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Why Is Sports’ Tech Revolution Leaving Endorsements Behind?

Watching the NFL Draft and tracking announcements of endorsement deals signed by top pick Trevor Lawrence and others raises an interesting question.

With so much recent attention on paying for performance in sports marketing (from the PGA Tour’s new Player Impact Program to companies such as A-B InBev and Alaska Airlines requiring sponsored properties to meet ROI metrics)—not to mention all the energy devoted to data and analytics, blockchain, NFTs, AI and more across the sports industry—why aren’t brands seeking innovation in how to evaluate individual athletes (or other celebrities and personalities) for potential marketing partnerships?

Any college student applying for an internship or entry-level position will be screened by resume-reading software using sophisticated algorithms, with the ones who get past that step put through a battery of tests, asked to provide sample work product and more.

Meanwhile, plenty of six- and seven-figure endorsement deals are done on the basis of a single fan poll and conversations with a coach or two. Except for the addition of a quick scan of social media, this selection “system” hasn’t really changed in 50 years.

No technology will ever perfectly predict whether an athlete will be successful on the field, able to avoid serious injury, or successfully navigate life without making mistakes (or worse) that could damage reputations all around. Nevertheless, it is surprising that marketers seem to have little to no interest in predictive metrics to take some of the risk out of tying their brands to the fortunes of young adults.

Good assessment tools and metrics are in the market, but most sponsors don’t take advantage of them, and there certainly is no go-to solution that could serve as anything close to an industry standard.

The question of why this vacuum exists has several possible answers, including:

· The growth of influencer marketing and social media has given rise to multiple offerings that assess prominence, reach and engagement of individual’s accounts on social platforms. This also served to bifurcate the market, with newer services specializing in influencers and digital measurement versus evaluations of “traditional” endorsers offered primarily via market research tools.

· Solutions providers do not have either the expertise or technology needed to bridge both digital measurement and market research. In particular, market research-based solutions are not software-first, as most of the digital measurement offerings are.

· The buyer market is not deep enough, i.e., most marketers and their agencies outside of the Nikes, Gatorades and a few others, only occasionally need the information, or their level of activity and spending on endorsers is small relative to their other marketing initiatives.

· On the sales side, agents, managers and other talent representatives have not yet seen value in purchasing next-generation data to be used as a sales tool to market their clients to potential sponsors.

Although spending on athlete and celebrity endorsements may fall short of other brand marketing programs—including team, league and event sponsorships—it is not insignificant, especially given the public and media attention these deals receive. On that basis alone, it warrants a selection system that takes advantage of 21st century tools and technology.

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