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28.09.2022 By Derek Reinglass, SVP, Sports Practice Lead

The Pendulum Swing in Sports.

Fou different sports balls in front of a fan of dollar bills.

Have we reached a turning point in sports? Are we witnessing the pendulum of power starting to swing from ownership to athlete?

Perhaps. Possibly.

Amongst the elite, maybe truer now than ever.

“It’s just business.”

A cliché phrase commonly used in sports on the same level as the “it’s not you, it’s me” excuse.

Frustrated. Defeated. Helpless.

For decades, athletes had no choice but to accept, and move on.

If you’re a sports fan, you’ve heard and seen it all so often that everything blends together.

A reporter’s outstretched microphone pushed in front of an athlete’s face, asking for a comment about a contract dispute or being traded, and the athlete responds behind a sarcastic smirk and glare, “at the end of the day, I have to remind myself it’s just business.”

Former NFL running back Chris Johnson joined the I AM ATHLETE podcast crew earlier this year, and here’s a good snippet from the episode where he recounts his experience fighting for a contract after rushing for a league-best 2,000 yards, then later being cut after trying to play through injury for the betterment of the team.

Like the advice shared by former NFL player and podcast host Brandon Marshall in that same episode, athletes need to stop taking it personally because there’s no emotion in money: it’s a numbers game. The current generation of athletes, especially the franchise-altering superstars, have grown wiser. They’re starting to think like CEOs, and they’re beating owners at their own game: business.

By establishing and resetting market value, proving supply and demand, we’re seeing a shift in leverage. Athletes are stepping into the driver’s seat and taking the wheel.

In the NFL where contracts are notoriously non-guaranteed (read: owner’s leverage) and success typically hinges on the quarterback, Deshaun Watson received a five-year $230 million contract from the Cleveland Browns. Supply and demand, market value established and reset.

The Baltimore Ravens and quarterback Lamar Jackson were locked in contract negotiations all summer. In late August, it was reported that the team offered Jackson more total money than Watson and recently extended fellow quarterback Kyler Murray, but Jackson turned down the offer because it wasn’t wholly guaranteed. Betting on himself, Jackson is choosing to play out his rookie contract until he gets his desired deal, otherwise he will enter the offseason as an unrestricted free agent with the opportunity to leverage the open market, where experts project he’ll find a buyer for the terms he seeks.

In the NBA, superstars are picking their spots and forming alliances amongst each other. They aren’t just forcing trades, they’re forcing trades to specific teams and situations. Sports Illustrated did a nice piece about superstar autonomy and the unprecedented volume of forced movement in the league. In the last five years alone, nine stars have successfully forced trades, including two who did so twice.

Kevin Durant was the main headline-grabber of the 2022 offseason after he requested a trade from the Brooklyn Nets. Despite significant criticism from fans and media, he never wavered. While the situation didn’t play out how he envisioned – he wasn’t traded and is returning to play for the Nets – the response by his former teammate Draymond Green is worth noting because it’s an example of a mindsight shift and more business-oriented approach amongst NBA stars:

“Players are in control of their situation,” said Green. “Players are in control of their destiny. That’s the next step in his career…If a guy leaves Google to go to Apple after three or four years, then they leave Apple after two years to go to Tesla and then they leave Tesla after four years to go to DocuSign. No one is going to say that person ran. Every person is going to say they did the best for their career and livelihoods. But us, as athletes, it’s never viewed that way and it’s baffling to me.”

The most direct example of the pendulum swing is last summer’s college sports policy change, which granted NCAA student-athletes the ability to profit off their name, image, and likeness (NIL). This was a transformative shift – after decades of legal, political, and public pressure – gave athletes the ability to capitalize on the billions of dollars surrounding college athletics and had an immediate impact on recruiting. Regardless of what the official NCAA-NIL guidelines suggest, recruits and transfers are being pitched on NIL earning potential funded by university collectives, and that’s on top of the lavish campus visits. If you’re a student-athlete thinking like a CEO, remember the tagline from the famous NCAA branding campaign, “there are over 380,000 student-athletes, and most of us go pro in something other than sports,” and look at your options through a different lens: the numbers.

According to receipts and expense invoices obtained via open records requests via The Athletic, Texas spent nearly $280,000 to host and hook high school phenom Arch Manning when he took his official campus visit back in June. Manning, the son of Cooper, nephew of Peyton and Eli, and grandson of Archie, was the most coveted recruit in recent history. Texas knew Manning had his pick of the litter, which was reportedly down to a final two-four at the time of his visit, so they rolled out the red carpet and then some. Less than a week later, Manning committed to Texas. Perhaps his mind was made up before he even stepped foot in Austin and just wanted to enjoy the weekend of a lifetime?

The other major change in 2021 benefitting student-athletes was that the NCAA ratified a rule allowing athletes to transfer and be immediately eligible to play. The one-time exception had been previously available to some student-athletes, just not those in football, basketball, baseball, and men’s ice hockey. Interestingly, two of the top-five rated quarterbacks in the 2021 class, Quinn Ewers and Caleb Williams, already transferred. Supply and demand. The power of choice.

With multiple schools competing for an athlete’s service and knowing they must not just sign them but also retain them, it’s clear the student-athlete is in a more powerful position than ever before.

So, it begs the question, is this a turning point in sports? What happens next? And from our seats in the crowd, how does this affect marketers?

At Current Global we do a lot of work with athletes representing our clients and their products. We strategically identify, procure, and manage athlete-brand partnerships to be impactful and engaging. These relationships are built on fit but succeed on skillful integration. A big piece of that is understanding the psyche of the target consumer along with the objectives of our client in order to tap the right partner and put them in the best position to deliver.

We believe athletes are more than athletes. They’re cross-vertical powerhouses that are inspirational and influential. Fans follow them. Media covers them. As their voices grow louder, their platforms expand, and their financial acumen increases, athletes’ ability to drive business forward will continue to win.

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