It Isn’t Enough To ‘Catch A Rising Star’

In the August 2012 Marketing: Sports, SLRG President Jon Last provides research driven guidance on the potential pitfalls of trying to attach the future of a sport or brand to individual stars, with some valuable lessons from golf, tennis and football.

I had the opportunity to participate in a Wharton Sports Business Initiative Forum on the state of tennis during the recent U.S. Open, and was struck by some intriguing comments revolving around what was needed to fuel interest and participation in the game. Top of the potential solutions was a perceived importance to identify and nurture a “dynamic and up-and-coming star.”

This gave me pause, given much of the research we’ve done around golf and tennis, in particular, as somewhat hollow, and absent a holistic appreciation for the necessary ingredients to build fan and participant resonance. I’m not suggesting that it is unimportant to promote likable, captivating personalities, but to isolate star promotion as a singular or primary strategy seems fraught with potential pitfalls when marketing sports to an audience that has been proven to stray from the tried-and-true celebrity worship found in other entertainment sectors. Said another way, sports fans don’t always want to “be like Mike.” Sometimes they’d rather beat him to a bloody pulp!

I’m unfortunately old enough to remember golf’s relentless pursuit of “the next Jack Nicklaus.” We saw a virtual conga line of great hopes that either never met expectations or lacked some of the charisma and role-model purity of the Golden Bear at his peak. But unwilling to let go, golf finally had its prayers ostensibly answered with the coronation of Tiger Woods. Forget for a moment Tiger’s transgressions of a few years ago, and recognize that while Tiger’s impact has been incredibly positive for growing television viewership, tour purses, and initial interest and trial, golf participation has been relatively flat over the past decade. This can be attributed to a number of factors that our firm and others have researched in depth, but inappropriate facility infrastructure (i.e., too many of the wrong type of golf facilities) is certainly one contributing element. So, a first important lesson to be learned … be ready to bring the more casual tire kickers past the initial intrigue before hitching your hopes on the back of a star.

Of course, the most recent chapters of the Tiger Woods story raise another important risk that one has to consider when latching the future of a sport onto the back of one or a couple of individuals, and I say that, even though our research demonstrated that core golf fans quickly moved past the tabloid stories and continued to recognize and laud Tiger’s on-course accomplishments.

We’ve done some interesting proprietary work in the areas of endorsement impact. I can conclude that with ample “homework,” brands and sports can generate great positive mileage by aligning with and promoting athletes that present the right and often rare combination of fit, likability and accessibility. But at the same time, we’d be foolish to assume that one athlete can speak for an ever-more diversified and segmented group of fans, participants and potential fans.

I’ve seen instances where what anecdotally struck some as refreshing star power actually was rejected by those targeted. One example was a magazine cover concept, where a young and potentially up and coming PGA Tour player was depicted in a less-than-traditional way. Even among the younger, “edgier” target, the concept failed during testing; rejected as too astray from the brand values and expectations associated with our client. In fact, some of the research that we’ve conducted around the marketing impact of Tiger Woods has shown that even at the height of his “ubiquitous popularity,” he was a somewhat polarizing force for many of the most avid and accomplished golfers.

So, beyond the risk of “stars behaving badly” in a world that seems hell bent on building up their heroes, only to later knock them down, comes lesson number two. That is, we’ve become too appreciative of our collective individuality to allow any one human voice speak for an entire population. Being all things to all people has never been a winning strategy, so finding the right athlete to latch onto becomes even more important as a brand or sport seeks to tie its identity to one or a handful of individuals. But I do find it interesting that when I look at the phenomenal rise in football’s popularity, both the NFL and NCAA products transcend the individuals in the helmets. Football captivates us through the game itself, through team affinity, tradition, pageantry and, not insignificantly, the games within the game (Fantasy Football, anyone) to create a new level of accessibility that both tennis and golf would surely covet. A positive and sustainable fan relationship goes beyond any one individual.