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From Kings to Comedy: The Evolution of the Athlete as a Brand

“I don’t know what I should do next,” bemoans a grizzled Brett Favre in a Wix.com commercial. The Super Bowl commercial showcases retired football players coming up with their own business. Yet, between T.O.’s humble pie and Favre’s upscale butcher shop, there is more than a wink and nod to a little bit of what is happening in the world of sports and marketing. Humor. It can be used to make you and remake you.

Whether humor is being used to broaden a superstar’s already expansive brand, if it’s just to create a niche for the lesser known,  we’ve gone from athletes being the heralded as champions–and championing a brand like Wheaties and Coke–to taking on the role of the entertainer, the humorist, and ultimately, the human.

Let’s take LeBron James for example.  The kid from Akron took a lot of heat for leaving the Cavs the way the did in 2010. Fast forward and the man is a two-time NBA champion AND proved that you can go home again for the tender price of $42.2 million over two years. The man with gigantic reach on the court also has gigantic reach off the court. With arms in sports management, philanthropy, having his own Sprite flavor, and even entertainment (from reality shows to sitcoms to movies… about himself). LeBron James isn’t just a basketball player who can rake in endorsements, he is a man who creates the avenues to be the endorsement.

I’ll bet dollars to donuts, I’m never going to be palling around with King James, but in the forthcoming summer romantic comedy, Trainwreck, directed by Judd Apatow, he is sports doctor Bill Hader’s patient and BFF. The Amy Schumer vehicle doesn’t just have James in for a quick five second cameo–he is a full fledged character who wants 11 details about the girl you just slept with, and will inspire you to get date number two through the power of awkward basketball analogies.

LeBron James isn’t just the best basketball player in the world with the ability to nonchalantly throw a basketball 94 feet into the hoop:

LeBron James is the mogul you wish you were meeting for brunch.

Maybe he took a page out of Michael Jordan’s book. Like Lebron, Nike offered Jordan what was at the time an unprecedented endorsement deal right out of college, his was a five-year contract worth $500,000 annually plus royalties. Lebron got $90 million over 10 years. How Michael became “Air” Jordan is the stuff of legend now. Michael Jordan redefined the athlete as brand. Whatever shoes he wore, we wanted to wear them, too. Whatever he ate (McDonald’s, Wheaties, Ball Park Franks), we ate it, too. Lebron is the next evolutionary step of Jordan’s athlete as brand.

Sure, there was an element of comedy in Jordan commercials, but he has never had to resort to clownish antics to appeal to the masses. And, he still bears the fruit of those endorsements. According to Forbes.com, he made $90 million dollars in 2013. It has been well over a decade since he last put on an NBA uniform, but his brand continues to thrive.

Since Jordan, however, there has been a shift in how our sports heroes interact with their fans. More than ever, fans want to relate to their heroes rather than idolize them, particularly since the advent of social media. We’re closer than ever to our heroes, and an athlete’s ability to let his or her fans know they’re just like us can be a very marketable commodity. And the easiest, least personal way to do that, is humor in advertising. More so than great feats of athleticism like the Vine above, being funny is relatable.

But not everyone can be like Mike…. or LeBron, for that matter. Take for example, Blake Griffin. As a second tier NBA star, Griffin uses humor to make a name for himself, not just on the court, but in front of the camera. The former number one pick is now known not just for his dunking prowess, but also his “adorkable” persona in commercials. And it’s worked. His media presence is as ubiquitous as that of Lebron James.

As we watch white-knuckled to see if the Clippers will survive the series against the Spurs, we are also seeing Griffin off the court during commercial breaks in a deadpan rendition of himself as an athlete on set. We see him acting out his dream of being “Maverick,” albeit in a Kia Optima, and we come out of the commercial hoping that he can “bake this cake” against the Spurs too.

There seems to be a certain strata of athletes that bank on humor as their gateway into the mainstream. Think of Damian Lillard, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, and of course Manny Pacquiao, in those Foot Locker promos. Manny’s latest is more closely examined in a post by Ren Hsieh that went up yesterday. Think of Russell Westbrook’s Mountain Dew commercials, and to a lesser extent the Chris Paul – Cliff Paul, Stephen Curry – Sebastian Curry, State Farm Commercials.

But being funny isn’t something you can be taught is it? Even before Blake Griffin was taking an internship at Funny or Die, there were a myriad of other basketball and football players who were toeing the line between endorser and entertainer. From Charles Barkley to Shaquille O’Neal to Peyton Manning, they didn’t all take improv classes before getting those commercials did they?

Whether it’s double-stuffed Oreos or Saturday Night Live, for Peyton Manning (and his brother Eli), it’s their down-to-earth sensibility that makes them two of the most likable and unexpectedly funny athletes today. I mean that’s the only explanation for this right?

Humor connects people. It makes these untouchable superstars look touchable. They become the person you want to have a beer with instead of the person you watch on TV while you’re having a beer. Being willing to be the butt of jokes humanizes a person. That kind of self-deprecation is what’s made fans see Mike Tyson in a whole new light.

Tyson, or “Iron Mike” or “Kid Dynamite” or “The Baddest Man on the Planet,” was once considered an unpredictable powder keg of a man: he was explosive and powerful, but dangerous and feared. Now, he’s lip-syncing the words to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” on Jimmy Fallon’s Lip Sync Battle show.

How else would Tyson undo the stigma of having once said that he wanted to eat his opponent’s children?

Tyson has often said that he was never truly a villain. It was just a role he played to throw off his opponents. He said the following in a feature by Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith back in 1988.

“When I say I’m the best fighter on the planet, I don’t say it because I want to prove something. No one knows I’m a jerk more than me — I screw up all the time. I’m somewhat immature. I just say it because I want to get under people’s skin. I want people to boo me when I walk in the ring. The chip on my shoulder is my security.”

He has completely rebranded himself. “Tyson the Terrible” is long dead. In his place is the Tyson who had roles in The Hangover and The Hangover Part II. He starred in his own documentary and toured the country with a well-received one-man show.

The intersection between comedy and sports was even the topic of an entire SXSW panel.  With panelists representing the front offices of teams like the LA Kings and the Boston Red Sox, to Alex Richanbach from Funny or Die Sports, to Baron Davis, former Knick turned sitcom producer.

“People just want to laugh. Comedy has become a great way for society to comfortably address more sensitive issues,” said Davis at the panel.

Comedy gives us great insight to these athletes who come as close to being real-life superheroes as any human can, and they feed a world that is curious about what makes them human at all. It allows athletes to expand who they are farther than the court or the field that launched them, in a new direction, and perhaps cementing a more holistic brand. It opens the marketing landscape to new dimensions of who and what can be marketable. Whether it is a commercial or a movie, when done well, a good laugh can be as memorable to fans as the game winning play.

Fellow Maggie Thach also contributed to this post.


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LATA PANDYA | @LataPandya

Lata Pandya is an award-winning TV and radio journalist. Currently she works as a producer on the Los Angeles-based public television news magazine show SoCal Connected. She freelances with several news organizations in the LA Area. Lata holds an undergraduate degree from University of California, Santa Barbara and a graduate degree from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. She is known to be notorious about watching sports  while researching public policy stories. Lata is a 2015 Dat Winning fellow.

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MAGGIE THACH | @magsthach

Sports. Writing. I’ve never been a natural at either, but I love them both. I’m happy to be joining these two loves at Dat Winning. I received my MFA in creative nonfiction in 2013 and I play in an over-30 women’s basketball league. We are currently 9-3.

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