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The Colin Kaepernick Case: Is Top Athletic Performance a Prerequisite for a Strong Athletic Brand?

By Ioakim Thrasyvoulou, FCCA, Director, APC Image Rights Advisors Ltd., Nicosia, Cyprus The common perception that athletic performance is directly linked with the brand strength of an athlete and top athletic performance is considered to be a necessary component of athletic brand equity. But how true is this perception? In this post, I will cover the circumstances in which athletes may cultivate a strong brand, even if they have not achieved top athletic performance, and they are not considered part of the ‘athletic cream of the crop’. The sports celebrity image is dependent on a number of intangibles, such as people’s perceptions of them.  Closely linked to the commercial value of the sports celebrity image is the opinion of the community. A celebrity’s good name or reputation is the regard which he/she enjoys within the community.  The opinion of a celebrity held by a society has a definite effect on his/her commercial value.  The strength of a sports star’s brand equity is a key factor in the influence he/she exerts in their community. Traditionally, the main components of sports brand equity strength are:

  • athletic performance which encompasses athletic expertise, competition style and sportsmanship;
  • attractive appearance, which includes physical attractiveness, body fitness and personal style; and
  • marketable lifestyle, which includes the athletes’ character style and credibility, their beliefs and convictions, their life story and their relationship with fans.

For the most part, athletic performance is positively correlated with, and has a major impact on the athlete’s brand value; it is my opinion, however, that there are some exceptional cases where, even if the athlete is not considered amongst the top performers in their sport, their style, actions on and off the field, beliefs and private life may positively affect the value of their brand. One such example, where the strong beliefs and consequential actions of the athlete have affected the public perception favorably and thus resulted in enhancing his brand value and strength, irrespective of his athletic performance, is the case of the NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick’s strong beliefs and protests against racial inequality and police brutality have made him a much talked about public figure, in the United States and beyond. His resulting fame has landed him the NIKE advertising contract which has turned him into an international symbol of activism. In the Kaepernick case, we have an athlete, who does not even have a playing contract for the season, but who is actually cashing in - big time - on the attributes of his personal brand:

  • his rebellious character;
  • his activism; and
  • his strong beliefs for which ‘he is willing to sacrifice everything’.

Nowadays, consumers want to know what their favorite brands stand for. In the Kaepernick case, NIKE has aligned itself with him and what he represents and, admittedly, the attention the brand has received, despite the negative criticism, has brought Nike into the spotlight which, in itself, renders the campaign successful. The attributes of this particular sports persona are the exact ones that NIKE wanted to project to the public and associate itself with. The Kaepernick case clearly depicts that a strong athletic brand can be built on personal attributes, other than top athletic performance. It can safely be inferred from the Kaepernick case that a carefully crafted personal branding plan, based on the individual attributes of the athlete, can lead to a strong athletic brand, with national or even international recognition. As we all know, a strong athletic brand, if utilized creatively, may prove to be more financially lucrative than any compensation earned by an athlete on the playing field!   Further information:  

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The editors of  the Journal Sports Law & Taxation are Professor Ian Blackshaw and Dr Rijkele Betten, with specialist contributions from the world's leading practitioners and academics in the sports law and taxation fields.

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Maisto e Associati, Milano

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