Athletes’ endorsements may carry more risk than reward

The off-field escapades of on-field stars can tarnish your brand. Here’s the case for spending your budget elsewhere.

NFL star Antonio Brown is the most recent celebrity endorser athlete accused of “unsportsmanlike conduct,” as is reported in a Sports Illustrated article. The accusations against Brown range from rape to failure to pay bills. 

Included in the article were some of Brown’s national endorsement sponsors. Unhappy they were, I’m sure.

That’s why the “athlete of the moment” is not always the best choice for an endorsement.  

There are obvious reasons to avoid using sports stars as publicity generators:

  1. Prowess on the sports fields cannot prevent past or present misbehavior from being reported on.
  2. Why chance having a company or its product represented by athletes who have misbehaved when there are so many other options?
  3. Some athletes represent so many products that consumers and media outlets don’t take their endorsements seriously.
  4. During interviews, reporters will concentrate on the athlete’s achievements, often not even mentioning the product being hawked. 
  5. Most of the time the story will say something like, “So and So is a spokesperson for the XYZ Company,” and then delve into things sports. Some PR people think that’s a good placement. Unless the story contains some client talking points, I consider it a strikeout.
  6. Unlike the past, when sports stars weren’t making so much money, it was easy to make certain that they would not say anything controversial. Today, it’s impossible to keep athletes from expressing opinions and/or becoming activists in cultural and political causes, occasionally dragging their unhappy sponsoring brands into the story.
  7. Current athletes probably have been written about many times regarding their play on the field, making it highly unlikely that a journalist for general news outlets would do a story just because of a product endorsement deal. These types of stories usually end up in trade pubs.

Celebrity endorsers aren’t only pricey; they’re risky. Before you take the plunge and suggest an international, national or even a local celebrity, ask yourself: 

  • Are you just being lazy by recommending athletes for a sports promotion?
  • Is there a risk that an athlete may do something during your promotion that might upset your client?
  • Is there a better way that I can show my client true creativity?
  • Am I suggesting a sports marketing tie-in because I can’t think of anything else?

The answers are almost always “yes.” Using an athlete, or non-athlete celebrity, as a spokesperson is always a sign of a lack of creativity. Celebrity spokespeople are expensive and risky. 

PR people should consider taking the money you would otherwise hand over to an already well-paid celebrity and invest it in developing original creative publicity ideas that will make your brand stand out from the clutter of athletes endorsing products. 

A former journalist, Arthur Solomon spent more than 20 years at Burson-Marsteller, where he was senior vice president for sports marketing. He can be reached at or




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