How Athletes Can Build Their Brand

Branding and marketing opportunities have become a huge potential slice of the earnings pie for today's professional athlete. In the 2017-2018 season, for instance, LeBron James earned a salary of $33.5 million while tallying an additional $52 million in endorsement deals.

Justin Giangrande is executive vice president of VaynerSports, a full-service athlete representation agency. He oversees marketing and brand partnerships for the firm's impressive client roster. He also manages all VaynerSports branded events. Giangrande draws from more than 10 years of in-depth experience in handling athlete marketing and endorsement deals.

Charles Frazier, sports and entertainment banking team lead at City National, sat down with Giangrande to discuss the necessary building blocks that help athletes build their brands and get the most out of marketing opportunities.

Charles FrazierWhat makes an athlete marketable or brandable?

Justin Giangrande: People think of the brand as this mythical thing, but I think really when it comes down to an athlete being marketable or brandable, it takes a sincere desire on the athlete's part.

People think that you accidentally just build this brand during the course of 15 years. I tell all my clients when they sign with us, at the end of the day marketing and branding are work — showing up for appointments on time, being reliable when companies work with you — I think it really starts with the actual desire to do that.

FrazierDescribe to me how you help an athlete understand the importance of branding and marketing themselves.

Giangrande: Branding is creating an overall strategy of where you want to end up. One of the things we do when we sign a client is we put them through a branding strategy exercise, figuring out "Where do you want to be after this year? Where do you want to be after five years? Where do you want to be after you finish your career?" That's a brand strategy.

The things that make up branding, and create that strategy and that road map, are called marketing. So the deals that I line you up with, the places I put you, that's all part of marketing, which makes up the overall branding strategy. I kind of think of them as little bricks that build the overall branding house.

Frazier: With so many new athletes coming into their respective leagues, the NFL, the NBA, NHL, what should new professional athletes be thinking about before signing a marketing deal?

Giangrande: In the beginning, money means a lot more to you, and so maybe you take some opportunities that are quicker term. But I think when you're really thinking about a partnership, it should be more along the lines of, "Is this something I'm just doing for money? Or is this something that I actually believe in and want to be part of long term?"

Also the other question to ask is: "Is this a product or a company I would actually use myself?" People can sense when something's just a money grab, and that's really what will tarnish your brand in the early years. We've all seen Rod Tidwell in “Jerry Maguire" riding the camel. Don't be that guy.

Frazier: Along those lines, why is being authentic important when branding and marketing for a professional athlete?

Giangrande: That's everything. At the end of the day, brands want to believe that the athlete really would use their product, and why it seems authentic for them to do so. And so a lot of marketing deals get done by my clients using a product that they're talking about on their social media, and the brand looks at that and thinks, "Wow, this person actually uses it."

I'm quick to tell my clients not to just give away the publicity, but at the same time, highlighting opportunities and things that you use in your daily life can also drive a lot of those opportunities.

FrazierHow do you advise clients on which brands to partner with?

Giangrande: Going back to what I just said —“Is this something that I really would use in my daily life?" — but also understanding where that company is in its life cycle. If you're working with a startup company that's under two years, and they don't have a ton of revenue, they won't have the ability to put a lot of dollars towards marketing or endorsements.

If your goal is to actually be a partner and for them to grow with you during your career, then you're going to have to take a little hedge cut in the beginning. When the company starts doing well and can put more dollars into its marketing, they'll be able to include you in more campaigns and increase your compensation. Just know it may take some time to get there. I think it's all about having realistic expectations.

FrazierWhat does the typical marketing deal look like for a professional athlete today?

Giangrande: Ten years ago a normal marketing deal looked like, "Hey, we're going to use you as a brand ambassador. We're going to put you on some billboards. You're going to have to do an appearance, and if we're lucky enough, and the company's big enough, you're going to do a radio or TV spot."

Now, it's all about content, which means your social reach, how much social media you're giving them. How much posting you're going to do. How much access you're going to give them to so they can shoot. And what are their rights to using you? Do they have the rights to use your likeness in perpetuity? Are they allowed to put it on Facebook and retarget against it? Or is it just on your social channels? Building social channels and profiles out is critical for any professional athlete that wants to take his marketing seriously and compete in the marketplace.

FrazierProfessional athletes can sign a marketing deal with their agent, or outside their agent. What are the benefits to signing a marketing deal with your agent?

Giangrande: Before joining VaynerSports, I had my own sports marketing agency, and we were separate from agents. Our sole focus was driving marketing revenue and building brands for players. I joined VaynerSports because of our ability to have the best of both worlds.

A lot of agencies say they do marketing because they don't want anyone else touching their client or reaching out to their client. But there is a benefit if your agency can do both, because I've seen a lot of situations where there's in-fighting when it comes to control over the athlete. And that creates inefficiency, and things fall through the cracks, and ultimately it hurts the client.

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