Marketing Athletes: ‘Super-Human’ Beats ‘Superstar’ Every Time

In his April, 2022 Marketing Insider column, SLRG President Jon Last speaks to how building larger-than-life player personas can backfire and how humanizing athletes can be a magic recipe for creating stronger fan engagement.

Baseball’s opening day resurfaced a pervasive insight from our research.  Those who watched national coverage of the Reds vs. Braves opener were treated to a primer in athlete marketing when Reds first baseman Joey Votto was mic’ed up for an in-game interview.

This was a far cry from the typical sideline fare, where a reporter asks broad, often cringeworthy and unanswerable questions to which the athlete stumbles through equally vague generalities or politically correct drivel.  We’ve seen these occurrences actually serve as a means to build further walls between athlete and fan, advancing a disconnect between perceived “overpaid and inaccessible superstars” and those seeking to advance a connection.

In a refreshing departure from the norm, Votto treated fans to a candid, often humorous and consistently introspective glance behind the curtain at his intense focus on the game, while simultaneously displaying his humanity, and even a window into his interactions with an opposing player, Ozzie Albies, when the latter reached first base. The interview checked all the boxes for humanizing the athlete, reinforcing what several studies that we’ve conducted have shown to be the magic recipe for creating stronger fan engagement.

Too much athlete marketing today highlights the incessant tendency to aggrandize everything.  As we approach this year’s NFL draft, I’m shocked to observe that this may be the first time in many years that the build-up hype hasn’t suggested  the imminent top selections are “transcendent and generational” players. As marketers, we set ourselves up for failure and erode brand trust as these proclamations consistently prove false.

Similarly, awkward post-game interviews seem to define everything as bigger and better than the past.  The athlete either retrenches from the hyperbole or drives a deeper wedge of inaccessibility and polarization by not relating to the moment in an authentic and unguarded fashion.  And our research shows that this is detrimental to building fan connection.

That’s why I’ve often warned properties to be careful with over-reliance on building larger-than-life player personas as a key marketing lever.  The Votto segment didn’t attempt to outsize its situational context.  This was a genuine look at a popular and successful player in a natural and unforced situation.  It was game one of 162 — and by not overhyping the moment, it made him likable, relatable and approachable.

This strategy to build more accessible connection was also organically illustrated at a New Jersey Devils vs. Florida Panthers hockey game that I attended two weekends ago. Here, a section of several hundred fans were dressed in referee uniforms, chanting “Let’s go Refs” and, albeit tongue and cheek, cheering loudly for every face-off, offsides and icing call.  The officials themselves seemed to genuinely bask in the unexpected attention, saluting the group and acknowledging the recognition, which a spokesperson for the fan group later acknowledged was a salute to a relatable and typically overlooked component of the in-person fan experience.