Dave Meltzer discusses sports marketing and heroes/villains in sports

Sports Marketing Superheroes: Can You Market a Villain?

Superheroes in Sports Marketing

When you’re in the business of sports marketing, most believe that there are three distinct types of athletes; heroes, villains, and superheroes.  We tend to put athletes on pedestals or take joy in seeing the athletes that we dislike fail or fall from grace. Have you ever stopped to think about why, exactly, athletes cause such strong emotional reactions in fans?

Get Him to The Greek (Narrative)

The idea of athletes as heroes has been around for a long, long time. The hero athlete narrative was a common theme in the literature of Ancient Greece and has endured all the way through today.

Sports marketers, like myself, are storytellers who utilize the recognizable patterns found in narratives to connect to the targeted audience. Sports marketers use perception and empathy when forming connections, using the emotions of fans to follow common narratives about heroes, superheroes, and villains.

There is also a fourth category that many sports marketers focus in on, which I call JAGs: Just Another Guy.  These are usually the hardest group to market, by far.

Sports Spectator Psychology

Dividing athletes into these types of categories is referred to as Affective Disposition Theory, called ADT for short. ADT states that media and entertainment users make moral judgments about characters in a narrative, which in turn affects their enjoyment of said story. Originally introduced by entertainment psychologist Dolph Zillmann, applying this idea to sports is called “The ADT of Sports Spectatorship”.

Zig and JAG

Interestingly, this was the context in which I created the Sports 1 Marketing philosophy.  I was inspired by my experience with Leigh Steinberg and his sports agency, where I learned that most players are not heroes. Most are definitely not superheroes, and thankfully, very few are villains.

In the case of building a legacy and a brand, we primarily have to deal with the JAGs. Just Another Guy. In order to build a lasting legacy, we need to start with establishing a charitable foundation. We need to find out what cause that JAG is interested in or passionate about. When we figure out how they want to help others, we can attain alignment. A great (recent) example of this is Kansas Chiefs’ running back Charcandrick West, who has dealt with arthritis and recently appeared in a music video with other sufferers to help raise awareness for the cause. Sports marketers put the Affective Distribution Theory into place, either at a local level for the team and community that he lives in or plays in, or at a regional level, and in the best case scenario it can reach the national level.

Superhero Similarities

The reason that it’s so easy to identify athletes as superheroes can be found in the stark analogies that exist between both groups.  They fight bad guys when they’re in competition, wearing unique costumes.  Many “superhero” athletes have rivals as well, often treating opposing fans as a “villain”.  Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird is a classic example of this hero/villain dynamic. Some athletes even have special powers, like Usain Bolt and his superior speed.  Athletes have a city or an institution to defend, where numerous people are counting on them, including coaches, teammates, and fans.

Villains are Fallen Heroes

Superheroes are the easiest group of athletes to market. Guys like Tom Brady and LeBron James are athletes who have reached the highest levels of success and have few off-the-field issues that can cause them to be viewed in a negative light. This group is also the fewest in number.

Villains often are former heroes or superheroes who have fallen from grace for their on and off-field antics. Someone like Tiger Woods is a great (bad) example. Villains are often seen by consumers as individuals who are responsible for their own downfall, that are being held accountable for what they’ve done. Athletes like Lance Armstrong, formerly one of the most respected athletes in the world, are now viewed harshly by fans who perceived that their hero or superhero reputation was the result of lies and deceit. The NFL’s average arrest rate for their “villains” is only two percent, compared to three percent to four percent for the general population, and much lower than the 10% rate for the equivalent population of men ages 20 to 34.

Close the Comic Book

Although we villainize the superheroes that have fallen or have acted in an indiscreet manner, we need to have forgiveness. Like we forgive ourselves for mistakes, so should we forgive others. Understand that as sports marketers we can market all heroes. We can market all superheroes. We can even market villains, but where we should put our most effort is to create heroes out of the JAGs, by giving back, being of service, creating a foundation, building a brand within the community, and constructing a legacy that will last far after their playing days.

By: Dave Meltzer

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