MKTG Insights: The Marketability of Richard Sherman
Football is a fast game. Split-second decisions by players can have a powerful domino effect - not only on the field, but off it as well. So when Richard Sherman, Pro-Bowl cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, made the game-winning pass deflection to send the Seahawks to the Super Bowl, and followed it with a series of post-game antics (see video above) that would further polarize his divisive personality, he had - in a split-second - transformed his personal brand. However, that transformation was not necessarily the negative one many pundits were quick to claim it was.
Coming in to Sunday's NFC Championship, Sherman - while already a household name among NFL fanatics - was on the verge of becoming a mainstream household name. A Seahawks Super Bowl win would all but make him a fixture among the NFL's brightest stars and most marketable athletes. A Stanford graduate who operates his own charity and writes regularly for Sports Illustrated online, Sherman boasts many of the qualities that MKTG looks for when advising brands on potential endorsement opportunities:
1. Elite performance: A proven talent as one of the league's best defensive players.
2. Life cycle: Sherman is early on in his development cycle, just 3 years into his NFL career. Also, the average career length of a player at his position over-indexes the average career length of an NFL player.
3. Strength as a brand / channel: Strong digital reach through active social media channels, personal website, clothing line, and SI.com column.
4. Uncluttered sponsor roster: Selective in endorsement opportunities. Current roster includes CenturyLink (Telecom), and Beats by Dre headphones.
Even after Sherman's post-game antics, he holds tremendous potential as an endorser. Sherman's on-field play is dominant, and a Super Bowl victory in two weeks may just be the tipping point in his marketability. As a young, passionate athlete, he is bound to have the odd blow-up. However, the majority of the brand attributes he embodies (intensity, performance, passion, etc.) and his long-term potential put him on an absolute must-watch list for one of future faces of the NFL. At the end of the day, while Sherman may not be for everyone (brands that target Mom and Dad), his antics may actually make him more attractive to certain brands. Sponsors who are edgier in their creative expression may seek to leverage Sherman's passionate style into a partnership. For non-endemic sponsors and the Red Bulls of the world, Sherman is a property that might actually assist brands in differentiating themselves in-market.
Further, in a league where players wear helmets, in order to gain traction for sponsors, NFL athletes must have a recognizable face. After this weekend, his brand awareness has risen significantly; and will perhaps rise even further should his Seahawks prevail in the Big Game. There is room in sponsorship marketing for the Richard Shermans of the world. While he does at times push the boundary, brands would happily accept his transgressions over the off-the-field drama that has plagued so many big names in recent years (ie. Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong, Ryan Braun, Tiger Woods). Off-the-field, Sherman is an articulate, media-savvy athlete who is entrenched in his community; those types of athletes do not grow on trees.
However, for Sherman to take the next step in evolving his marketability as an athlete, and avoid just being a draw for local brands, he must learn to walk the fine line between confident and arrogant. As a prolific trash-talker in a league driven by rivalries, there is one reality for Sherman: his brand opinion, and perceived approachability may be weak in certain key markets, hurting the weight he might carry as a national endorser.
One brand has already benefited from Sherman's post-game viral moment with Erin Andrews and increased profile. This past Sunday, prior to kickoff and Sherman's antics, Beats by Dre headphones released this ad (below) featuring the Seahawks defensive back. For Beats by Dre, it was a perfectly timed creative spot that found a way to tell their brand story in the context of Sherman's polarizing personality. The brand didn't attempt to convert him into a squeaky-clean Peyton Manning type. They leveraged Sherman - all of him - in a way that aligned to their brand, proving that when used strategically, Sherman can carry a lot of weight with sponsors.
Whether or not more brands follow Beats by Dre's lead will ultimately be determined by Sherman's ability to transform himself into a national figure. A Super Bowl victory in New York on February 2nd would be a good place to start.