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The Sport Digest - ISSN: 1558-6448

Trends in Product Endorsements by Athletes

The history of endorsements by professional athletes gives one insight as to how such opportunities developed and how far the business of endorsements has come since that first baseball bat by endorsed by Honus Wagner over 100 years ago. With the growth of sports media and the sports industry in general, it appears that the market for sports celebrities to endorse products will continue to grow at a significant rate.

While the types of sport-related products that professional athletes have endorsed such as baseball bats and golf clubs have not changed significantly in the last 100 years, the breadth of product endorsements has certainly changed. Currently, endorsements range from personal hygiene products to financial services to computers. In addition, where most early product endorsements were apparently directed to white males, companies are now utilizing a diverse population of professional athletes with which to target all demographic markets. Furthermore, in keeping with current societal mores, athletes no longer endorse products that are deleterious to peoples’ health such as tobacco and alcohol.

While it appears that it has taken some time for female athletes to gain a significant market share in endorsements, there are some female athletes, such as Michelle Wie, who now rank higher than many well-known male athletes. With the advent of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and more women’s professional leagues to follow, increased recognition of female athletes and more endorsement opportunities should also follow. However, while Michelle Wie has positioned herself extremely well in the endorsement market, her success in endorsements is arguably not tied directly to success on the golf course, where she has been somewhat of a disappointment. Wie’s success in the endorsement business is perhaps due to a perception that women in professional sport are still somewhat of a novelty and that sex appeal plays a larger role than what most people may admit.

The trends that have emerged in recent years support the argument that the endorsement business is growing in both the quantity of athletes who endorse products but also the levels of marketing that are involved in this business. This trend is evidenced by the number of companies that represent professional athletes for endorsements, speaking engagements and personal appearances.

There have been numerous situations where the behavior of certain athletes has jeopardized or severely reduced their endorsement potential. History has shown that numerous athletes have exhibited behaviors which have damaged not only the reputation of the athlete but of the companies for which professional athletes endorse products. Recent trends to safeguard endorsement relationships make good sense. Compensating athletes with stock options is an intelligent way to communicate to a professional athlete that he or she owns part of a company and this type of arrangement makes it perfectly clear that improper behavior by an athlete will hurt that athlete’s relationship with a company. The use of deceased athletes has demonstrated that this concept not only capitalizes on the use of icons in sport but totally removes the risk that current athletes pose with the possibilities of displaying negative behavior.