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Undue Pressure on Athletes: Are Sports Marketers Culpable?

Simone Biles has become the latest, and arguably most prominent, example of the sometimes crushing pressure elite athletes face.

As a society, we are shifting from Billie Jean King’s assertion that “pressure is a privilege” (repeated without irony in Tokyo last week by Novak Djokovic before losing two matches, abusing the same number of rackets and withdrawing from the Olympics mixed doubles final because of physical and mental exhaustion) to recognizing that although pressure to excel cannot be eliminated from any competitive pursuit, it sometimes can cause as much damage as a physical injury.

Those of us on the business side of sports need to recognize the role we potentially play in adding to that pressure. Without demonizing athlete marketing partnerships (and acknowledging the benefits they deliver to both parties), we should admit that the increased appetite for content, endorsements, appearances and more—as well as the constant conversation around who is the the most marketable, who landed the biggest deal, etc.—amps up the demand on sports stars’ limited time.

In a recent span of two weeks, I was contacted by multiple media outlets to comment on the earning potential of Sha’Carri Richardson, Simone Biles, Suni Lee and other members of Team USA, in addition to Shohei Otani and NBA number-one draft pick Cade Cunningham. There will be more than one “They Won Gold, Now Who Will Earn Green?” news stories popping up on your screens from now through the end of the Games. Next month will bring examinations of which NFL players will rake in the most money off the field for the upcoming season.

Of course brands and athletes should and will continue to forge mutually beneficial partnerships. But as we listen to what Simone, Naomi Osaka and others are telling us—and as we witness a few hundred thousand collegiate athletes try to navigate the NIL waters, mostly without the benefit of professional managers and advisors, and while playing their sports and carrying full-time course loads—let’s agree that if we dial down the expectation that every athletic achievement must be accompanied by seven-figure brand partnerships it may result in more positive outcomes for sports stars, brands and fans in the long term.

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