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News & Views

The new relationship between athletes and sponsors

In the past, it wasn’t unheard of for a major brand to distance themselves from their spokes-models due to public scandal or “unseemly” behaviour; the fall of Tiger Woods is perhaps the most infamous example.

But a different kind of dynamic is emerging between pro athletes and the brands they choose to work with; the contract of respectful conduct goes both ways, and sportspeople aren’t pulling their punches when it comes to calling out what they deem to be bad form.

NBA star Steve Curry is one such influencer who spoke out against pro-Trump comments made by a sponsor. Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank had stated that as a “pro-business president”, Trump was a “real asset” to the United States. Curry, who has a $24 million sponsorship deal with Under Armour, told reporters that he agreed with the description of Trump, “if you remove the ‘et’ from asset.”

Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, another Under Armour athlete, took to social media to condemn Plank’s public endorsement of Trump. “His words were divisive and lacking in perspective,” he wrote on Facebook. “Inadvertently creating a situation where the personal political opinions of Under Armour’s partners and its employees were overshadowed by the comments of its CEO.” Ballerina Misty Copeland has also gone on record as saying she “strongly disagrees” with Plank.

The company has since rushed to clarify that Plank was speaking within the context of his invitation to join a group of business leaders on the American Manufacturing Council (alongside CEOs from Ford, Dell and Tesla), and categorically not on behalf of Under Armour or its workforce.

“We engage in policy, not politics,” reads the official statement from Under Armour. “We believe in advocating for fair trade, an inclusive immigration policy that welcomes the best and the brightest and those seeking opportunity in the great tradition of our country, and tax reform that drives hiring to help create new jobs globally, across America and in Baltimore.”

Plank is far from the only executive forced to backtrack after being perceived to be pro-Trump. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick stepped down from Trump’s advisory council following a widespread boycott of the ride-sharing service during a taxi strike at JFK International Airport.

Bowing to public or regulatory pressure is one thing, but it is rare for a company’s own brand ambassadors to so visibly clash with a CEO. Perhaps we should expect to see more of these disagreements. Social media has irrevocably changed the connection shared between public figures, their fans, and by extension, the relationship that they have with brands.

“People want to know who athletes are, what they stand for, what their passions are,” says former LPGA champion Anna Rawson. While once it was only the athlete who was expected to live up to the brand’s values, now it is equally important for brands to be aligned with the principles of athletes.

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