“And every demon wants his pound of flesh; but I like to keep some things to myself I like to keep my issues strong; It’s always darkest before the dawn”
- “Shake it out” Florence and the Machine
Turn on the television, open the newspaper, go online. Players are selling.
Sports stars are everywhere, their names attached to products and services for big brands. Sport has become one of the major revenue-generators and its greatest exponents have been thoroughly commercialised.
Is this a positive or negative thing? Both, probably. Corporate backing brings investment into sport. Whether that trickles down to grassroots level and is utilised to develop sport is up to each organisation.
There has been a cultural shift in Ireland. Growing up, organised regular exercise was the preserve of athletes, members of sports teams, and the occasional ‘odd’ fella who was always out ‘running the roads’! Nowadays, the same roads are awash with citizens of all shapes, sizes and fitness levels pounding pavements, filling cycling lanes, and rushing to trx classes.
It is ‘cool’ to exercise and gym gear has moved into the realm of fashion. There are many reasons for this culture shift. The growing awareness of health issues related to obesity, poor diet and general poor health; the campaigns promoting the benefit of exercise; government led initiatives such as “Cycle to Work” schemes; and, the growing exposure of our top athletes and sports teams. It is only natural to want to emulate your heroes.
So, the top exponents of our favourite games have assumed the mantle of society role models. Companies are using athletes more and more to peddle their wares. Although still prominent, there is less emphasis on size 6 models in bikinis on Grafton Street promoting every new product on the market.
All rosy in the garden then? PR and marketing departments want their brands associated with the next sporting superstar, keeping in line with the current societal shift towards being strong, fit and healthy. Sports stars are aware they have a limited window to maximise their financial gains, and are happy to be associated with a brand offering handsome remuneration. The public, in turn, get to see and know more about their heroes.
However, for any athlete considering jumping at potential sponsorship deals, caveat emptor. With added exposure comes the desire for more personal information about the player and their background. It starts with general “titbits”, the sort of ‘chewing gum for the brain’ page filler gracing the back of matchday programmes. But with every revelation the public are more engrossed, becoming fascinated by what the sportsperson eats, when they sleep, and what they wear. Much wants more, and before long it is relationship status, family history, and the meatier the story the better. And no one is squeaky clean.
And this is where sports stars may differ from marketable performers in other walks of life. Popstars, actors, models are aware from day one that if they are going to be successful there will be inevitable intrusion into their personal life. Athletes begin their careers chasing a sporting dream but becoming famous and having their image emblazoned across a product was not on their radar starting out. If it was, it is unlikely they reached their sporting pinnacle.
For many, this sudden increase in fame and exposure can sit quite uncomfortably. Particularly if, in hindsight, they’ve divulged more personal information than they’re comfortable with. Now the dilemma: It is hard to turn down lucrative payouts accompanying many of these deals, especially when considering the short career span of an athlete.
The lines blur too.
What is appropriate when the business of sport encroaches on the games?
The hunger for increased access can potentially harm a team or individual’s chance in the arena, for the sake of a bigger pay day.
I have a real disdain for television crews in dressing rooms. Before, during or after the game. The post-match press conference should suffice for the media and public. I can’t imagine there is any player who supports having television crews and broadcasters in a changing room.
Plus, players should be afforded the luxury (or basic human right!) to change and shower, have medical treatment, without fear of potential ‘wardrobe malfunctions’ being broadcast to the masses.
Likewise, television crews having access to team talks at half time, as is the case currently in the World Sevens series, doesn’t sit right with me. A coach and his team should have complete privacy at this time, rather than worrying about roaming television cameras in the team huddle, fearing to divulge information that can subsequently be used by other teams.
I am loathe to make this about gender inequality in sport. But it is interesting to note the differences in the way the PR game works for males and females.
Appearance plays as much of a role in determining how lucrative a female athlete’s earnings may be, as much the success of the athlete. Take the comparison between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. Williams, the current tennis world number 1, dominates the head to head count, winning 19 of their 21 matches, and is undoubtedly the dominant performer in her field. Yet Sharapova topped Forbes highest paid female athlete list for 2015 for the 11th year straight. Sharapova’s combined winnings ($6.7 million) and endorsements ($23 million) add up to a cool $29.7 million. Williams, in second place, amassed almost double the winnings of Sharapova ($11.6m) along with $13 million in endorsements to combine for a $24.6 million total.
Williams, on the back of four straight grand slam titles, should surely be more marketable than Sharapova? However, to many, Sharapova is seen as more aesthetically pleasing, coupled with her athletic capabilities.
Who is responsible for this? The PR and marketing gurus who select their influencers? Or you and me... the consumers?
It is certainly a positive that our culture is starting to shift towards a more health-conscious one. It is only natural that our sport stars - the epitome of health, fitness and success - are catapulted into the stratosphere of demigods. For the athletes, this can lead to more financial reward and positive reinforcement for their efforts.
However, not all athletes make good role models, or want to be included in this bracket. Many can feel the pressure of this assumed mantle and prefer to preserve their anonymity away from the field where possible. It is up to them then to decide how much flesh they are willing to trade for the payout.
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