Sports stars want to be rock stars, and rock stars want to be sports stars,” says Lenah Ueltzen-Gabell, executive vice president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Wasserman.
We’re sitting in its newly refurbished headquarters at Aldwych House, an ultra-modern, open space of reductive design, coated with memorabilia gleaned from years of representing the world’s greatest sports stars.
For most, maintaining our digital selves is an act of social integrity; it is infrequent that our success depends on it. But for sports people, image is paramount, second only to performance on the field.
Athletes are generation-defying idols, admired ubiquitously from poster-laden bedrooms of aspirational teenagers to pub-dwelling pundits. With such veneration, each star becomes a brand within his or her own right, some more successful than others, but each an opportunity for both star and advertisers. It is the job of Wasserman to connect the former with the latter.
“Marketable athletes understand themselves as brands, they ‘get’ their brand personalities, and this in turn enables us to create new endorsement opportunities beyond just sport,” says Ueltzen-Gabell. “It’s about cultivating your brand characteristics off the pitch as well as on it. You’re known for one dimension on the pitch, But by the nature of the game, your professional life span on it is short, and it’s your off-pitch personality that extends your career,” she adds.
Those who follow sports stars on social media will be aware of the occasional bloopers and homogeneity of the content produced on their behalf. One such is Sunderland player Victor Anichebe who infamously tweeted a message from his agent verbatim, including the precursor: “can you tweet something like...”.
Ueltzen-Gabell says it’s important that brand personalities are authentic. “People are savvy and know when something is fake; if someone doesn’t have a personality, you can’t fabricate it.”
Social influence, or so-called “influencer marketing”, is a touchy subject in AdLand, but its efficacy cannot be understated. Unlike traditional, one-to-many models of reaching a specific audience, the role reversal of social influence has one key advantage – that consumers quite literally choose to hear messages broadcast by personalities.
“The always-on relationship between athletes and fans means they have to sing for their supper more than ever” says Ueltzen-Gabell. “They’re influencers and arbitrators of behaviour. Although, not all influencers are created equal, so the job is about aligning a sports star with their fan base and that’s all about credibility, and understanding that creating a 360 degree relationship is very different to merely buying likes.”
Creating sponsorship opportunities and building an athlete’s brand isn’t the micromanagement that it may seem, however: “it’s ultimately their brand and they have be comfortable with the partnership and their part of the deal. But our agents know brands and what they buy, and it’s our role to educate our talent so they enter into any relationship fully informed.
“The best relationships are where both are invested in it, where it becomes more than simply a paycheque and small appearance,” she says.
Women in sport
Sport is heavily male-dominated in the UK – the heads of most governing bodies, the owners of teams, and the most eminent athletes are all men. I ask Ueltzen-Gabell what it’s like to be a woman at the top of such a patriarchal industry. “It’s a reality”, she says, “and the key is to acknowledge that pretty is as pretty does. We make sure we’re in the right places, we let our thinking and our work speak for itself, to start making dents in accepted cultural norms. I have to say that these ‘norms’ are more ingrained in the UK than in the States, where the collegiate system at least tries to set a level playing field. Over here, there’s no real endorsement of female sport. A strong female athlete in the US is an icon, but not so much in the UK.”
We have a lot of catching up to do with our American cousins, it seems, but how do you make a leopard change its spots? Ueltzen-Gabell says that the current trends of health and wellness are helping brands to elevate the relevance of women in sports. “These sorts of macro trends, as well as the realisation on the part of brands that this is a growing demographic and their focus on men’s sports means they’re only talking to half the population, means investment in female sport is on the rise.
“The next step is for women in sports to become cultural icons, as comfortable in the front row of fashion they are on the field, so that their influence goes beyond the sport they play.”