When asked in 1990 to lend an endorsement to a Democratic senate candidate in his home state of North Carolina Michael Jordan uttered the immortal line “Republicans buy shoes too”, and nothing was ever the same again. The person/brand line had been blurred beyond recognition.
In sporting competition the will to win is as essential as a beating heart. Amongst the very finest athletes, a maniacal determination to succeed will lay waste to marriages, friendships, relationships with children and body parts. Colin McRae, in chasing a world rally title, threatened to chop off a heavily broken finger if it effected his driving at the next race. Some athletes would find these sacrifices unreasonable and some march straight through these obstacles like the Peckham Terminator (a vintage YouTube legend). In a very many cases it is these decisions that separate the champions from the participants. Some athletes have gone a step further in their search for success and applied the same level of ruthlessness to brand creation, chiseling away at their own character in the process.
As sponsorship became a dominant part of the sporting landscape often stipulations and pressures from companies eroded the very person the patrons were first drawn towards. Love him or loathe him, Wayne Rooney was a wildly talented feral child who was destined to blow away the cobwebs of English failure with hurricane force. As responsibility and commitments have weighed him down we see less of the old unpredictable fire. Some would rightly argue that this is a good thing but that is definitely not the Wayne the sponsors fell in love with.
When Michael Jordan made that comment over two decades ago it was not a revelation, but it did established the passive public demeanour that savvy athletes would adopt and exhaust in the coming years. One of the great proponents of this brand philosophy was MJ's great friend Tiger Woods who between 1996 and 2009 put together a master class of publicity control. Athletes value control over almost anything else, if they have control then they have the means to determine their own success. Control might as well be tattooed up Tiger Woods spine. As the media drew Mr Wood's ire early in his professional life the brand reaction was to cut off the supply face time and heavily monitor what was written. Consequently, like a presidential candidate, Tiger Woods image became that of devoted family man who was very good at his day job. This 13 year stretch of brand management was so comprehensive that I’m sure even his wife believed it right up until every woman in a 300 mile radius admitted to having bedded him. The relish from the media in exposing his real self was palpable.
Athletes value control over almost anything else, if they have control then they have the means to determine their own success
If Michael Jordan was the Marlon Brando of image control, the first transcendent force who defined his era of wealth, then Tiger Woods was the Daniel Day Lewis. So method in his brand manipulation that he even stayed in character amongst loved ones away from the stage, where ordinarily the mask would be removed. Of course Tiger is an extreme example, unless Usain Bolt is found drowning cats in a Birmingham canal, we will never see his like again. However, similar to the trailblazing MJ, the example Tiger left in that dizzying period of perfection was absorbed by a very many athletes and the effects were noticeable. More perceptive athletes opened themselves up to sponsorship away from the standard sports deals and simultaneously diluted their opinions and actions in front of the media. When some footballers ambled off the pitch after 90 minutes it was possible on a good television to witness not only the beads of sweat dripping off their faces but also a trail of personality being frantically excreted as they approach the sideline reporter.
Thankfully for the fans as the traditional media wilted in the cold light of the technological age, the technological age came to our rescue with the invention of blogs and most importantly Twitter. At first only aspiring mini-brand athletes understood the power of the web. I remember the novelty of an athletes blog appearing on the internet and rooting around to find it. These home-made nuggets allowed a level of insight into their personality and often would spark a level of interest in their future endeavours. A clever move that broke away from the conventional and established for the small-time athlete a reasonable patch of fertile ground in this frontier land. Greg Oden was one of the first athletes I can remember who harnessed the internet at this stage. Not so famous in the UK, he was a college basketball prospect at Ohio State (and eventual NBA draft number 1 pick) who had a blog on a website called Yardbarker.
Athletes are, in general, are pack animals. Don’t worry I’m going somewhere with this analogy I promise. Although every athlete is striving for an edge, something different. With the rate of development in training, technique and equipment whenever anything shows the slightest possibility of working everybody jumps on it. Remember the sport-wide fads that were Robbie Fowlers nose tape? Patrick Viera's vapour rub covered shirts? Athletes may try to convince us that they are individuals but often they are doing so while wrapped up like a Christmas present in Gareth Bale's Kinesio Tape. So when some athletes began to gain traction publicly with their offerings on the internet, and by this time specifically Twitter, everyone vaulted on to the bandwagon.
Athletes have watched the success of Usain Bolt and are now posing and before big races and miming with all the skill of Marcel Marceau
Now, our athletes personalities rehabilitated, we are free to read the thoughts of most of them on Twitter. Maybe athletes were this outgoing all along but didn't have the platform to express themselves and weren't willing to go back to the regular tabloid media? Twitter and the web in general have opened the floodgates. This is a much better scenario than the world envisaged by Tiger Woods and his PR team (or lack there of). Athletes have watched the success of Usain Bolt and are now posing and before big races and miming with all the skill of Marcel Marceau. In athletics! Its true, we don’t always want to know Joey Barton's pseudo-intellectual opinions everything, but there is such an abundance of things to read we can now pick and choose. If there is one thing its hard to do in the internet era its saturate the web with your thoughts but not be telling the truth. If you’re anything other than genuine then you will stand out like Colin McRae's saw digit.
I think we're out the other side of that rough patch. Personality has been restored to its rightful place. There will still be quiet idols like Woods, and some who just never got to grips with idea of a personality in the first place, but many more sports-people are training their social skills as hard as their muscles and that can't be a bad thing.
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