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It’s Not You It’s Me: Four Reasons Why an Athlete Would Leave a Sponsor

It’s Not You It’s Me: Four Reasons Why an Athlete Would Leave a Sponsor

4 minute read

  • It is common to see a sponsor exit a relationship with an athlete endorser due to transgressions. However, there are many instances of athletes initiating the wind-down of the partnership
  • The transfer of equity between ambassador and sponsor is a two-way street: athletes need to maintain their own brand image before who they partner with can define them
  • Break-ups are not so bad: if the athlete is not fully committed to the sponsor, it may result in a mutually beneficial relationship

The story is very familiar; an athlete acts out of line, the public reacts, and the sponsoring brand is forced to remove the athlete as an endorser to protect their image. This occurs when an athlete makes insensitive comments, runs into legal trouble, or gets caught using performance enhancing drugs.

Discussed less frequently are instances where the athlete themselves initiates the break-up. In today’s age, when athletes are so careful about crafting their personal brand, they need to be just as disciplined as sponsors when it comes to their image. When a sponsor associates with an athlete, they gain an association with that personality. This is a two-way phenomenon though. Athletes need to ensure that their brand image is protected and that a fit exists, or it can result in an athlete-driven exit.   

MKTG will explore four scenarios that can serve as the impetus for an athlete leaving a sponsor.

Why Athletes Leave Sponsors


The athlete is not a user of the product

Fast food brands are highly active in sports sponsorship; however, it is well known that fast food is not the best source of nutrition for professional athletes.This can present a difficult situation for endorsers who elect to work with these brands.

When LeBron James (a McDonald’s endorser at the time) was asked in an interview about his nutritional routine, he responded by saying he is conscious of what he eats and does not eat McDonald’s anymore.

A few months later he exited his contract to take an investor and ambassador role with Blaze Pizza. Blaze Pizza markets itself as a healthy pizza option and is very transparent with its ingredients and their nutritional value. The healthier image aligned better with James’ personal brand than McDonald’s did. James has been involved in other incidents where he slipped off message when speaking about a sponsor’s brand / category. In an interview on the Tonight Show, James spoke about his children getting iPads for Christmas, despite being a Samsung endorser. When an endorser is fully invested in a sponsor’s product, it will result in a more organic relationship. As an athlete’s brand matures, the types of partners they associate with may change to become more authentic. 


The athlete takes on a more influential role on the endorsement roster of a competitor

When brands work with athletes, the onus is generally on the marketer to ideate ways to activate the partnership. However, granting an athlete a voice in the creative process can help a sponsor recruit new ambassadors away from their competitors.

Last year, NBA player James Harden left an endorsement deal with Nike and signed with Adidas. In an interview, Harden said the deal wasn’t based solely on money, but Adidas’ decision to grant him a voice in all instances where he would be used by the brand. At Nike, Harden was one of many NBA superstars on the roster, and was overshadowed by stars like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Keven Durant, who were the faces of the brand’s basketball presence.  But when Harden made the switch to Adidas, he became a more prominent endorser, giving him the opportunity to become the face of the brand., and affording him influence. 


The sponsor commits a transgression that does not align to an athlete’s values

There have been instances where the sponsoring brand acts in a way that the endorser does not agree with. This case happened with former NHL player Paul Bissonnette and hockey lifestyle brand Sauce Hockey. Bissonnette was an early ambassador for the brand, appearing in online content and partnering on a signature product line.

However, when Sauce Hockey posted a tweet that was insensitive to the transgender community, Bissonnette was quick to distance himself from the brand. On the same day of the tweet, Bissonnette released a statement saying how he did not agree with the tweet and he would be ceasing all association with the brand. Bissonnette’s quick response clearly demonstrated where he stood on the issue and while he may have lost one sponsor in the short term, the move may have made him more attractive to sponsors in the long term.


The athlete looks for long-term financial upside via investing in a category start-up

There has been a number of instances where notable athletes have decided to join start-ups or challenger brands after leaving a category leader.

For example, sports drink BodyArmor has a roster of multiple high profile athletes. NFL quarterback Andrew Luck is a BodyArmor endorser that left his deal with Gatorade and to join the company. BodyArmor is able to attract notable athletes by offering them equity in the company. While smaller brands may not have the marketing budgets of larger players, investor/ambassador deals can have long-term upside for the endorser. Also, by aligning their interests with those of company owners, the athlete will be incentivized to commit more to the partnership.

Protecting their personal brand has become paramount for athletes.

Potentials endorsers only have one brand and they must be strategic in who they choose to partner with. While exited agreements may be disappointing for sponsors in the short-term, ultimately, ensuring that your endorser roster is committed to the brand is a greater long-term priority. 

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