Jordan, James, Woods, Wade, Beckham, Brady, Bryant, Bolt. Marbury, Messi, Manny Pac, Shaq, Rafa, Roger, Rose and Ronaldo. You know the names, and, chances are, if you’re a fan of any of these global sports stars, you probably know the logos.
Whilst Michael Jordan certainly wasn’t the first professional athlete to have a marque built around him, his deal with Nike (which, legend has it, Jordan was originally reticent about signing) has netted over $1 billion in sales, with the ‘Jumpman’ brand still representing, according to SportsOneSource, 54% of the entire US basketball shoe market. Slam dunk, indeed.
It was inevitable that Nike would look to rekindle this magic with other athletes, from basketball and beyond, with LeBron, Tiger, Federer and Ronaldinho brands all deployed to stake a claim on the hearts, minds and wallets of their fans. Competitors naturally followed suit, with adidas banking on Beckham, Messi and Derrick Rose (amongst others) to strike gold.
Getting it right is rare alchemy, however, with the output needing to translate beyond just a cool (or, in many cases, relatively iterative) logo; this is an investment in not just a badge but a corporate sub-brand, borrowing from an individual’s reputation – and very image – with the goal of deepening consumer loyalty whilst increasing both perceived value and, let’s be honest, the retail price of any related goods.
Delivering an appropriate representation of an athlete’s very essence in communicable pictorial form is no mean feat, each element of the design charged with meaning and, realistically, subject to the ultimate approval of the superstars themselves.
After such a significant investment in design, development, production and marketing – this does beg the question of what happens to any such logo should the athlete leave the Nike/adidas stable for pastures new? Given that the associated imagery is intrinsically linked to the appearance (or perception) of the player, is the logo – and, by consequence, the brand – the intellectual property of the corporation or the individual? Would that make remaindered marque stock an unsellable white elephant?
One solution seems to derive from the approach taken by a growing number of sports stars themselves, who have taken the view that they don’t necessarily need a third party to deliver a logo or identity for them – simply the means of helping translate this into a consumer-facing revenue stream.
Player power has never been more obvious in sport. Superstars command exorbitant fees and wages across the major franchises and clubs on both sides of the Atlantic; journeyman mercenaries and hometown heroes alike. A player can make or break a club – just look at the before and after impact of Gareth Bale’s world record £85m transfer to Real Madrid on Tottenham Hotspur: £110m, 7 players and 1 manager down within 6 months of his departure.
After a period of injury, Bale appears to have settled into life in the Spanish capital, weighing in with his fair share of goals, including a ‘perfect’ hat-trick against Real Valladolid in November 2013. However, more interestingly, he’s also demonstrated an ability to make his mark beyond the pitch itself. In March 2013, Bale applied to the UK Intellectual Property Office to trademark his personal goal celebration – or, at least, the image of it in specific environments. Dubbed the ‘Eleven of Hearts’, the image depicts a pair of hands forming a heart shape that frames the number 11 – Bale’s Spurs squad number (which, completely coincidentally, was unused by any madrileño players).
In July 2013 the UK IPO upheld Bale’s application, granting him exclusive use of the device in merchandise, including “clothing, footwear and headgear”. Whilst a clasped pair of hands alone was unlikely to have felt legitimately enforceable by law, the addition of the numeral and their joint association with the world’s most expensive player made this a simpler trademark to approve.
And Gareth Bale isn’t the only major star to take charge of the development of his brand identity: Andy Murray, hot on the heels of his long-awaited Wimbledon victory, briefed agency Aesop to deliver him a visual identity that would help take brand Murray one step beyond. What is interesting is that Murray, through his newly-formed management company, 77, has gone about this process without the help of his long-time sponsor, adidas. That’s not to say that there’s no collaboration or sharing of ideas, but the self-creation imagery based on player-owned IP keeps the moneyball firmly in Andy’s court.
Strictly speaking, sports stars have always been rightsholders of sorts – brands and companies buying into their image since the days of Brylcreem and Dennis Compton – only now they’re bringing more to the boardroom table that can be offered to a potential sponsor, retaining negotiation power and delivering rights beyond the typical use of player imagery, personal appearances and signed merchandise.
With this move, however, Bale and Murray have given themselves an additional hook – something else to carve up before they have to sell any more of their precious time. And, most importantly, they will own this IP wholesale – giving them ultimate control over who uses it and how. In the case of Gareth Bale, given Real Madrid’s predilection towards acquiring the image rights of their players, this additional piece of IP will have either improved the player’s transfer negotiation position, or offered him something to control and monetise, separate to the personal assets he gave up for his day job.
Having noticed the penchant amongst US sports stars for getting tattoos, Matt Siegler from management consultancy CEB took the view that this could be independently monetised. After hunting down the artists behind both LeBron James’ and Kobe Bryant’s signature tattoos, an exclusive – perpetual and worldwide – licence agreement to the designs’ use ‘got inked’ by Siegler and their creators.
Whether he honestly plans to legally enforce the exclusivity of this global licence, or simply to create a publicity stunt that might lead to a buy-out offer from one of the aforementioned superstars, the move has been enough to give the NFL Players Association the needle. The body has subsequently advised agents and players to ensure they receive a release from liability – or, ideally, obtain ownership of the copyright – from any tattoo artist they use, to adequately protect themselves, commercially-speaking, from the actions of enterprising/ unscrupulous (delete as you feel appropriate) individuals such as Siegler.
In the end, much of the value of copyrighting imagery, likenesses – even numbers, colours, shapes, sounds or smells – is in the power the individual has to inspire, which is almost exclusively down to their sporting performances. After all, is anyone going to pay over the odds for the body art of an average player? Without Jeremy Lin’s phenomenal performances for the Knicks, the legal wrangles that surrounded the term ‘Linsanity’ would have frankly seemed, well, ‘Linsane’.
So what does this all mean to sponsors?
With more and more professional athletes acknowledging the power of their image, and the value this has to others – from branding to body-art – sponsors are likely to see a shift in their relationship with ambassadors. Whilst the additional opportunities to leverage athlete-owned IP such as the ‘Eleven of Hearts’ will mean alternative ambassadorial access points for both brands and consumers, it’s likely to come at a price. A greater appreciation of their true position as a rightsholder will lead to more sophisticated ‘brand-building’ by athletes themselves, which may see individuals become a more attractive proposition for sponsors than the very teams they play for.
Usain Bolt doesn’t just pull off the posturing because he’s a confident man – it’s because he’s the best in the world. To capture the imagination of consumers and fans, you need to walk the walk – or run it at record speed, in Bolt’s case. With athlete careers short enough already, and only so many places to go round in management, punditry, media or modelling, the democratisation of design has the potential to extend the earning ability of the brightest and best, but only if they continue to do the business on the field of play.
Jon’s blog comes from Synergy’s Now, New & Next sponsorship outlook for 2014, which can be viewed in full here.
By Jonathan Izzard on April 14th, 2014