The Purpose Of Sports Branding
On the surface, athletes have it pretty easy.
They are living a dream that 90% of schoolchildren aspire toward. They get to play their favorite sport for a living and are surrounded by adoring fans who hang onto their every word and copy their every move.
But that’s not quite the reality.
It’s true that sports stars make a lot of money, but they also have a very short career and are constantly at risk of career-ending injuries.
If you tear an ACL or do serious damage to your knee as an office worker, it’s not that much of an issue.
You just put your feet up for a few months, wear a cast, and wait for it to heal.
As an athlete, it could signal the end or decline of your career.
You’re also putting your health and body on the line. Boxers, wrestlers, martial artists, and football players are all high-risk for brain and spinal injuries.
Sports branding is like an insurance policy and pension built into one.
In a way, it’s like a business venture that you launch when you’re famous in a bid to use it when you’re not.
For example, let’s imagine that you’re a star Quarterback and have just finished your first season in the NFL. You took your team to the Playoffs, made a few big plays on the way, and your social media accounts have exploded.
To maintain a connection with your fans, you post regular snippets of training footage and give them some insight into your home life.
After a second and third successful season, you become known for your powerful arms and strong physique, so you endorse a fitness brand designed around promoting upper body strength.
The brand’s products and services can be marketed to your followers and you get a sizeable share of the spoils. This allows you to move into supplements and eventually into creating your own line of dumbbells and fitness apparel.
By the time your career is over, you have established these brands and have earned yourself a reputation in business, as well as sport. When you take a kneel in your final game, you can leave the field knowing that you have a fitness empire to run.
For the first few years, you’ll still be able to use your reputation as a sports star to get free publicity for your brands, and by the time you lose your clout, your business will be up and running and earning you a regular income.
It’s something that many professional sports stars do, and it ensures they can continue living their lavish lifestyles long after the 8-figure salaries and win bonuses have stopped.
If you ask anyone over the age of 40 who George Foreman is, they’ll tell you he’s a former boxing world champion who dominated the sport and then lost to Mohammed Ali.
Ask someone under the age of 40 the same question and they’ll tell you he’s the guy who invented the Lean Mean Grilling Machine.
Brad Pyatt launched a supplement empire arguably bigger than his NFL career; David Beckham has launched everything from aftershave to whiskey and even an MLS team.
These are just a few of the sporting superstars who have used their names and reputations to launch successful businesses.
Joe is a fitness personality that has legions of fans. If he launches a product, they will buy it. If he schedules an event, they will attend.
Imagine what an up-and-coming retail brand would give to have that sort of following.
As a sports star with a following of dedicated fans, you have an incredibly valuable asset that any brand would kill for.
Sports e-commerce and branding is about finding a way to utilize that.
You could create a product, build a merchandise store, sell autographs, run fan events, or even launch your own foundation. The important thing is that you actually use your following before it disappears.
Athlete Branding Tips
Many athletes choose to venture into apparel. It’s a natural progression for sports stars who are used to people buying jerseys with their names emblazoned on the back.
They’re also young, rich, and stylish, and so they have a natural tendency toward fashion, and launching their own fashion line is something that many stars aspire to.
But as Kyle noted during our discussion, it’s not for everyone.
If you’re creative, fashionable, and recognized as someone with style, it might work for you. If you’re been praised by critics and fans for your sense of style, even better.
Without that connection, it’s not as easy to make it work.
Having a following behind you increases your chances of launching a successful product, but it doesn’t guarantee success.
To use a sporting analogy, your following gets you to the Super Bowl, but if you want to get your hands on the trophy, you’ll need a good team behind you, and you’ll need to make the right plays at the right time.
The following tips were all provided by Kyle during our discussion. They can help you to launch your own successful enterprise and ensure you have a thriving business waiting for you when you decide to hang up your boots.
1. When To Think About The Future
A few decades ago, many sports stars only began to think about their post-sporting careers when they were ready to retire or had already called it a day.
That’s when necessity forced their hand. It’s when they had the time to think about something else and didn’t need to worry about training, game-days, and TV interviews.
These days, athletes are laying the foundations very early and that allows them to steadily build their brand over time.
This is key, because sporting fame is very fleeting, and you need to take advantage of it while you can.
Take boxing as an example.
Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis, and Evander Holyfield are all household names and even though their careers are long finished, they are still famous and still have big reputations.
In fact, Tyson has close to 20 million followers spread across Instagram and Twitter.
But what about the guys who didn’t earn legendary status, even though they arguably deserved it?
Thomas Hearns won 7 world titles across 5 weight divisions. He fought and beat some of the best and was involved in many classic fights.
Today, however, he is only known among boxing fans of a certain age and has just 25,000 followers on Instagram.
It doesn’t matter how good you are, once your career is over, most of the world will stop caring. When that happens, it becomes harder to build a successful brand based on your reputation.
Of course, you don’t want to go all-in too early, as that can have a very negative effect on your career.
Kyle tells the story of an Olympic Gold medalist who refused to think about his post-career because he believed that he needed to be 100% committed to his current career.
If you’re competing for Olympic gold and facing off against the best in the world, you need every edge you can get, and if just 1% of your time is lost on unrelated businesses, you might lose that edge.
But this is why Kyle stresses the importance of working with an expert.
If you have the following but not the time, you can hire someone to build a brand for you. They’ll do all of the hard work and allow you to focus on what you do best. That way, when your career is over, you can make a smooth transition.
This is especially important for track and field athletes. Sporting fame in general is very fleeting, but this seems to apply more for track and field than anything else.
It’s important to start when you have a following and to capitalize on that following when it’s at its peak.
If you retire, take a break for a few years, and then return (a path that many athletes took in the past) you may find that you’ve lost your power and simply can’t command the audience or attention that once came easily to you.
You’ve gone from the A-List to the B-List, and if you were never on the A-List to begin with, you may have dropped off the radar altogether.
Is There Such A Thing As Too Early?
Just because you’re fit, young, in-form, and have a 20+ year career ahead of you, doesn’t mean you can afford to ignore all alternative business opportunities.
What happens if you’re struck down by a career-ending illness or injury? What happens if you hit a bad run of form, drop from the first team, and spend the rest of your career in obscurity?
I asked Kyle if it was possible to start too early and spoke specifically about athletes in high school.
At this point, there is no guarantee that you will make it as a professional athletes and so it seems a little wasteful to start building a brand, but in many ways, that brand could help you to succeed.
I used boxing as an example earlier, so let’s return to it here.
Imagine that you’re a 14-year-old aspiring boxer. You’re not sure if you will what it takes to become a pro and you haven’t even started a career in the amateurs, but you have fast hands, you look great in the ring, and you’re passionate about the sport.
By posting a few videos of your training regimes, you could start to build a following. If those videos show an impressive trait or skillset, there’s a chance you could go viral and have thousands of followers before you even think about going pro.
Keep that up, and by the time you turn 18 and have a few wins under your belt, you’ll have established yourself as a promising young boxer.
It will be easier to get noticed by the big promoters and as you have a large following, it will be easier for them to sign the big names, arrange the lucrative fights, and ensure that tickets are sold.
Boxing is unique in that being good isn’t always enough to make it. You need to have some hype around you, otherwise, you just won’t get the big fights.
However, that hype can work in other sports as well.
A following increases your chances of getting noticed and makes it easier to sign contracts in the future. It also gives you experience with personal branding and that could come in handy when you’re being drafted for the NBA or NFL.
In addition, it allows you to benefit from whatever exposure you’re getting.
You might not be playing in the biggest stadiums and in front of national audiences, but you’ll still be recognized by fans in your town or school.
Every time you step onto the field or court, your following will grow; every time you make a big play or feature in the local papers, you’ll see the benefits.
The rules governing young athletes means you can’t get an agent and you can’t sign sponsorship deals, but there are still ways to market yourself.
For instance, Kyle notes that while you can’t actively sell yourself as a sports star, there’s no rule against having an account on Twitch and making a few bucks as a streamer.
It’s important, however, to focus on the things that you enjoy.
Don’t force yourself to do something just because you think it will be beneficial to your career or brand.
If you don’t like writing, then you shouldn’t be writing blogs. If you love gaming, you should be signing up to Twitch and streaming some of your gameplay.
By sticking with what you enjoy, branding stops being a chore, and this limits the risk of you burning out and getting fed up before you’re old enough to turn pro.
YouTubers and influencers are constantly disappearing from the platform because they grow tired of the demands placed upon them.
They get sick of making and editing videos every day and they struggle with the responsibilities of interacting with their fanbase.
By doing only what you enjoy, you won’t tire of building your brand and will come across as more natural and authentic to your audience.
As noted by celebrity branding expert Jordan Fox, authenticity is key to establishing yourself in this industry.
2. Find An Angle
One of the first things that Kyle does with his new clients is to ask them for 5 positive memories and 5 negative memories.
It helps to find the things that trigger the biggest emotional reactions and have had the biggest impact on their lives.
From this, he determines which cause or “angle” is best for their brand.
For instance, if someone has lost several family members to smoking or alcoholism, they can position themselves as an advocate for clean living and responsible drinking.
There’s no immediate profit to be made from this, but money isn’t always the end goal. It’s about building a public persona and doing something that could lead to a future business or endorsement.
Maybe that same athlete could be hired by an anti-smoking firm or paid by the government to spearhead a campaign warning about the dangers of drinking and driving.
Your “cause” needs to be something relevant and something that you’re actually interested in and comfortable doing.
For example, Kyle spoke about an individual who wasn’t comfortable visiting sick children in the hospital. It was something that many of his teammates were doing at the time but something he just couldn’t bring himself to do.
It made him deeply sad and had a profound effect on him.
After doing some digging, Kyle discovered that the athlete was very family orientated. He came to life when talking about his family and clearly had a very happy upbringing.
Using this information, Kyle found ways that the athlete could help struggling families and children in foster care.
He loved doing it and it was an honorable cause, and that’s ultimately the main goal.
3. Do It Yourself
If you have the budget to hire someone like Kyle, go for it. If not, it’s possible to do the work yourself.
In fact, thanks to platforms like Shopify, it has never been easier.
In a few clicks, you can start selling products on Shopify or WooCommerce. These platforms make it easy to create and run an e-commerce site and if all of your traffic is coming from social media, you don’t need to worry about marketing.
You can hire designers, writers, and developers to do the things that you can’t do yourself.
Use sites like Upwork to find capable freelancers who can work on fixed price projects. A professional writer can populate your website for between $0.05 and $0.10 a word, developers are available for between $30 and $40 an hour, and you’ll pay around $50 an hour for a skilled designer.
That might sound like a lot of money, but a basic website may only need 1,000 or 2,000 words, along with a couple of hours from a designer and developer.
You’re not trying to rebuild Amazon or eBay; you’re just tweaking existing templates to create a basic site.
With regards to the products that you sell, there are print-on-demand services you can use to sell everything from posters to hoodies and more.
With print-on-demand, you don’t need to worry about capital or storage costs. When a customer places an order, the product is printed and shipped directly. You don’t need to get involved in the process and can collect a small share of the sale.
4. Don’t Be Scared Of Failing
The one piece of advice that everyone needs to hear is that it’s okay to fail.
Whether you’re an athlete, businessperson, or artist, you will fail. If you want to learn, grow, and succeed in the future, you need to learn from these failures.
Kyle reminisced about a time when he launched a networking event and invited as many well-connected people as he could. He got Buffalo Wild Wings to supply food, rented a large room, and waited for the 50 to 60 RSVPs to appear.
In the end, only three people showed up.
It would have been very difficult for him to accept at the time, but it wasn’t a complete disaster.
Those three people were very well connected and by chatting with them and befriending them, Kyle was able to increase his network and raise his status.
He turned a negative into a positive and was better for it.
It’s equally important not to let your fear of failure get the better of you.
If Kyle had let his doubts take over (“what if no one shows up?”, “what if I’m made to look like a fool?”) he wouldn’t have organized the event in the first place, which means he wouldn’t have made those connections or had that experience.
Don’t overthink things, don’t let your fears take control, and always be prepared to take risks and put yourself out there.
This works on all levels and applies to the little things, as well as the big things.
For example, I have a friend who launched a business and set himself up an account on Google Ads.
He didn’t have the budget to hire someone and he didn’t the experience to make a success of it, but he was willing to learn.
He knew that he had $100 to spend every month, and to he began creating ads based on that budget.
For the first couple of months, he got very little return.
His search ads failed. His display ads failed. And the failure rates on his competitor campaigns were so high that he was convinced Google Ads just wasn’t for him.
But he persisted.
After several months, he had a fairly good understanding of how Google Ads worked and was able to create a shopping campaign that generated an ROAS of 300%.
Several months later, his business had grown immensely and was turning a big profit.
He now advises others on how to use Google Ads.
Technology in general is a great example of this phenomenon.
Baby Boomers are notoriously terrible when it comes to using smartphones and computers, and even a 7-year-old looks like a veritable whizz kid by comparison.
If you watch how these age groups approach technology, you’ll see that the older generation is wary of every move that they make.
They’re scared that they will break it or do something embarrassing, and so they stop before every action and wait for a detailed explanation before they continue.
A 7-year-old, on the other hand, doesn’t care. They will dive straight in—to hell with the consequences.
The child learns more because it does more. It makes mistakes but it also learns how to fix them and prevent them. At the same time, their great grandparent is having a panic attack because they accidentally minimized a window.
If this is something you struggle with, try to avoid overthinking every decision that you make.
Research suggests that the longer we think about something, the more negative our approach will be and the more likely we are to avoid it.
I recommend reading Yes Man by Danny Wallace, a book that was made into a Jim Carrey film of the same name. It’s a true story about an author who decided to say “Yes” to everything for a year and it completely changed his life.
It’s proof that a little positivity and proactivity can have a massive impact on your life.
5. Don’t Just Focus On Social Media
Social media sites like Instagram and Facebook are great for building a following and should always serve as the backbone of your brand, but you can’t rely on them entirely.
What happens if all of your following is on Facebook and the site suddenly shuts down, is banned from the US, or stops being relevant?
You could also be the victim of an unjust ban/suspension or an accidental deletion. And even if you’re not, you’re still limiting yourself by sticking with a single platform.
Join several different platforms and cross-promote them.
Kyle also recommends building email lists. If you own a website, you can encourage sign-ups by promising product/service discounts in exchange. That information can then be used to market new products and launch new initiatives.
6. Don’t Go Too Big
When the world is watching and the fans are screaming, it’s easy to get carried away with yourself and to start thinking you’re bigger than you are.
According to Kyle, many athletes make the mistake of creating their own logo and trying to sell apparel and merchandise based purely on that logo.
But just because it works for Lebron James, doesn’t mean it will work for you.
To be recognized purely by a logo, and to hope that people will buy merchandise with that logo, is something that only the best of the best can achieve.
Unless you’re an all-star one step away from the Hall of Fame, you don’t need a logo and you should keep your initiatives realistic.
Of course, you need a logo if you launch a business, but a personal brand logo and a business logo are two entirely different things. With the latter, you’re selling a product not a service and the logo is secondary to it. With the former, you’re asking people to buy purely because of that logo.
7. When To Monetize
Kyle recommends monetizing your personal brand when you hit 250,000 followers.
This is the point you should seriously consider contacting someone like Kyle. He can help you to find ways to unlock the economic potential of your brand.
Of course, numbers don’t tell the whole story and those followers need to be genuine. Everyone can buy fake followers and advertisers are aware of that fact. They know how to spot fake accounts and, as a result, they place a higher value on engagement and relevance.
The 250k number, therefore, is just a baseline used to judge when you might be ready to take things to another level.
If you have 100k followers, and a lot of engagement, you can still test the waters by launching a merch line. It’s just unlikely that you will generate enough interest to warrant paying for the services of a professional sports e-commerce agency.
The $100,000 Question
Kyle provided a wealth of great tips during our hour-long discussion and if you’re an athlete looking into personal branding and sports e-commerce, his advice is priceless.
But I wanted to squeeze a little more out of him.
At the end of the show, I asked him for his single best recommendation, an insight that could provide over $100,000 of value to anyone following his advice.
He told me that the most important thing a professional athlete could do was to always vet the people they hire.
Think about that for a second…
How many times do you hear stories of athletes who were victimized by friends, family, and members of their entourage? How many times do you read stories about sports stars who lost obscene amounts of money on bad business decisions, corrupt agents, and criminal financial advisors?
It’s commonplace, and that’s no accident.
Criminals target athletes because they see them as the perfect victims.
A young athlete doesn’t necessarily have the experience to know when they are being played or not. They might be able to read a game of football and understand the needs of their coach, but in the business world, they are complete novices.
They also have a lot of money and don’t always know what to do with it.
To top things off, they don’t have the time to monitor their finances or check what their advisors are doing every step of the way.
It’s not just about outright scams, either. While these scammers do exist, they are in the minority and they are far outnumbered by the opportunistic designers, developers, and agencies that offer barebones services for extortionate prices.
They contact athletes and promise them the world.
“Give us $50,000 and we’ll give you a professional, e-commerce ready site. We’ll do all of the work, and you can watch the money roll in.”
As soon as they hand over the money, they are given a half-assed Shopify site with some shoddy graphics and stolen product descriptions, and when they complain, they discover that the agency has disappeared.
It’s important to do your research in advance and to make sure you’re working with legitimate companies.
That doesn’t mean you need to find their address, drop by their offices, and ensure they actually exist. It doesn’t mean you need to look for certifications and go all Columbo on their About Us page.
Often times, you can find everything you need to know by simply googling a company.
You’ll find reviews, testimonials, and more. You’ll also find previous projects that the company has worked on, and if you contact those clients, you’ll get some genuine feedback on their experience.
If a company keeps making excuses (“we’re new, so we’re not on Google”, “those bad reviews are all fake and from a competitor”) ignore them and keep looking.
You’re dealing with an industry that has an almost endless amount of choice, so if something doesn’t seem right about a specific company, take your money elsewhere.
More often than not, the best companies are the ones that you find, and not the ones that find you.
I know of small businesses that get fewer than 20 sales a week and receive approximately 30 to 50 weekly emails from companies offering SEO, social media marketing, and web design services.
Imagine how many more you’ll get if you’re a public figure with an immense following who makes regular appearances on highlight reels.
That’s not to say that all of the companies that contact you are bad, but a large number of them certainly are, and if you’re going to use one of them, make sure you do your research first.
Of course, you could argue that it’s okay spending $10,000 on something basic when you’re getting paid $100,000 a week.
Who cares, right?
But it’s not just about being overcharged.
A company that overcharges you by 10x or 100x clearly doesn’t have your best interests at heart. They may be more inclined to cut corners and provide a poor service. You may also receive more requests from them as they try to squeeze more money out of you.
Vet everyone that works for you and every company that you hire. And if you insist on hiring friends, family members, and other people in your extended network (as many athletes often do) make sure you check their portfolio, understand their skillset, pay them a competitive fee, and hold them to the same standard as any other company or professional.
Like many industries positively impacted by the pandemic, the growth of sports e-commerce is predicted to continue as we move into 2021 and beyond.
After all, the industry was already experiencing exponential growth; it was already thriving, the pandemic just switched it onto warp speed.
When you combine this immense growth with the rise of platforms like TikTok, it’s fair to say that we’re living in fairly lucrative times if you’re an athlete with a large following.
The doors have been thrown wide open and a world of opportunity is beckoning you.
To learn more about personal branding and general e-commerce, take a look at some other This Week With Sabir episodes, including a guide to influencer marketing with Aron Levin and influencer troubleshooting with Kristina Bucaram.
Kyle was the 25th guest on This Week With Sabir and he will be the last one for 2020.
The show will recommence next year, however, and I have many more great guests lined up for 2021.
It has been a tough year for all of us and it’s one that everyone will be happy to see the back of.
Hopefully, things will get better in 2021 and we can look forward to getting outdoors, seeing our friends and family, and restoring some normality into these crazy and unprecedented times!