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Good Sports: Using Athlete Endorsements

Using Athlete EndorsementsStarting with golfer Arnold Palmer in the 1960s, companies have derived great value from using star athletes to represent their products. The marriage of Michael Jordan and Nike almost single-handedly created a new market for high-end sports shoes as urban wear.

The danger, though, is that sometimes your athlete endorser goes from beloved icon to indicted felon (see Michael Vick) in a heart beat. Your investment, not to mention your public image, can go up in smoke with him.

A recent Harvard Business School case study that is detailed in Marketing Maria: Managing the Athlete Endorsement, in "HBS Working Knowledge", explores how the IMG sports agency manages the complex off-court career of tennis star Maria Sharapova. The case was written by professor Anita Elberse.

Some highlights:

  • Companies turn to celebrity endorsers to better reach a mass audience -- a target that today's balkanized mass media have trouble delivering.
  • It's just not the athlete's fame that companies try to ride. The best endorsement deals match a corporate brand with an athlete's image. Sharapova was a perfect spokesperson for the Canon PowerShot digital camera, according to Elberse, "because she possesses a number of qualities that fit with the brand being powerful but with precision, and having a sense of style."
  • The payoff for endorsers can be huge. Many athletes score more from marketing deals than what they earn as players. The flip side, of course, is that athletic careers are relatively short, so sports agencies such as IMG are crucial to creating a strategy that gets their clients maximum returns while they are on the public stage.
Which athlete endorsers do you think have best represented their companies? Any campaigns that you think went awry? Why?

(Tennis balls image by Pete Southwood, CC 2.0)

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