Where Have All The Stars Gone? Marketers Wise To Be Patient And Make Adjustments
So you’ve made the decision to spend money on sponsorship around a major professional sport. You’ve done your homework. You know it’s the right platform through which to reach your core audience. You’re so convinced, in fact, that you’ve committed to a multi-year contract to the league or property. Then one day you wake up and all you read about is how the stars of said sport have “all retired”. Fan polls are saying people aren’t engaging because they “don’t know any of the players anymore”.
Sound familiar? Current sponsors within NASCAR may recognize this feeling. After the recent retirements of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and (aghast!) Dale Earnhardt Jr., many fans are expressing this sentiment (and it’s showing in race attendance and television ratings). So….what to do?
First, take a deep breath and relax. This is NOT the demise of NASCAR. The avid NASCAR fan will always be there, enjoying the sport for the same reasons they always have (our Fan Passion study reveals their top reasons to be Player Affinity, Sense of Belonging and Team Devotion). And before long, the next wave of stars will reveal themselves, drawing the more casual fan back to heavier consumption levels. Will it be Kyle Larson – age 25, Ryan Blaney – age 24 or Chase Elliott – age 23? Time will tell and it won’t take long. Patience will pay off.
By the way, all sports experience this phenomenon. Whether it’s a team sport (soccer, football, etc.) or individual sport (tennis, swimming, etc.), excitement in sport is most often guided by the role of players. Take the following examples of sports that faced a recent “changing of the guard”:


1. Baseball
Derek Jeter, David Ortiz and Chipper Jones recently retired. Did baseball face a dilemma? Temporarily yes…but have you heard of Bryce Harper (Nationals; age 25), Jose Altuve (Astros; age 28) or Aaron Judge (Yankees; age 26)? All stars on the rise who are consistently competing for Pennants, World Series’ and Home Run Derbies.


2. Golf
Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson combined to win 12 majors. Tiger won 14 all by himself. With the former stars aging (though Phil still competes very well) and the latter temporarily leaving the TOUR with injuries recently, the sport faced a drought of bona fide stars. Then along came, Rory McIlroy (age 29; 4 majors), Jordan Spieth (age 24; 3 majors), Justin Thomas (age 25; 1 major) and Brooks Koepka (age 28; 2 majors) to mesmerize fans. In fact, going into The Open Championship at Carnoustie last weekend, the last five majors were won by players in their 20’s! And all Americans too.


3. Hockey
How can hockey overcome the retirement of the player who holds 61 NHL records and whose nickname is The Great One? Wayne Gretzky retired in 1999, and within a few years, so too did Mario Lemieux…and Mark Messier. Yes, a major blow to the league’s star power but stars are the only reason why hockey fans follow the sport. They love the speed, the grit and the teamwork in hockey. In fact, attendance from the year after Wayne Gretzky retired to the 2017-18 season has gone up 8.7%. While nobody can replace the Great One, it was his excellence on the ice that drew hockey fans in, not his personality or flash (which was definitely muted), and it is that kind of player that hockey fans are drawn to. Because of that, the NHL may be entering a new age of growth as the league is flush with exciting young talent, and the low-key personalities of McDavid and Matthews are aligned perfectly with the sensibilities of the NHL fan.



Second, adjust your approach to activation, even if temporarily. Here are a few ways to re-think activation, given a temporary downturn in current star power:


1. Move away from player/driver led activation concepts. Instead, examine the core attributes of the sport to find that one “shared value” that aligns with your brand and build a plan from there (e.g., performance, speed, agility, family-friendly, innovative, etc.). We do this all day long for our clients and it really helps them connect with consumers on common ground.


2. Embrace the facts and hire a young rising star who embodies your brand ethos. As they say, don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution. By identifying a young star or stars on the rise who align with your brand, you can help them build their personal brand while not costing you the amount it might take to hire a mainstream star. But remember, you should not expect young, up-and-coming players to carry your activation plans solely toward expected KPIs.


3. If an ambassador/personality is important to represent your brand, while also requiring mass appeal, use a former star to drive the campaign. You may receive a slight deal given their desire to stay relevant and former players are often easier to work with (e.g., no restrictions on time due to playing schedules, etc.). Building a relationship with a Hall of Famer who can act as a proxy for their sport has the potential to pay long-term benefits to your brand. Older, wiser, former players can also pose less “behavioral risk”.



Through sponsorships, brands have the opportunity to raise brand awareness, improve brand perception and drive consumers to action through an affiliation with a passion point. When teams or individuals in that passion are performing well, impressions due to higher attendance, viewership and earned media tend to be higher. Thus, these sponsorships can be deemed more successful.
But keep in mind that sports go through cyclical waves of star power on the field. When a sport faces a downturn in star power, and barring any other larger issues, expect that the avid fan base will stay engaged, the power of the sponsorship will retain its value and new stars will emerge soon to take the sport higher.