Brandon Thornton
May 17, 2024

Sports marketing has lost its authenticity

Brands should be embracing athletes’ real stories to make the most inspirational, impactful work.

Brandon Thornton, executive strategy director, TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles. (Photo credit: TBWA\Chiat\Day, used with permission)
Brandon Thornton, executive strategy director, TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles. (Photo credit: TBWA\Chiat\Day, used with permission)

In a post-game interview following a big win against the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers player and iconic athlete LeBron James warned young athletes: “Pour it all into the game if you want to be someone that’s never forgotten in this league. The cars and the jewelry mean absolutely nothing.”

What could have been taken as simple advice struck me as a bigger provocation about the state of sports and culture. As a brand strategist and passionate sports fan, James’ honest thoughts got me thinking about brands’ contributions to a landscape where we are more enamored with an athlete’s material successes than their athleticism and humanity.

While I would never knock anyone’s hustle, it's hard to ignore that brand storytelling today focuses on athletes’ money and fame while ignoring the heart of why we love them.

Celebrity and commodification are occupational hazards for elite athletes. But before we saw their faces smiling from a cereal box, launching sneaker brands or building global businesses, many of them were just neighborhood kids with a dream who pushed themselves at after-school practices, made sacrifices others weren’t willing to make and got back up after big losses.

Sports marketing is missing this critical dimension of athletes by focusing only on their success.

Brands were once responsible for elevating athletes to new heights by telling their whole story. Former Nike CEO Phil Knight once famously said that the brand turned Michael Jordan into a dream. But that dream was not solely based on his larger-than-life persona and superhuman performance on the court. It was rooted in the fact that he was a real, relatable person who failed and still became the greatest basketball player on the planet.

We have lost sight of athletes’ cultural power and the inspiration behind their paths to success.

It’s undeniably tough for brands, as giving a spokesperson more dimension—be it influencer, pop star or athlete—will always come with a measure of risk. But it also makes the work better, especially as so many athletes’ stories are grounded in humanity and hope.

Enough superficial work

Although kids’ aspirations have shifted from becoming athletes or actors to YouTubers or streamers, they are still searching for genuine connections with celebrities—they just aren’t getting it from sports marketing.

Growing up with social media, younger athletes have owned their brand identities from the start. Corporate brands have reacted by retreating toward increasingly superficial partnerships. But they should be using their platforms to elevate these athletes’ authentic personalities.

Look at the iconic sports marketing feats that have become entwined with so many athletes’ cultural legacies: Nike’s partnerships with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, Reebok’s with Allen Iverson or Gatorade and Serena Williams, to name a few.

Working with the Black creative community, these brands breathed life and authenticity into what could have been generic commercial partnerships. As a result, Black youth were able to witness themselves and their communities not only reflected, but embraced through major brands in those years.

The work uniquely championed youth, giving a new generation both the means to identify with an iconic athlete and access to a lifestyle and mindset they could strive for and believe in.

The power of hope

Sports marketing can easily tap into one of today’s biggest trends: Hope.

Open TikTok and you’ll see #Hopecore steadily taking over the internet’s penchant for nihilism. With news cycles that send us spiraling before we drink our first cup of coffee, it is no wonder we are seeking escape and enabling a resurgence of the real, positive and hopeful.

Athletes are uniquely positioned to champion hope because we already root for them. In controlled environments, we can witness their interpersonal conflicts, struggles amidst adversity, and journey towards self-love, all while celebrating the power of human resilience. We must recognise the power of these stories and bring back the inspiration sports marketing used to deliver.

Sports marketing has an incredible opportunity to impact our world by saying something of meaning. The athletes we work with need us to unlock their stories and further our mutual quests for connection and inspiration.

As LeBron reminds us: "I think the best teacher in life is experience." Let's draw inspiration from their stories and strive to preserve and elevate the essence of sports marketing, ensuring it continues to ignite hope, inspire change and shape the trajectory of generations to come.

Brandon Thornton is executive strategy director at TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles.

Campaign US

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