Pictures of a radiant Venus Williams winning last week's US Open
final showcased one of the finest athletes at the top of her game,
accepting her win in charming form. No doubt it's one reason that Reebok
saw her as an ideal choice for a $40 million sponsorship deal
But she wasn't always such a good example of sportsmanship. From the
time she turned pro in 1994, Williams had a reputation of not only being
confrontational, but of enjoying the controversy she created. Thanks to
a spell in charm school, Williams' image has been reinvented with a more
positive frame of mind, spelling success on the court - and in the
"An athlete's reputation is the most important thing they have," claims
Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR in New York. "More-over,"
says Bret Werner, VP at Alan Taylor Communications, "a sports figure's
life is scrutinized more than any other individual." Everything from
their everyday activities to the most intricate details of their
contracts is publicized.
These factors have combined to make PR crucial in professional
For starters, many teams play their games in stadiums sponsored by major
corporations, and the teams don't want to jeopardize the millions they
get for such deals. To protect their interests, each team in the four
major leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL) employs an in-house PR staff that
on a fairly regular basis seeks the advice of outside agencies. However,
for individual athletes, reputation management is even more vital.
"There is a correlation," says Peter Land, GM of the sports and
entertainment practice at Edelman, "between reputation and endorsement
income." One need look no further than Venus Williams for an example.
The improved reputation, as much as her powerful game, has helped land
her numerous marketing deals, including a clothing line from Wilson's
Leather in addition to her Reebok deal, the most lucrative ever for a
In team sports, adds Paul, practically every player has a behavioral
clause in his contract, so a bad image can cost a star literally
What's more, traits that are perceived as assets elsewhere are deemed
flaws for athletes.
"If a CEO is a barracuda, his aggressiveness is viewed positively,"
explains Werner. "An athlete, on the other hand, is expected to visit
sick kids in the hospital." He adds that rock stars are often forgiven
their transgressions because they're expected to be outlandish, but
athletes are condemned for similar actions. To that end, PR has proven
to be an essential tool in every athlete's equipment bag.
Quarterback changes image
In February 1999, the NFL's New York Giants took a major PR gamble in
signing Kerry Collins - a talented, yet troubled quarterback - to a
lucrative contract with a $5 million signing bonus.
In the past, Collins was dubbed a racist due to an off-color joke he
told a Carolina Panthers teammate. He was even tagged a "quitter" by his
Panthers coach just prior to being released, not to mention that he was
charged with DUI in the fall of 1998. For any player, particularly a
quarterback (a position that requires leadership), any one of these
three tags is an albatross at best.
In defending the signing, Pat Hanlon, the Giants' VP of communications,
explains, "Kerry could play, period." Beyond that, Collins was committed
to changing. The Giants, in turn, committed to helping Collins do just
In their typically low-key approach, the Giants announced Collins'
February signing via a press release, and only made him available to the
media the following May. "We wanted to give Kerry time to sort things
through, which made all subsequent PR moves easier," says Hanlon.
"You're going to be much more effective when you aren't trying to sell
Jamey Crimmins, managing director at Client Marketing, has worked with
Collins since he entered the NFL in 1995. "Kerry simply made youthful
mistakes," she says. "But he was smart enough to realize that he had to
Collins checked himself into rehab in 1999. With organizational support,
he took psychology courses at a local college, and became active in the
community. Upon his arrival in New York, Collins heard about a planned
Harlem Boys Choir trip to sing in Israel, which was cancelled due to
lack of funding. Collins donated $60,000 to make the trip
possible, and true to his personality, says Crimmins, Collins shied away
When the media eventually found out, Collins' charitable act turned into
brilliant PR simply because it wasn't a PR move to begin with.
While Collins wished to keep his philanthropic endeavors quiet, he was
open about his problems. And at Crimmins' suggestion, Collins agreed to
do a weekly show on New York's premiere all-sports radio station. "This
gave the public a chance to discover the real Kerry," says Crimmins.
When Collins led the Giants to the 2001 Super Bowl, Hanlon set up a
special press conference where he addressed his past problems. Again,
Collins faced the issues head on.
His willingness to change, along with the Giants' support, has turned
this "bad boy" into one of New York's top sports figures. "While Kerry
isn't presently seeking endorsements," adds Crimmins, he'd stand to make
millions if he were. He has a successfully rebuilt image to thank for
Reputation for fighting
Perhaps no sport suffers an image problem more than boxing. "Almost
every fighter battles Mike Tyson's reputation," says Trayce Zimmermann,
sole practitioner of TZPR in Chicago, who currently works with several
It's unfortunate, Zimmermann adds, because most boxers could benefit
from more positive PR.
One of her first clients was Michael Bennett, a US heavyweight contender
at the 2000 Sydney Olympics who had spent seven years in prison for
armed robbery. Surviving that and qualifying for the Olympics was
nothing short of miraculous. And since most Americans take great pride
in their Olympians, Trayce focused her efforts on getting Bennett's
"This was a great tale of redemption," says Zimmermann, adding that
daily papers ate up the story. She even got Bennett an appearance on
Good Morning America, and by the time the Olympics started, Bennett was
the most highly publicized boxer at the Games. "Focusing on how boxing
helped him overcome his problems was key," explains Zimmermann.
Another client, Vassiliy Jirov of Kazakhstan (who currently lives and
trains in Phoenix), won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1996
Atlanta Olympics. He is currently the International Boxing Federation's
cruiserweight champion, and he's undefeated as a pro. Yet few people
know him. As Zimmermann puts it colorfully, "Vassiliy is to boxing what
the Bolshoi is to ballet.
He's Russian, he's an artist, and very few get to appreciate the
Zimmermann's creative PR approach with Jirov has included telling
stories of his unusual training, which includes working on his speed by
running in a 100-foot hallway attached to a German Shepherd by a
"This is marketable," exclaims Zimmermann. Through stories like this,
Jirov has gained coverage in USA Today, New York Newsday, and other
papers. She even organized a live chat with Jirov on maxboxing.com, the
highest-rated boxing-fan website. She also helped get his September 8
fight on HBO. The bout, which Jirov won with an eighth-round knockout,
was his biggest payday to date (over $500,000).
However, boxers will never have the endorsement avenues other pro
athletes do, says Zimmermann. Thus, their in-ring income is even more
vital. "It's not enough to be a great fighter," says Zimmermann. Boxers
need to get on pay-per-view, and get the big fights against the top
names in the sport.
And without recognition, none of this is possible. In Jirov's case,
talent and Zimmermann's PR approach are proving to be a most powerful
Swings and misses
Just as PR can rebuild a bad image, the lack of PR can accentuate it.
Barry Bonds, the San Francisco Giants' left fielder, is one of
baseball's greatest players, and is currently chasing the sport's most
hallowed record - the single-season home run total of 70 (currently held
by the St. Louis Cardinals' first baseman Mark McGwire). Unfortunately,
Bonds' surly attitude toward the media supercedes his
"Barry has a less-than-stellar image," admits Bob Rose, who has just
completed his ninth year as VP of communications for the Giants. He adds
that Bonds' reluctance to address the media on its terms has caused the
press to look for reasons to vilify him.
Bonds has suffered on two fronts. First, many are ambivalent, if not
outright pessimistic, toward his pursuit of the record. Second, while
many of his contemporaries make millions off endorsements, Bonds
However, Bonds has made strides this season, says Rose, making himself
more accessible to the media and publicizing his vast charitable
But still, Bonds remains a tough sell: the first key to a PR campaign is
the subject's willingness to partake in it, and the second is his
realization of how important image is. Bonds has shown little interest
Rose says, "It's not good PR if you force-feed people, or if you try to
project an image around someone who doesn't want it."
"You don't just want statistics to speak for you," says Paul. "A lot of
players have great stats. What separates the most coveted players from
the others is reputation." And in Bonds' case, a lack of PR interest has
cast a shadow over one of baseball's all-time greats, which the media
and sponsors have certainly noticed.
The final whistle
In the end, of course, the bottom line is success. If athletes don't
produce results, image isn't even an issue. But at the pro level, where
all participants can be deemed successful, PR means a lot. In fact, a
sports celebrity who has turned his reputation around can be the most
marketable of all.
"The public, and in turn sponsors, can be very forgiving if a superstar
admits to their mistakes," claims Paul. "What they can't forgive is
lying or not facing up to their actions."
Athletes will always be in the spotlight, even after their playing
And while once your career ends you'll never hit another home run, get
another knockout, or score a touchdown, you'll always be able to score
points off the field - especially financially - if you have the right