Sports Sponsorships in Disguise: How Brands Are Targeting Athletes as Influencers

Every now and then, a brand gets lucky. A high-profile athlete just happens to be spotted using the brand's product, gaining valuable exposure and credibility as a result.


But how much luck is actually involved in the process? Athletes are crucial influencers for the target audiences of many businesses. Recognizing that fact, an increasing number of brands actually treat these 'coincidental endorsements' as strategic goals, building their own, indirect version of sports sponsorships as a result. It's what we call the three stages of indirect sponsorships.

1) The Accidental Endorsement

This is the scenario we discussed in above. Through pure chance, a celebrity athlete begins using your product or service, and its popularity skyrockets as a result. It's the most successful and authentic version of indirect sponsorships, at once immensely desirable and completely unreliable.

The desirability of this type of endorsement is relatively obvious. An organic endorsement does not come across as a commercial message, and will have a much higher chance of convincing fans of your brand's value as a result. In addition, because it happens accidentally, it does not cost your sports brand any type of resources.

At the same time, of course, the accidental nature also makes this endorsement unreliable. You have no way of knowing if and when it may happen, and for most brands, it simply doesn't. Even if it does, you will be forced to react rather than proactively plan your strategy, and if you don't react fast enough, you may not be able to reap the rewards of the accidental endorsement.

2) The Guerilla Effort

Due to the unreliability of the first stage of hidden sports sponsorships, an increasing number of brands tend to seek a more strategic approach to receiving the same results. Consider it the guerilla marketing version of athlete endorsement: it's still authentic and non-paid, but achieved through hidden brand efforts to get there.

This approach is especially common in the beauty industry, where brands like Nivea and L'Oreal seek to get their products into the industry conversation by sending free samples to beauty bloggers to use in their tutorials. And it's reaching the sports marketing world, as well.

Sports brands can work to get their products publicly used by athletes in a variety of ways. Free samples and social media are just a few of the potential opportunities. Each requires a strategic approach, treating athletes as an additional target audience rather than a partner. Thanks to the increasing selling power of athletes online, it's a powerful and relatively cost-effective technique.

3) The Open Partnership

Finally, we'll end with the most powerful and direct stage of hidden sponsorships: the official endorsement. Pay an athlete to use your products, and they will gladly do so. Especially luxury brands have increasingly embraced this practice, embracing the fashion status of celebrity athletes like Victor Cruz and Russell Westbrook.

This type of endorsement, of course, is not all that hidden. It's an expensive practice, and savvy members of your audience will know that you paid to get exposure. Still, it associates your brand directly with an athlete that your potential customers aspire to, making it an effective tactic to help raise your brand exposure.

A variation of this tactic is to partner not with celebrity athletes, but local stars to increase authenticity while keeping costs low. Nike, for example, has made a practice of showcasing its products not only through sports stars, but also local streetball artists. That the brand has remained 'cool' in the decades since its founding is in large part thanks to these grassroots efforts.

That associating your sports brand with athletes that your audience aspires to raises your profile is no surprise. But did you know there is more than one way to achieve that goal? In many ways, endorsement are hidden versions of sponsorships that you can work to achieve. Contact us to learn more about the process, and how to effectively raise your sports brand awareness through multiple channels.

Topics: influencers Sponsorship marketing sports marketing