Steve Nash is a different kind of professional athlete. For one thing, he’s a six-foot-three Canadian who’s made his fame and fortune in the National Basketball Association, winning back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards in a league dominated by human skyscrapers of U.S. origin. And while the Victoria, B.C. native isn’t afraid to speak his mind–he caused a commotion at the 2003 NBA All-Star game by wearing an anti-Iraq war T-shirt that read, “Shoot baskets, not people”–he’s more likely to credit his teammates for his success than heap praise on himself.
Nor has the Phoenix Suns point guard followed the typical script in terms of endorsement deals. Although he’s one of the world’s best basketball players, his off-court profile has been relatively low compared to other star athletes like LeBron James or Shaquille O’Neal, players who seem to have spent as much time on television commercial sets as in the gym. It’s not that Nash wasn’t in demand. It’s just that he had little interest in playing the celebrity shill.
“I was kind of the anti-marketer in many ways,” says Nash. “I spent many years feeling uncomfortable about marketing and wanting to spend my time doing other things.”
But Nash now realizes that, by using his own celebrity as a marketing vehicle, he can achieve greater success in his off-court pursuits, which include multiple charitable endeavours and a budding film career. At 35, he’s embracing a new world of athlete marketing that barely resembles the one he grew up with. Gone is the Michael Jordan era, where sports stars were for the most part told to simply hold the product and smile for the cameras. Today’s athletes are brands in and of themselves, and with money, free time and social media tools like YouTube at their disposal, they’re exerting more control over how, when and where their image is marketed.
“It’s changed dramatically over the years,” says Brad Pelletier, senior vice-president and managing director for IMG Sports and Entertainment, the company that earlier this year snagged exclusive rights to market Nash in Canada (BDA Sports Management, the company operated by Nash’s agent Bill Duffy, handles Nash’s U.S. and global marketing). “Initially people weren’t that sophisticated and the whole athlete endorsement idea was very straightforward.”
As player salaries have increased, however–Nash recently signed a two-year, $22 million contract extension with the Suns–money has become less of a motivating factor in getting athletes interested in brands. Players are now looking to get something else out of the deal, such as an opportunity to showcase their personalities or develop talents outside of their already glamorous day jobs.
Nash, for example, was once excited–even in the early, anti-marketing phase of his career–to simply appear in a Nike ad with former NBA All-Star Gary Payton. “There is a part of you that says, ‘wow, I’m in a commercial,’ so I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t admit to that,” he says. But now, Nash isn’t just appearing in Nike commercials–he’s making them, writing and producing viral pieces for the shoe and apparel giant through the production company, Meathawk Productions, he formed with his cousin Ezra Holland a year and a half ago.
“I wanted to get into filmmaking–I’m very passionate about film–so I pitched Nike on doing a viral video,” Nash says, explaining the process that led to the creation of “Training Day,” an online video that showed Nash practising on the basketball court as well as demonstrating his considerable soccer, tennis and skateboarding skills. “I wrote a concept and they gave me $30,000, and I hired a young director and director of photography in New York and we made this viral piece.
“It got amazing feedback from people, so that really sparked the bug in me to go to Nike and say, can I do another one?”
Nike said yes, and Nash responded with “The Sixty Million Dollar Man,” a viral video that showed him taking a beating on-court before being “rebuilt” in a fashion reminiscent of the ’70s TV show of the same name. The spot also showcased a shoe concept that Nash had developed with Nike–a sneaker, called “Trash Talk” that’s made entirely from recycled materials.
Nash has since lent his filmmaking talents to Vitamin Water, writing, producing and directing a series of online videos that promote the beverage while introducing viewers to a different side of his personality. Nash has long had a reputation for being a nice guy. But the Vitamin Water spots show that he’s also hilarious and self aware. In them, he plays himself as an arrogant prima donna, parodying his clean-cut image in a deft deadpan performance.
Despite his obvious thespian abilities, Nash is more interested in developing a career behind the camera than in front of it–he’s currently working with Holland on a documentary for ESPN about Canadian hero Terry Fox. But he’s aware that, as an NBA star, his celebrity is a currency that he can trade for the filmmaking experience he’s after.
“Steve, with his love of production and film, gets to use his relevance through sports right now to gain some momentum for his other interests,” says Pelletier of Nash’s desire to make endorsements the jumping-off point for a post-NBA creative career.
As for the present, Nash is enjoying the leverage he has as someone who can both star in and create ads. He won’t do endorsement deals unless there’s a charitable component, which can include support of his own Steve Nash Foundation, an organization the basketball star formed in 2001 to fund children’s health, education and community initiatives in Canada, the U.S., China, Paraguay and Africa.
If marketers are willing to play ball and support charities, Nash is happy to return the favour and lend his image to a product. In contrast to the early days of his career, he understands that forming such partnerships is the most effective way to grow his philanthropic initiatives. “The more people that know about me, the more people will know about my Foundation,” he says. “It’s one of those games I didn’t always agree with, but now I realize it’s important.”
It’s equally important for Nash to avoid becoming a stereotypical pitchman. “We started a production company because we wanted to be creative, so if it’s just something where I’m standing there holding a product, that’s going over old ground that’s been done before,” he says. “Someone else can do that.”
Nash wants to take creative risks, and says social media tools like YouTube and Twitter have given athletes useful avenues to do just that. His own YouTube portfolio includes a spoof of the film Step Brothers with fellow NBA point guard Baron Davis, while other NBA stars like Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers and Chris Bosh of the Toronto Raptors have also left viral footprints.
It’s not just basketball players, either. In a behind-the-scenes clip for Washington-area car dealership Easterns, Alexander Ovechkin of the National Hockey League’s Washington Capitals mangles the company’s jingle in his fractured, Russian-accented English and then sums up the modern media age by lamenting, “This is gonna be on YouTube, for sure.”
While professional athletes are using online video channels as creative outlets, they’re also using communications platforms like Twitter to engage directly with fans. As Pelletier notes, social media gives athletes the tools to bypass league and team authorities in the development of their personal brands. “It’s about them controlling the message rather than letting someone else write about them,” says Pelletier. “It allows them to get to the marketplace first and communicate in their own words.”
According to Nash, professional sports leagues like the NBA are likely more than a little skittish about the potential dangers of such unfiltered communication. “There’s going to be some growing pains, for sure, but it will be interesting,” Nash says of the challenges leagues face in developing appropriate social media policies for players while harnessing such tools for their own benefit. “Some of their most successful players have garnered a large following [in social media], and that only helps [the league’s] business.”
Nash hopes to be a central figure in helping both athletes and leagues handle their evolving social media business. Along with Davis and Bosh, he’s about to introduce Apoko, a company that will specialize in online content management for athletes.
“I think that’s going to be a very important service as fans get more excited about that kind of interaction with players and players get more excited about providing that,” says Nash. “We just think it’s a great opportunity for players to take control of their brand and their audience and at the same time not be unguided and without a strategy.”
Pelletier says Nash, who interned at New York advertising agency Deutsch, is the ideal athlete to take sports and athlete marketing into the new media age. “He’s a true marketer,” says Pelletier. “You sit down with him at the table and he gets it. He speaks the marketing language.”
It’s a language that more and more athletes are becoming familiar with, to a degree that causes even sporting legends such as Wayne Gretzky–himself no stranger to lucrative endorsement deals–to marvel. “I think athletes are much more aware… it’s different than even when I played,” Gretzky told Marketing at his charity golf tournament in July. “And there’s always a certain few in every sport–be it hockey or basketball– who seem to get to another level.”
Multi-talented stars like Nash are certainly taking sports marketing to another level. They can afford to be selective about the products they endorse while taking advantage of new media channels through which they can promote their creativity and personalities. No longer simply pawns for teams, leagues and marketing partners, the players are now in charge of their outof- uniform endeavours.
Which is why you may one day see Steve Nash wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Shoot commercials, not baskets.”
Scoring on YouTube
Viral video has afforded professional athletes with an effective medium to communicate with fans, demonstrate their creative talents and build their personal brands. Here are just a few examples of athletes going viral. To see the videos go to marketingmag.ca and click on Brand Nash.
Steve Nash and Baron Davis: The Step Brothers Parody
Produced for Ibeatyou.com, which allows users to engage in competitions based on video uploads, this two-minute video features NBA point guards Steve Nash and Baron Davis dressed in dorky suspenders and riding a two-person bike through the streets of Los Angeles. Nash in particular puts his comedic skills on display, mockingly throwing his hands up when a police officer stops to question the unlikely duo and delivering a shockingly good rendition of the robot dance.
Kobe Bryant vs. Aston Martin
Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant proved through a YouTube video that he could leap over a speeding Aston Martin. Or, more accurately, he proved that a good idea, Hollywood special effects and social media could combine to generate plenty of didhe- or-didn’t-he conversation.
Chris Bosh the Car Salesman
Toronto Raptors forward Chris Bosh went online to encourage fans to vote him into the 2008 NBA All-Star game, creating a video in which he assumed the persona of a fast-talking, Southern-accented used car salesman. The 10-gallon hat and the references to hick stereotypes (ain’t that right, Bubba) may not have made him an All-Star starter (he was selected to the reserve team), but it provided YouTube viewers with some comic relief.
Roenick Busts a Move
Jeremy Roenick recently retired after 20 seasons of run-and-gun offence and running his mouth in the NHL. This video of Roenick delighting a Los Angeles crowd by dancing across the rink on skates dates back a few years, but online video platforms figure to keep it alive for future generations.
The Chad Ochocinco Show
Web video was made for cocky, energetic athletes like Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson… er, Chad Ochocinco, who changed his last name to match his jersey number (“Ocho Cinco” is 85 in Spanish) two years ago. On his very own uStream channel, the Ocho Cinco show, he gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at life in the NFL, takes calls from rappers and generally uses the camera as a tool of self-love.