Taking a Stand: Activism Comes for Athlete Endorsers
Updated: Sep 22
In the early 1990s, during a racially heated Senatorial campaign in North Carolina, Michael Jordan was asked why he didn’t speak out against GOP candidate Jesse Helms.
Jordan’s purported response is now infamous:
“Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
In those 4 words, the athletes’ playbook on how to become a successful endorser was effectively written. While there’s a bit of skepticism as to whether His Airness actually uttered these words, athletes took heed of the meaning: avoid controversial positions that could alienate potential buyers of a product or service, thereby limiting your economic potential as a spokesperson.
Given Jordan’s success as a pitchman, it was hard to argue with the logic. Yes, he suffered some slings and arrows from people who wanted him to use his platform to speak out against injustice, but the millions he earned through endorsements with brands like Nike. McDonald's, Gatorade and others undoubtedly cushioned those blows. (14 years removed from his NBA career, Jordan still leads the pack of athlete endorsers in terms of annual revenue.)
In the nearly 30 years since those words were spoken, two major trends are forcing today’s athletes to scrap the "Jordan Spox Playbook":
Political Polarization: The climate in the 1990’s was certainly polarized, but seems almost quaint by today’s hyper-partisan standard. The launch of Fox News in 1996 and the light speed spread of the Internet played key roles in shaping today’s culture of animosity and acrimony.
Social Media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others gave us all the ability to tap into the lives of everyone else. Athletes who were previously filtered by publicists and the press could now bypass those gate keepers and speak directly to their fans. For better and worse.
These twin cultural disruptions have had the following effect on people in the spotlight: you’re expected to pick sides, and you’re expected to talk/post about it. In this partisan, plugged in age, the "Jordan Spox Playbook" and its ethos of conformity and neutrality are an anathema.
Ask any brand manager what they’re looking for in their sports and entertainment investments, and one of the first things you’ll undoubtedly hear is “authenticity”. That ability to connect to a person, team, or property in a deeper, more meaningful way that proves “fandom” is what moves the needle. As a result, athletes who share their authentic selves online have greater value.
Adidas US President Mark King laid bare the issue when he was commenting on recent challenges facing category competitor Under Armor:
“Most of the athletes at Under Armor are kind of milquetoast. Spieth, Brady, hey, they are great athletes, but when you talk about [adidas endorsers] Carlos Correa and James Harden and some of these guys that have personality and really stand for being an individual, that’s unique positioning for us.”
This ability to showcase an authentic self and individuality is now expected by consumers, especially younger ones. This goes hand-in-hand with consumers’ desire to see firm political positions as well. A recent survey by Social Sprout indicated that 2/3 of consumers believe it's important that brands take public stances on issues such as immigration, civil rights and race relations. With a clear mandate to demonstrate their authentic selves, athletes can serve as an essential pathway for doing so.
Hold up there, bub, you might be thinking. What about former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick? At the height of his fame as a player, Kaepernick was earning ~$3 million annually from endorsements with EA Sports, Beats, and others. His high profile political positions, however, led to his exclusion from the NFL. Kaepernick’s made his decision with eyes wide open: “If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”
It’s for this reason that Colin Kaepernick may be among the most powerful athlete spokespeople. Clearly he’s not going to be the right fit for WalMart, Chevrolet and other brands that try to evoke an American past. But for brands seeking to distinguish themselves in a cluttered market and reach younger audiences that crave authentic voices, Kaepernick can be a powerful influencer.
LeBron James offers a more conventional example. When he first arrived in the NBA directly from high school, James’ transcendent talent was already apparent and sought after by marketers. The younger James (and his handlers) carefully followed the "Jordan Spox Playbook", and endorsement riches began to flow. Initially reluctant to voice political positions, James has begun speaking more emphatically on political issues, evening penning an op-ed supporting Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Through this evolution, his effectiveness as a corporate pitchman remains unimpeachable.
Taking an active and high profile political position can certainly present turbulent waters for athletes to navigate. Approaching positions honestly and publicly, which might have previously been seen as a liability to endorsement goals, is now an asset.