Anything goes with athlete endorsers

So now a bunch of big-name baseball players are under the spotlight because of their alleged use of banned substances provided by an anti-aging clinic.

So now a bunch of big-name baseball players are under the spotlight because of their alleged use of banned substances provided by an anti-aging clinic. It shouldn't come as a surprise because there are few certainties in life as athletes being in crisis situations.

Sports scholars remember Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Black Sox scandal of the 1919 World Series and OJ Simpson's auto rental commercials. But you don't have to be a historian to know about the problems of recent celebrity product endorsers such as Tiger Woods, Roger Clemens, Michael Vick, Michael Phelps, Mike Tyson, Kobe Bryant, Marion Jones, Ben Roethlisberger, Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, and the two pitchman who were thought to be world class inspirations as role models, Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pistorius. One thing is certain. When the subject is sports, history repeats. It's only a matter of time before another supposedly stellar athlete product pitchmen becomes a fallen star. (And while we're at it, let's not forget the troubling history of those “builders of character,” the coaches).

I've been involved in sports marketing programs before, during, and after my nearly 25 years at Burson-Marsteller, where I either managed or had key roles in many significant international and national sports marketing programs, as well as non-sports programs.

Marketers normally want to avoid controversial subjects. But sports marketing is different. Most sponsors of athletic competitions seem to take a “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” attitude when athletic events and athletes are involved. 

In years past, there were relatively only a few “athletes misbehaving” incidents covered by the media. And it had to be a major transgression. But things have changed. The “if it happens off the playing field, it's not a sports story” attitude has disappeared. 

There are no more sacred cows. There is no longer a one-day story. Joe Paterno and the Penn State sexual abuse scandal is an example of how a story can remain in the news for years. The Olympics have been a media target ever since the “Nazi Olympics” of 1936. The recent London games received extensive “political” media criticism for weeks prior to the beginning of athletic competitions. Only then did it become a “pure” sports story. And during and after the games, women members of the US track team publicly criticized the IOC for its sponsor protection policy, which they said prevented them from making a living.

Despite the continual negative coverage of sports marketers, sports entities, and celebrity hawkers,  the advertising and PR business frequently wears blinders when it comes to using athletes as pitchmen, never knowing when their salespersons will be next to become a “fallen star.” Cole Porter's “Anything Goes” might be a hit with Broadway theatrical reviewers, but athletes' unsportsmanlike conduct is a flop with many sports scene reviewers.

A good example is the negative press that Nike received when it said of Tiger Woods'
regaining golf's No. 1 position, “Winning Takes Care of Everything.” Not as far
as I'm concerned, and I assume marketers that want to be thought of as good corporate citizens. News coverage of the Nike social media post was covered by major print and TV media that included revisiting Woods' infidelity scandals. And the Lance Armstrong and Penn State coverage resembles a continuing soap opera.

I've never understood why a company would continue its association with a celebrity spokesperson whose unsportsmanlike conduct would forever be a part of his media resume, and I've always advised clients about the media dangers of affiliating with such an athlete.

In my experience, the athletes best able to disseminate brand talking points during media interviews are not the current darlings of the moment but former stars who have been out of the media spotlight for a while. That's because the media is happy to interview stars of the past, nostalgia being a big part of sports coverage.

Using a once prominent athlete, which I have always advocated and done in many sports marketing programs, provides a nostalgic and new news hook for the media. And, importantly, the probability of these athletes embarrassing your client with unsportsmanlike conduct is much less likely than a current athlete. Also, when a celebrity pitchman ends up in the police instead of the sports report, the athlete's endorsement scorecard is dragged into the story.

All too often when selecting an athlete to deliver the brand message, the deciding factor is on the field stats. In my opinion that's wrong. The way an athlete acts outside of the arena has always been more important to me. 

As your mother might have said when an early romance went sour, “There are plenty of fish in the sea.” The same is true when deciding on an athlete spokesperson.

Arthur Solomon was an SVP and senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller. He now frequently contributes to PR business publications, consults on PR projects, and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. Solomon can be reached at arthursolomon4pr@juno.com.

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