebrate this, the first AIR model was released: the “AIR Jordan XIII”. From then on, Jordan shoes no longer sported Nike’s swoosh but only the “Jumpman” logo.
Back to the world of tennis and some years earlier, the first successful brands were those of ex-players such as Lacoste, Perry and Tacchini, who gave life to important companies selling sports clothing and accessories, entrepreneurial initiatives that leveraged specific marketing tools for sports equipment and clothing.
All these entrepreneurial cases have one thing in common: the establishment of the production and marketing companies took place after the specific tennis player had ended his sports career, exploiting – in the case of Lacoste and Perry – a fame already acquired, but limited only to enthusiasts of the game. These brands, although no longer dominant, are still present on the market today. Lacoste can still boast the sponsorship of three WTA and five ATP players in the Top 50 of their respective rankings, including recent Australian Open finalists Djokovic and Medvedev. Fred Perry resurfaced in 2009 as a sponsor of Andy Murray’s, and has been organising a major youth tournament in the UK since 2019. Sergio Tacchini has recently reappeared as a technical sponsor, after having been the dominating force in tennis merchandising during the 1980s – as for Lacoste and Fred Perry, we are talking about brands which are strongly linked to their national context.
THE CURRENT SITUATION IN TENNIS ENDORSEMENTS
Even today, the largest number of sponsorships of a tennis player concerns sports clothing and accessories:
The distribution of the brands has changed, however, as can be seen when looking at the Top 30 on both the WTA and ATP tours.
So, what has changed? The context variables (external and internal) are simply different, and there is a greater awareness on the part of successful athletes about the value of their image. The external environment is made of factors apparently furthest away from the endorsing company, including technologies, demographics and social trends, economic issues, politics, laws, concepts of environmental sustainability. The internal environment consists in variables such as: resources, skills, the ability to provide services, customer-oriented culture, performance of departments, suppliers and outsourcing, sponsorships, marketing channels (sales outlets, financial companies, communication) and the role of the general public. These variables converge in the SWOT matrix (Strength-Weakness-Opportunities-Threats), which in turn flows into the marketing plans, allowing experts to mitigate risks, improve process efficiency and the decisional effectiveness of the marketing activities.
Advertising and marketing strategies have evolved over the past 30 years, and no tactics that companies and organisations use to get the consumers’ attention has undergone more transformations than sports endorsing. In the past decades, advertising executives could buy large amounts of advertising space on television networks and “bomb” viewers with ads. The formula was simple: whoever spent the most, won. Today, however, as consumers watch less television and the selection of viewing options has increased exponentially, brands are forced to diversify and invest money to find new ways to engage potential customers. It took years of low incomes to realise that simply paying for your logo to appear alongside that of a professional sports team, buying TV commercials or advertising in stadiums during matches no longer provided the same profit it used to.
So, if the notion of getting a high return on investment from traditional advertising campaigns is almost dead, how can companies achieve success for their brands in terms of consumers’ appreciation? They need to leverage customer passions and promote brand relationships: collaborations today aim to improve the experience of the consumer or enthusiast and are based on building relevant connection points between the customer, the athlete and the corporate brand he/she represents.
Today we are witnessing a proliferation of personal brands, such as those listed below. Normally they are sub-brands, with some exceptions like that of Roger Federer, able to buy back his “RF” logo after a long legal battle with Nike. Self-referencing brands are just the tip of an iceberg in a brand-building strategy to obtain a long and successful career outside of sports. Even after an athlete’s sporting career is over, many carry their personal brand with them, just like Michael Jordan.
The distance between sports fans and champions has diminished, as social media and the web contribute to create emotional involvement and loyalty, together with traditional channels. Some general rules can be identified in the construction of a strong brand identity:
- Create coherence between the personality and the values of the athlete and his/her personal brand. It’s important to create a personal story that puts the athlete under an authentic light, which is not too far from his true character. There is no need to create a discrepancy between your real story and the image you intend to communicate externally. So, you must always check that the personal narrative is aligned with the core of the person.
- Promotion of philanthropic causes. Showing of the selflessness of sportsmen is manifested in causes where there are strong inequalities. Athletes who sincerely try to help solve even a small problem will not only be invested with the merits of positivity in solving the problem but will also benefit from a significant impact on their personal brand’s value and positioning.
- Control of one’s own personal branding in detail. Keeping control of even the smallest detail makes it possible to think of forming really interesting PR strategies for brand development that can target narrow segments of professionals, whilst ordinary fans may not even be aware of it.
- Select appropriate tools apt to interact with each of the important segments of the target audience. In most cases, when building athletes’ brands, one opts to use only a standard set of channels and tools. Today it is enough to take your personal brand to the top, as in reality no one is trying to achieve more in the sport, but in the near future this will not be enough anymore, given the enormous competitive pressures. Therefore, it is necessary to invest 80% more to obtain a substantial 100%. The world around us is developing fast, and athletes have to work hard to stay in the conversation.
- Each action must be framed within the context of the positioning of the personal brand. An athlete who has global visibility must pay attention to all personal actions, as this is relevant to the positioning of his brand, built around his personality and individual beliefs.
THE PERSONAL BRANDS OF PROFESSIONAL TENNIS PLAYERS
In order to find the aforementioned characteristics, a small empirical research was conducted on the personal sites and philanthropic initiatives of the so called “Fab Four”. Their sales in relation to their foundations or academies are summarized below:
Although Sir Andrew Barron Murray does not have a foundation or a clothing collection with his personal brand, he is involved in several philanthropic initiatives. Both Murray and Djokovic have personal pages on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site, which is in fact a hybrid of Twitter and Facebook, and is one of the most popular sites in China. Djokovic’s numerical approach to social media is also very original, given that his site has a counter that adds up all his fans interactions scattered across the various social media channels, reporting the latest tweets.
Nadal’s conception of the relationship with his fans is instead more traditional: it includes a sort of virtual bulletin board with many pictures taken in the company of his devoted followers. Federer moves along similar lines, using the classic channels, namely Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, with a gallery of historical photos of the matches played in his professional seasons. Moreover, the fact that other tennis players such as Stan Wawrinka, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Marco Cecchinato, and more recently Jannik Sinner have chosen to create their personal brands, with the aim of improving their communication and marketing strategy, needs also to be remarked.
Why is personal branding becoming more and more common? If we look at those who already have a brand, the answer is closely linked to the business of professional sport, and is simply the ability of an athlete to generate a return from their image. Analysing the concept with a critical spirit and keeping in mind the goal of maximising incomes for a sportsman during his or her short career, there are three basic reasons for building a “personal sports brand”:
- Relevance of their Image, which triggers the Fear of losing it
- Level of importance, which will change throughout a professional athlete’s career span.
In the beginning or mid-career, a personal brand or a support logo are forms of efficient involvement of sponsoring companies, because they indicate the values that an athlete possesses and that a brand could exploit via an endorsement. As the athlete heads towards the twilight of his professional career, the motivation becomes fear and relevance or, more precisely, the fear of not being relevant anymore. The skills of a professional athlete will naturally establish a certain positioning in the minds of the stakeholders, but an active cure of a market position derived from this ability is a strategic undertaking that requires not only a change in the mentality of an individual, but, above all, a shift in managerial culture to encourage athletes to think long-term and beyond the immediacy of their physical ability.
Cultivating the mental and physical well-being of a professional sportsman is the job of a manager or a coach, but when it comes to thinking ahead, many athletes are woefully unprepared. A retired athlete will come from a world where everything revolves around him and will land on another where he quickly loses the spotlight.
Therefore, strong brand recognition will generate opportunities for athletes throughout their careers, and once they stop playing the game, the effectiveness with which they have defined, positioned and built their image and values will have an impact on their future after tennis. If they postpone the aforementioned definition of their brand for too long, the lack of relevance they fear so much will undermine the value they offer to society, in which standing out requires far more than a logo.
Article by Andrea Canella; translated by Alessandro Valentini; edited by Tommaso Villa
Dominic Stricker cruises past Luca Nardi at the Next Gen ATP Finals in Jeddah
Third seed Dominic Stricker cruised past Luca Nardi 4-1 4-1 4-2 in 54 minutes in the fastest match in the history of the Next Gen Finals at the Next Gen ATP Finals at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah bouncing back from his defeat in the first match against Flavio Cobolli on Tuesday.
Stricker converted four of his six break points and hit 13 winners, including 3 aces.
Stricker came back from 15-40 down in the first game after two double faults from Nardi and broke serve with a return winner on the deciding point to take a 1-0 lead. The world number 94 saved three break-back-back points in the second game from 15-40 down before breaking for the second time in the fifth game to win the first set 4-1.
Stricker broke serve at 30 in the second game of the second set and held serve at love in the third game to race out to a 3-0 lead. Stricker served it out on his second set point.
Stricker earned an early break in the first game of the third set on the deciding point and held his next service games. Nardi saved the first match point but he hit his backhand into the net on the second match point after the longest rally of the match.
“We had a long discussion yesterday evening about how to do it today. I think it was really good that we talked a lot after what maybe was not my best performance. Now to come out today like that, I think nobody expected that. I am just happy that I did it and now I am going to try my best to recover for the third group match”, said Stricker. Stricker is now 1-1 in Green Group. The Swiss player is aiming to reach his second consecutive semifinal at the Next Gen Finals. He is looking to crown a good year after reaching the fourth round at the US Open.
Jannik Sinner, Arnaldi End Italy’s 47-Year Wait For Davis Cup Title
An in-form Jannik Sinner has secured Italy’s first Davis Cup title in almost half a century after crushing Alex de Minaur in straight sets.
The world No.4 headed into the crucial match with his country boasting a 1-0 lead over Australia after Matteo Arnaldi won his clash against Alexi Popryin in three sets. Taking on a fiery de Minaur, a composed Sinner surged to a 6-3, 6-0, victory in Malaga to hand his country an unassailable lead and the title. The dominant performance saw Sinner produce a total of 25 winners with 18 of them coming from his forehand side. It is the sixth time he has beaten de Minaur on the Tour and he is yet to lose against him.
“It helps a lot to play for the whole team,” Sinner said of his latest win. “It has been an incredible thing for all of us and we are really happy.”
Sinner first broke three games into his encounter with de Minaur after the Australian hit a lob shot that landed out. In control of proceedings, he rallied his way to 5-3 before opening up a 40-0 lead against his opponent’s serve. With three set points at his disposal, Sinner converted his second with the help of another unforced error coming from across the court.
Closing in on the historic victory, the 22-year-old was in clinical form throughout the second frame as he raced to a 5-0 lead in under 30 minutes. Destroying whatever hopes Australia had of a shock comeback. Sinner closed out the match on his third attempt after a De Minaur backhand drifted wide, prompting an almighty smile on his face.
“Thanks to Australia. I know with the new format it is a little bit different to have to all come to one place. it means a lot.” Said Sinner.
In the first match of the day, Arnaldi ousted Popryin 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, in a two-and-a-half-hour marathon. The world No.44, who made his Davis Cup debut in September, held his nerve throughout a tense deciding set where he saved all eight break points he faced. Overall, he hit a total of 40 winners past Popryin and was visibly emotional afterward.
“This match was very important and emotional for a few reasons,” Arnaldi told reporters.
“This year for me was the first time playing for my country. I played when I was junior, but Davis Cup is just different.’
“And three weeks ago, an important person passed away. I think he gave me the power to try to stay there (in the match). It wasn’t easy to play, but they gave me the power at the end to try to win.”
It is the second time in history Italy has won the Davis Cup and the first since 1976. The triumph caps off what has been a memorable week for the team who 24 hours earlier beat Novak Djokovic’s Serbia in the semi-finals with Sinner saving three match points against the world No.1 in the singles.
“I’m really thankful and proud to have these guys,” Italian captain Filippo Volandri commented.
“We have had to manage with a lot of emergencies during these past two years but we did it and we did it like a family.” He added.
Italy, who has become the 11th country in history to win Multiple Davis Cup titles, currently has six players in the ATP top 100 with four of those being in the top 50.
Alexander Zverev Deserves More Respect According To Boris Becker
According to Boris Becker, Alexander Zverev deserves more respect from tennis journalists.
Boris Becker has claimed that Alexander Zverev deserves more respect despite Zverev failing to live up to his potential at Grand Slams.
Zverev has only reached one Grand Slam final in his career despite being a regular inside the world’s top ten as well as performing at regular ATP events.
This season Zverev played a limited schedule after recovering from an ankle injury but still managed to qualify for the Nitto ATP Finals.
However most critics have been loud when judging Zverev’s career as it was looking likely that he would be a regular Grand Slam champion.
The German has failed to live up to expectations but former Grand Slam champion Boris Becker believes Zverev deserves more respect.
Speaking to Eurosport Becker also said that Zverev’s father being the coach is a more than successful approach when it comes to the former US Open finalist’s career, “In my opinion, he doesn’t get enough respect from the tennis experts internationally,” Becker explained.
“They’re all talking about the young three or four, but don’t give Zverev, Medvedev or Rublev enough respect. He’s playing with his fist in his pocket a little bit, wants everyone show that he is not a thing of the past, but that his best time is yet to come.
“Surely his father knows best what is good for his son, but if you look into the box at the competition, you can also see changes.”
Becker has followed Zverev for most of his career so knows that the best is yet to come from the German.
Alexander Zverev will look to prove himself next season when he starts his 2024 season when he represents Germany at the United Cup.
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