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MKTG Sochi Insights: What Makes Amateur Athletes Different?

MKTG Sochi Insights: What Makes Amateur Athletes Different?

Every fan has "their" Olympic moment. Joannie Rochette winning the Bronze Medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics in tribute to her mother. Christine Sinclair putting the Canadian Women's soccer team on the map at the 2012 London Games. Alex Bilodeau embracing his brother after his gold medal mogul run. Most recently, the Dufour-Lapointe sisters standing atop the podium together in Sochi. There is a spirit and charm to the Olympic Games and to the amateur athletes that compete in them, investing years of training for the opportunity to represent their countries on the world stage not purely for financial reward, but because of their passion for sport. While professional athletes are often more recognizable and relevant than their amateur counterparts to fans, media outlets, and ultimately marketers, their lifestyle can make it difficult for some people to relate to them (ie: celebrity status, high salaries, etc.) Conversely, amateur athletes - many of whom work harder than pro athletes to build relationships and gain recognition with the general public - are hyper-relatable. They our are neighbors, colleagues, and friends.

As Sochi 2014 has reminded us, there are unique characteristics of Olympians, and all athletes who represent their country for that matter, that represent opportunity for brands. As part of our "MKTG Sochi Insights" series, we examine the unique benefits that amateur athletes can offer corporate sponsors, and what makes them different.

1. Authentic Need: The brand narrative used by amateur sports sponsors is one in which their sponsorship is framed as a direct investment in the athlete that goes beyond what shoes they are wearing or what car they are driving. Sochi 2014 alone has seen multiple brands adopt this messaging (Petro Canada's "Fuelling the Dream", RBC's "Imagine Your Someday", etc.) Amateur athletes receive little federal funding and aside from rare podium incentives, minimal compensation. Corporate sponsorship is often viewed as essential in providing Olympic hopefuls the financial stability to be able to train full-time. Their funds and financial support are a necessity to these athletes. In the minds of consumers, there is a brand halo effect that is akin to a CSR-play. Conversely, professional athlete endorsement earnings are supplemental to the already lucrative salaries (on balance) in pro sports. While pro athlete brand ambassadorship is appreciated by consumers, the emotive connection may not run as deep. Professional sport endorsements are typically about performance, which appeals to the highly targeted avid fan. Amateur sport themes can speak to brand attributes that resonate with a wider group of consumers; national pride, community themes, etc.

2. National Fan Avidity: Olympic athletes, by participation, are inherently on "your" team. While professional athletes can be market-specific stars,  Olympians work in every market and are immune to the rivalries of domestic professional sports leagues. Amateur athletes are unifying symbols that bring together a country of viewers and consumers. In AC Nielsen's annual Year in Sports Report, US Olympians consistently dominate the "N-Score" rankings, which is a measure of athlete marketability and endorsement potential, with Olympians like Shaun White, Michael Phelps, Apolo Anton Ohno, and Gabby Douglas possessing the highest scores in history. Olympians who give brands the chance to speak to an entire country and wear their patriotism as a badge of honor are marketing gold.

3. Lower Projected Investment: The investment required by brands to secure a top-tier professional talent is significantly higher than the required investment for top-tier amateur talent. While top professional athletes typically command deals in high six-figures to seven figures, amateur talent is often secured for five-figures, ranging into the low-mid six-figures. Of course, there are always exceptions (ie. Michael Phelps). For brands looking to build out an endorsement roster, while not willing or able to invest in the Crosby's of the world, amateur athlete sponsorship can be a cheaper alternative.

4. Greater Access to Talent: While amateur athletes do not hold the same level of sustained top-of-mind awareness as professional athletes do, there are advantages to the amateur athlete schedule for brands. For example, the 6-month, 82-game NHL season means it can be difficult for sponsors to gain access to their athlete, whether it be for appearances or to film creative spots. In Olympic off-years, a less-intensive media and competing schedule means that brands have greater access to their talent and can activate them more easily. Smart sponsors will finds ways to use their amateur athlete roster creatively. A best-practice example of this has been the use of Christine Sinclair (Canadian Women's Soccer team captain and Summer Olympian ) by Canadian Tire (MKTG client). CTC has used Sinclair at thegrassroots level through philanthropic integration with JumpStart programming during non-peak competition periods such the Women's World Cup and the Summer Olympics.

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