MKTG Insights: Sponsorship Below the Belt - A Look at the Underwear Category
Some of the largest portfolios in sponsorship belong to apparel giants like Nike and Adidas. These brands have traditionally leveraged partnerships with athletes and teams to position their products based on functional/performance benefit - products with a natural association or endemic link to sports participation: shoes, athletic and training wear, etc. However, a below the belt sub-category has emerged within the apparel landscape: underwear. It is a category first put on the map within sponsorship circles for the relationship between Hanes and Michael Jordan; a relationship that launched in 1989 at the height of Jordan's career as an athlete and brand ambassador.
Twenty-five years later, a flurry of recent deals between underwear/undergarment brands and high-profile athletes in the past few months alone has led to a re-emergence for a category that had up until the last six months been relatively under the radar. Some examples of notable recent activity include:
- World Series MVP Madison "Mad Bum" Bumgarner signed an endorsement deal with Jockey immediately following the San Francisco Giants Game 7 win
- Dallas Cowboys Running Back Joseph Randle was signed by upscale underwear brand MeUndies after being arrested for shoplifting the product
- Kevin Durant became a brand ambassador for Neff's underwear line and received equity-stake in the company
Why Underwear Brands Leverage Athletes?
- Partnering with an athlete can be an effective way to leverage a mass platform like sport to reach a wider audience. Mainstream athletes have much greater brand awareness than models do.
- Athletes are symbols of health, fitness, and body image that - when leveraged appropriately - can turn a low-involvement category into an aspirational one/
- Athletes more than ever before are properties with crossover appeal outside the world of sport, relevant across music, culture, and lifestyle programming. Athletes are becoming increasingly flexible in how they can be portrayed by brands (whether it be as a on-field performer, a sex symbol, or a fashion influencer).
A Shifting Industry
Market forces have led to a recalibration of focus for consumer apparel brands, both those who have traditionally been positioned as an athletic wear brand (Nike, Adidas, Under Armour) and those who have traditionally sold casual wear (Jockey, Calvin Klein, etc.).
Athletic wear apparel brands, have experienced the "Sportification" of the Modern Wardrobe. With competitive pressures forcing apparel brands to expand their product breadth, sponsors operate in a climate in which every article of clothing can be positioned as a sport performance product. Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, and others sell more than just shoes and jerseys. The modern consumer has the ability to purchase dry-fit socks, briefs and underwear, sports bras, hats, leggings, and accessories. As the diversity of product offerings has expanded at apparel companies, the opportunities for brand ambassadors to represent a breadth of product sub-categories has similarly emerged. Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton (a prominent Under Armour athlete) has become the face of the brand's underwear line. The NBA's Dwight Howard has played the same role for the Adidas' line of "Sport Performance Boxer Briefs". While some sponsors may choose to activate their athlete rosters at the brand level, other sponsors may opt to leverage brand ambassadors more prominently against certain product lines based on geographic relevance and overall fit.
Athletic brands with large sponsorship portfolios are not the only players to watch in this space. High-end luxury brands like Armani have tapped athletes like Rafael Nadal and Cristiano Ronaldo as endorsers. Staple category leaders like Jockey have leaned on stars like Tim Tebow. And further, smaller boutique brands like Bread & Boxers (Henrik Lundqvist), Pant Saggin Design (Chris Andersen), Jax and Kings (Russel Westbrook) have all leveraged athletes to play prominent roles as brand ambassadors with underwear companies. The crossover appeal of today's superstar athletes has led to a consumer acceptance of brands who use athletes outside of a sports theme or narrative. The notion that "performance products" would reserve athletes as endorsers, and "fashion products" would be left for models and actors / actresses is a relic of the past. This is a phenomenon partly fueled by European influence:
Underwear Lessons from Overseas - How Regional Attitudes Have Impacted The Sponsorship Activation Narrative:
While the underwear category has begun to emerge in North America, it hasn't been a mainstream source of partnerships in the past decade. Europe has been a region of greater prevalence for this type of sponsorship activity. Brands like Dolce and Gabbana have long featured European athletes in underwear ads. The Italian fashion label has partnered with members of the Men's National Soccer Team, Swim Team, and Rugby Team in the past to promote their underwear product offerings. Likewise, many European soccer stars such as Christiano Ronaldo have endorsed undergarment product. The tone and creative sentiment expressed in marketing and advertising is a reflection of a society's culture, tastes, and preferences. Europe's liberal attitudes toward sexuality and gender roles have led to a climate in which "athlete" and "underwear model" are not antithetical. Even Michael Jordan and Hanes brought forward a marketing narrative that was more conservative in nature, emphasizing Jordan in a role that encapsulates a more Western definition of masculinity.
Tides are shifting though. David Beckham (one of Europe's most prominent sporting exports to North American sport culture) has broken from this stereotype in his spokesperson role for fashion retailer H&M. Historically, under Western cultural norms, underwear is a brand category where endorsement and sponsorship is reserved for models and Hollywood stars. Athletes who sexualize themselves have been seen as lacking certain qualities are culture expects from athletes: toughness, grit, and conservatism. Beckham breaks that confining mold. Other cultural revelations such as the ESPN Body Issue have further reinforced societal comfort with the sexualisation of athletes in a way that has perhaps paved the way for more athlete-underwear deals in the future.
Partnerships between marquee female athletes and underwear brands are rarer marketplace finds. In the past, female athletes have faced criticism for portraying themselves in a sexualized manner. Women, unfairly held to a double standard, may shy away from deals of this nature for risk of it having their on-field/court/ice accomplishments diminished.
The Bottom Line For Athletes
Greater interest on the part of athletes to take on deals with clothing companies or accessory brands may erode value for incumbent apparel sponsors. Athletes must be conscious of diluting their brand by becoming cluttered. Further, in a category like underwear that may draw more attention than other categories, athletes must be aware of how they are representing themselves, their organizations, and their leagues; choose a brand and a narrative is consistent with your desired image.