The sports sponsorship and advertising space is evolving in multiple directions. In some ways, analytics and marketplaces and automation can make partnerships like mathematical transactions, no different than the NBA Trade Machine on ESPN.com. But then there are true partnerships — with each side banking on the other, entering into a mutually beneficial agreement with upside; the whole greater than the sum of their parts.
That sounds good on paper, but what does it look like in practice? While massive athletes and organizations can play the upper hand, the up-and-coming or niche athletes and organizations face a more level playing field. And it’s in those scenarios where the partner in partnerships is even more integral.
It is at this intersection where Andrew Stallings and Athelo Group are flourishing, with brands investing in athletes and vice-versa, both rising together. Stallings and his team work with some athletes on the rise, others that are at or near the top of their sport, even if their sport is not among those typically shown on SportsCenter every night or debated on First Take. For Stallings’s clients, it’s showing why they’re a great investment — why they’re valuable and how their value is only growing (so invest now!).
“(These athletes) need somebody to be constantly upselling, showing how I can bring more value, how this is growing, [how] that’s growing,” said Stallings, who is Founder and President of Athelo Group. “If my TikTok’s not working, my email newsletter is. If my email newsletter isn’t working, guess what? We’re starting a subscription box service in the next three months. They just want us to be constantly in that person’s ear to help build them.”
Stallings added that the athlete should show that same interest in learning about the goals, values, and opportunities of their brand partners, too. “They should learn, they should be able to understand the brand,” he said, “the company, the morals, the people that they’re working with and representing; because [then] social content, messaging, and really explaining to their own audience why they work with a brand is gonna come second to none. It’s not gonna be just hashtag ad.”
The opportunity is boundless for athletes as the creator economy builds out more avenues for activation, as Stallings alluded to above. The most appealing partners in the sports space, in any space, are offering not just ad space, but a platform; a platform built around them. The savvy athletes are dipping their toes, if not diving all the way, into a number of tributaries that can activate their brand and engage their fans — and present new avenues for partners to come along for the ride. Stallings talked about the partnership marketing piece to athlete sponsorships; while a select few superstars may have deals thrown at them like scripts to a movie star, for most of the sports world, there’s a marketing, buy-and-sell aspect.
“(Brands) want to converse with agencies and teams and athletes and influencers that have a diverse portfolio of assets for them to activate against,” explained Stallings, whose Athelo Group has formed and activated marketing partnerships with athletes and brands since 2018. “They don’t all need to be built out. You don’t need to have a million followers across every single platform you work with. You don’t need to have audiences with massive buying power.
“What you do need to show is that you’re working towards and you’re trying and you’re steadily building and finding the success to be able to provide case studies to these brands of what is working, what can work, and what can be better with their help…They’re looking at how can this individual or how can this agency bring forth more assets to complement existing campaigns, further brand’s activation ideas and stuff that we have — how can they complement and be a supplemental resource to us?”
There’s a different feel when both parties are on the same side of table. There’s a desire, and even instinct, to not plan to execute the minimum requirement combined with the least necessary effort. Instead, the sense of teamwork and genuine connection can entrust and empower each side to optimize how they put the partner’s campaign into action. There is a positive feedback loop at play — the more believable the athlete activation, the more their authenticity and appeal to fans increases, thereby adding to the athlete’s value as a partner. Pretty cool, huh? Stallings calls it the “good stuff” and goes into detail about the realistic, ideal scenario.
“(You) find the authenticity, find the pivot, and be prepared when things don’t perform the way that the brand is expecting them to, be prepared to offer up alternatives, be able to give more and more before you’re just sending over that invoice,” he said. “Because that’s the good stuff, right? Like, you might be educating them by saying ‘Hey, if this is just an Instagram campaign, I get that you want to carousel, but I’ve been seeing great value with Reels. Do you mind if, for you, on the house, I just experiment by mixing your product in on this Reels post and let’s see how it goes?’
“A lot of people won’t do that. But if you’re one of those more lesser-known creators with value and upside, take the risk. What’s it gonna do? It’s gonna be an extra hour of work for you and you know what? You might have gotten yourself three more campaigns because of it. So you have to always be willing to overdeliver a little bit.”
In order to deliver (and overdeliver) and optimize, it’s essential to understand what success means for each side. That goes back to understanding objectives and strategies, to be sure, but the KPIs presented can also expose a bit about the relationship. There are transactional, immediate and visible ‘ROI’ partnerships, and then there are those may include more long-term, penetrating partnerships that expect to last a long time. Both types, and those in between, can be seen all over, but Stallings knows the type he likes to look for for Athelo’s clients.
“For some people [ROI means] big numbers, that’s all they want. Other people they’re like, man, we want signups. We want link clicks. We want sales,” said Stallings, who worked at Octagon, among other stops, before founding Athelo. “I think the worst nightmare you can ever have when working with a brand or an agency or anybody is if they are 100% sales-driven and nothing else, [it’s] probably best for you to walk away because they are not seeing the bigger picture of the authenticity of a relationship and they probably haven’t done the homework on your audience.”
Athletes thrive when working as part of a team. They want to be versatile, multi-tool players. And they will study and adjust and do what it takes to win. That all sounds like a winning formula for their competitive endeavors and well beyond.