When an athlete rises in the ranks as truly extraordinary (think Michael Jordan, David Beckham, or Simone Biles), a variety of opportunities arise for them to partner with sports brands. However, determining how the two collaborate takes careful thought. Sports are big business, and like any vertical market, there are specific design considerations when branding sports, teams, and athletes. We spoke with lead designers at sporting goods brands, athletic teams, and sports marketing agencies to learn what to keep in mind when venturing into sports design.
Applying an athlete’s brand to your product — or your brand to an athlete — takes some thought about brand hierarchy. Susan Sokolowski, head of University of Oregon sports product design says, “The branding should be strong and recognizable to play up the benefit of being associated with a sports star, but people also should be able to understand the relationship between the parent company and athlete sub-brand.”
When an athlete has enough momentum behind them, they might have a logo or mark created to represent their own brand. Tiger Woods, LeBron James, and Roger Federer, for example, all have strong personal brands, which in their case includes a logo that’s a variation of their initials.
When athletes and companies join forces, the parent brand usually develops, and therefore owns, the logo and trademark they use in reference to the athlete. But if the relationship retires before the athlete’s reputation does, the athlete could end up leaving a lot of equity on the table. On the other hand, if an athlete leaves the sponsoring brand prematurely, it could be a blow to the brand’s business — they may still own the athlete’s logo, but can no longer use it.
Brian Quarles, executive creative director of rEvolution Sports, believes that’s part of the reason LeBron James just signed a lifetime deal with Nike. Nike sees LeBron as an athlete who has transcended his sport and is immune from risks, such as an injury or an early retirement. Both parties benefit from a lifetime deal like this. Nike won’t lose LeBron to another sponsor. And LeBron doesn’t have to worry about being dropped and can focus entirely on building his brand with Nike.
Another scenario is Tiger Woods, who used to have a giant deal with Nike, but now Nike is getting out of the golf equipment business. Brian says, “Tiger’s starting over now with his own Tiger Woods golf brand, which may be difficult at this point in his career.”
Making the Brand Visible
Sports products and apparel generally have strong standards about logo placement, so it’s important to keep that in mind when designing one.
When a sport or athlete is displaying several sponsor brands in one place, visibility can quickly become an issue. On one end of the spectrum is Nascar with seemingly unlimited sponsor logos, which is drastically different from teams like the MLB and NFL who try to limit brand overload. Jeff Kortenkamp, business director of creative services at Wilson Sporting Goods puts golf somewhere in the middle and calls it “sophisticated Nascar.” He explains, “Some golfers might have a brand patch on one sleeve, another on a baseball hat, something on their chest, and a branded golf bag with someone else’s logo on the side. Every athlete should work with sponsors to make their brands visible without resorting to ‘logo salad’ on their apparel.”
Jeff also shared the challenges of working with a large association. He says, “The NFL is a huge property and they will dictate certain parameters of your logo. Or, the NCAA might force a flat design of your logo even if you prefer a different version. We deal with a lot of design challenges and the trick is to figure out how to balance our needs with theirs.”
Athletic equipment is an area of branding in sports that can be highly customized — from how the product looks to how it performs. Usually an athlete is involved in the product design process, but the company is doing most if not all the work and getting athlete buy in. However, at Wilson, Jeff says it often depends on the athlete, “Roger Federer just worked with us on a true co-design. He re-developed the frame of his branded racket and we sent prototypes and samples back and forth. We got him involved in cosmetics too — like where his name fits in and the size of the icons.”
Wilson also makes it easy for baseball players to customize their own gloves, which is a very personal and safeguarded piece of equipment. “Most major league players develop a glove for themselves — they choose the base leather, stitching, piping, web, and color. And our custom glove builder is offered to every customer as well. They can watch a game, look at what a player has and make exactly the same glove if they want.”
Getting It Right
Investing in the development of any athletic brand should be done with a long-term perspective. It requires designs that are flexible enough to use for a variety of 2D and 3D applications, that can evolve with the latest trends, while maintaining a consistent identity that builds equity and meaning with your audience over time.
Susan says, “Look at athletes who’ve had successful partnerships. The branded items that come out of those relationships become collector’s items, and are unique historically. Products are something people talk about and reminisce about.”