A player’s appeal, like any other skill, is something that needs to be honed and worked on constantly. An athlete’s marketability is baked into every aspect of their life – their gameplay, sportsmanship, interview skills and public speaking ability, the kinds of things they get up to off the court, their views on current events, their online presence, etc.
In many ways, marketability has very little to do with someone’s athletic ability. The sport may be how people are first introduced to you, but for athletes that manage to reach a truly transcendent status, it is never the only component to their success. Serena Williams is an icon of American Blackness and a symbol of the power of womanhood and motherhood, even for those who have no interest in tennis. You can take a selfie with a Roger Federer hologram as soon as you get off the plane at Zurich airport. Michael Phelps is not only the best swimmer of all time but is also the face of the sport across the world, as most people cannot even name another professional swimmer. This extends into financial success as well, not just notoriety.
Only $90 million of Michael Jordan’s estimated $2.1 billion came from National Basketball Association (NBA) earnings. That is the difference between being a champion and being a star. That kind of status is all about marketability and marketability is all about reach.
Athletes are in a prime position for fame like no one else. They have the chance to go beyond their calling and become entities entirely divorced from their original context. Consider the kind of influence sports have on virtually every culture. Even people who do not care about sports watch the Olympics; and the World Cup in 2018 was watched by 3.5 billion people, making it the most watched thing to ever be shown on TV.
There is not necessarily a step-by-step guide or rule book that teaches you to make yourself more marketable and influential since a lot of the cumulative weight of the public persona is made up of a lot of unique minute-to-minute situations. The strategy that an athlete and their team choose to implement will vary wildly, depending largely on habits and tendencies both on and off the court as well as on a deep understanding of the athlete’s individual preferences.
Whatever the angle, an athlete should never be flippant about the impact they can have, be dismissive about interactions with the press and other players or miss an opportunity to build their public image. This is where capitalistic business terminology comes in. Many of these instances are chances to reinforce a personal brand and should be taken seriously. This includes “brand management” online – on places like Instagram and Twitter – where every action, comment and mistake is scrutinised and amplified.
What we are really talking about here is legacy. How is the world going to remember you as an athlete, as a celebrity and as a person? It is important to take this matter seriously as the only thing more harmful to an athlete’s legacy than having a middling relationship with the public is having a bad reputation – whether it’s because people find you difficult to work with, see you as actively antagonistic towards your opponents or witness you engaging in unprofessional behaviour. The classic adage of there “being no such thing as bad publicity” is simply and fundamentally incorrect, especially in these kinds of situations. It should surprise no one that being a marketing nightmare is not a good marketing strategy.
For the record, I am not referring to adopting a kind of rebel or punk effect. As counterintuitive and ironic as it may seem, that kind of anti-establishment aesthetic can be tremendously popular and we have seen many people, and movements who have adopted that style gain fame and support. No, what I am talking about is dysfunctionality and the reputation that inevitably comes with it.
If you look at someone like, say, Lindsay Lohan, it does not matter how many well-received movies she’s in, how much money she makes or how many projects she undertakes, even the ones outside of film, like her TV career, management positions and modelling. All that matters to the general public are the stories about her addiction-related breakdowns in the late 2000s and how famously hard she is to work with, all of which lead to her earning the title of a “diva”.
There are a lot of factors to this widespread perception (sensationalised reporting, burgeoning meme culture that grew as the internet did and general entertainment industry misogyny), but this stigma around her persists, to the point where the only real way to gain traction with the public is through ironic appreciation. Most people only talk about and engage with Lohan to hate on her and talk smack about her, and her public image needs to play into that. This is how you wind up with things like Lindsay Lohan’s The Price of Fame, an officially licensed mobile game that centred around gaining fans by being involved in increasingly ridiculous scandals.
This is a position you never want to be in. You want the public to be on your side, through the highs and lows of your career. Of course, every popular person is going to have haters and detractors, but there’s a difference between getting hate in a way that clearly stems from jealousy and only elevates you and hate that genuinely takes away from your public image.
Every member of an athlete’s support team needs to be attuned to the needs of the particular athlete that they work with to bolster their image as much as they can. The athlete needs to have enough self-awareness to carve out their brand, both on the inside and the outside.
This process can look similar between various athletes but is more often than not caused by totally different circumstances that are unique to that player. For example, Maria Sharapova and Kei Nishikori were students of mine who needed to improve their public speaking skills. For Maria, it was all about tonality and miscommunication. She tried to be confident and self-assured but kept coming off as arrogant and rude in all her early press appearances, so she had to learn how to properly convey what she was trying to say and Kei knew that his chances of becoming a major tennis star were virtually zero if he did not learn how to speak English fluently, so he had an entirely different set of public speaking challenges to overcome.
Basically, marketability is all about identifying your strengths and weaknesses as a player and a person and leaning into an angle that gives you not only the farthest reach possible but also the most opportunities to flex your specific specialties. Perhaps the most well-known example of effective marketing in the tennis world is that of Anna Kournikova, mainly because her presence in the wider popular culture was not really tied to her tennis skills.
Excerpted with permission from How to Make Champions. From The Ground Up: Raising Champions For Life Through Sports, Gabe Jaramillo and Gyasi Hall, Rupa Publications.