Just weeks ago, only hardcore football fans were familiar with Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. It took just one TV interview to change that.
With 22 seconds left on the clock of the NFC Championship game in Seattle, Sherman leapt high in the air with an outstretched left hand to stop receiver Michael Crabtree and his San Francisco 49ers from scoring what would have been the game-winning touchdown. It was another great defensive play for the man many believe is the best cornerback in the league.
But in pro football, it's the offense – the quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers - who get most of the attention from media and fans, no matter how great the defensive player. Sherman was no different. He was visible, but not a household name.
Enter Erin Andrews, the 35-year-old sideline reporter for Fox Sports who fought through the scrum of players and coaches moments after his big play to ask the standard post-game question: “Richard… the final play. Take me through it.”
His response was anything but standard. By referring to himself as the “greatest corner in the league” and calling Crabtree a “sorry receiver,” Sherman's raw emotions shocked Andrews and the millions of fans watching the game on TV. He appeared not just rude, but terribly unsportsmanlike.
It was this moment – and not the great game-ending play – that would catapult Sherman into the media stratosphere. Sherman was immediately excoriated in social media by fans across the nation. Twitter conversation about Sherman, which hovered at a few thousand mentions a day prior to the game, shot up to well over a million mentions the night of the interview. Not surprisingly, the tonality of those conversations turned markedly more negative.
Then the remarkable happened: the “Richard Sherman effect.”
Sherman is a 25-year-old Stanford communications graduate who came of age in the social-media era, and he had an intuitive grasp of what to do next. Rather than lay low, licking his wounds, Sherman jumped into the storm and influenced the outcome.
He had a big asset in Seattle. The now legendary “12th Man” fan base, which has recorded seismically-measured quakes under Century Link Field, rallied to Sherman's cause by shining a spotlight on his strong character. Sherman fueled his ambassadors with content and storylines: pictures with his adoring mother and brother, an endearing fan letter from a young child, and a Super Bowl ticket giveaway on his website to a loyal Seahawk fan.
Quickly the conversation shifted from his behavior to his life story. We now know that Sherman graduated high school with a 4.2 grade average. We know that he survived gang-infested neighborhoods in and around Los Angeles. We know about his remarkable rise to Stanford University and the NFL. And we know about his dedicated study of receivers and routes, and the countless hours of game footage that helps him anticipate where the ball will be thrown next.
Sherman's road to redemption led through CNN, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and nearly every other major media outlet in the country.
In brand marketing terms, it was lightning fast. Within four days of Sherman's outburst, his Twitter tonality rose to 97% favorable. In the broader social landscape, his favorable tonality rose to an all-time high of 88% – within just seven days of the game. So much for rude and unsportsmanlike.
As haphazard as it seemed, there was real brand science behind the Sherman Effect:
- Surprise: Sherman created an unexpected moment that caught people off guard. Everyone expected the usual polite and bland post-game interview. Sherman delivered something shockingly different.
- Speed: Sherman mobilized his supporters through social and mainstream media in the hours and days following his interview. He relied on his “12th Man” to advocate on his behalf in millions of social posts.
- Fuel: Sherman powered the conversation with compelling multimedia content. He was active in sharing videos, photos, and stories. And he thanked his fans, friends, and family for standing by his side.
When the Seahawks and Broncos, led by Russell Wilson and Peyton Manning, take the field in Sunday's Super Bowl XLVIII, all eyes will be on number 25 in the white and blue jersey: a defensive player, but one who knows how to play offense with his brand.
Richard Sherman has made himself the most relevant man in football.
David Herrick is COO of MWW.