The Athlete’s Influence On Modern Sports Fans

By: Sportico Sponsored Content

The story of the impact of the sports landscape in popular culture is one of evolution: social, cultural, societal and occipital (how we consume content). Demographic shifts have hastened that evolution, as the pathways for consumption are rapidly expanding due to the democratization of content platforms and the status of athletes as cultural icons (see: Kelce, Travis). This new age of direct connectivity introduces new optionality for brands to reach their core consumers.
Athletes have always held an outsized role in popular culture as activists, style icons, podcasters, actors, musicians. Their (social) influence is even more outsized, with athletes like Lebron James, Alex Morgan, Patrick Mahomes and Lionel Messi dwarfing their league, club and team social followings:

The path to fandom, historically, has been linear. Geographic proximity, familial ties, media exposure, participation—these were the most common inspirations of unabashed devotion. Now younger generations, especially Gen Z, have challenged our conventional understanding of what that journey has become and could evolve into.

According to Momentum proprietary research, 62% of Gen Z sports fans identify as fans of the athlete, rather than the athlete’s sport itself (compared to 33% of millennial sports fans). The degree to which this connection has evolved is evident in the way that Gen Z sports fans are consuming more athlete interviews, seeking out ancillary content in a fragmented media landscape, engaging with athlete social posts and even content from athletes’ families!

As the demographics and ways to connect have shifted, so too should brand investment strategies. Specifically, sports sponsors will look to increasingly leverage athlete or influencer endorsements to serve as an additional conduit. Strategic talent deals cannot only provide flexibility and versatility in term, pricing, vertical, channel and content, but can also amplify brands’ vertical investments already in place.

Female athletes, specifically, have been recent forerunners in culturally and socially relevant movements. Leveraging their platforms to drive progress in core social and humanitarian issues has reflected a hallmark of current-day athlete branding. Younger generations increasingly want to associate with brands who stand for something, with 91% of consumers 18–34 seeking out brands that represent their culture and values (Momentum Proprietary Research, 2023).

So, what does this mean for modern sports marketers? Increasing investment in targeted athlete marketing, specifically within historically underserved athlete populations, can allow brands to make a statement—not only through where they decide to invest, but with whom they invest. An optimal portfolio of investments is one that is multifaceted and full of connection points for brands and their chosen demographics. Leveraging the value of traditional league and team IP, with a more targeted athlete-centric approach, can provide for a well-rounded sponsorship program—one that has access to powerful IP and various access points to the lifestyle-focused or culturally focused fan.

Savvy, future-focused brands that have recognized the utility of athlete partnerships are already re-calibrating the asset mix of traditional sponsorships. These sponsors have redirected or complemented investments, leveraging athletes as more prominent megaphones in their partnership communications.

The evolution of sports marketing requires a modernized approach. Balance is a crucial element to the most impactful investment strategies, which requires a mix of the tried-and-true and a healthy risk tolerance to adapt to shifting landscape dynamics. That latter portion requires decision-makers to adhere to a few considerations:

Do Your Homework. Engage in a robust discovery process to verify that any talent considered aligns with your core brand objectives.
Complete a Risk Assessment. While the democratization of content has provided opportunity, it is also a space with less regulation, guidelines and approvals. Make sure that any investments are not putting your brand at risk.
Build in Flexibility & Protection. Incorporate contractual provisions that allow for the termination or opt-out for deals that are not having the desired impact, or for behavior and messaging that does not align with your brand promise.
“Sweat the Assets.” Given the ubiquity of athletes and the merging of sport and culture, leverage athlete partnerships beyond traditional sport, extending to music & entertainment, and fashion and film, among other cultural touchstones.
Test and Learn. Cultivate initial content on a campaign basis to determine the most impactful flow, cadence and messaging.
Amid this newest transformation of our landscape, one thing is clear: sports sponsorship is entering a new era of complexity and diversity. Brands can follow suit to optimize their success by competing to secure strategic and versatile athlete representation, and via adoption of new, innovative approaches to capture both the hearts and wallets of new-age fans.

Learn more about how to elevate your brand amid the changing tides of popular culture by reaching out to

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