When we think of star athletes, we don’t often consider their emotional intelligence or ability to efficiently communicate ideas. However, top athletes from Cristiano Ronaldo to LeBron James can hold a room’s attention despite being known for their on-the-field skills.
So what’s the secret behind these well-groomed and prepped athletes? Usually, there’s a public relations specialist (if not a whole firm) that’s carefully monitoring a star’s every move. For athletes like the NFL’s Odell Beckham Jr. and the NBA’s James Harden, managing their own public appearances is secondary to their performance on the field and court.
Both are considered standout competitors of their generation, but neither have a championship to prove it. Athletes like these will be the topic of broad speculation, including in-depth analysis from experts covering bets on the major leagues and pundit breakdowns on top broadcasting networks.
But for OBJ to earn a Lombardi Trophy or for Harden to finally win a championship with the Nets, their attention must be focused on their physical and mental conditioning—not press conferences and live interviews. So what, exactly, are sports PR specialists doing behind the scenes? When they’re not setting up step-and-repeats, they’re branding stories and looking to highlight positive attributes.
Curating the Self
What the public often sees from athlete social media accounts or websites is carefully curated. PR specialists work with athletes to highlight character traits that will attract big-money endorsements. They accomplish this largely through engaging with the public through media outlets (social media included).
At its most basic, this is a form of branding. PR specialists benefit greatly when an athlete’s reputation precedes them. After all, muscled competitors who are known for battering down the competition also have moments of calm and quiet.
Borrowing from the example above, OBJ is known for his dance moves in the endzone in addition to scoring touchdowns in the NFL. Thanks to his PR team, his dancing has translated well for major sponsorships like those from Nike, United Sports, and more. In some instances, sportsbooks even offered prop bets on whether or not OBJ would celebrate a TD with a signature move. He usually did, with moves from Michael Jackson’s Thriller or a Hit Dem Folks number. Because his dancing has endeared many, OBJ’s PR team has also been able to make a name for him beyond the NFL.
Athletes are hailed for their technical skills and ability to rally a crowd. However, they can also come under the microscope for multi-million-dollar contracts and how they spend their earnings. One major undertaking for sports PR firms is highlighting philanthropic ventures, if not spearheading projects themselves.
Overall, a PR team is seeking to highlight every positive attribute for their client. For example, James Harden didn’t do himself any favors while competing with the Houston Rockets. Though the team was a hot topic for sportsbooks covering the Western Conference and could attract wagers, they were never able to gel as a team. Not only did Harden fail to lead the Rockets to a championship title, but he also alienated teammates and staff alike with a self-centered attitude and list of demands.
Today, James Harden is hailed as an elite basketball player with an uncompromising attitude and a drive to win an NBA championship. He’s also the most-hated player in the NBA—though it’s yet to stop his career. At least, for now…
Not many athletes will compete for longer than a decade. There are a few notable exceptions, like Michael Jordan of the NBA and A-Rod of the MLB, both of whom played for more than 20 years.
However, physical stress and a revolving door of rookies typically bar most star competitors from continuing on into their 40s.
For PR specialists, one huge consideration is evolving their client’s career on the field into a promising career behind the scenes in a related industry or in an entirely new field. Many former stars become pundits on broadcasting shows, advisors for major sportsbooks, and coaches themselves. Carl Banks, an NFL player from the 80s and 90s, isn’t a household name for most sports fans. In fact, many know him as a commentator for Sirius NFL Radio and WFAN—or from his licensed apparel group that creates leather sports products.
Here’s where cases like Harden’s are difficult for PR firms. Typically, athletes who don a more antagonistic role (regardless of talent) will have a harder time translating this into a post-major league career. However, this is a generalization, as many villainous athletes have gone on to major success. Or, in the case of heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson, honest redemption arcs.