Today’s Players Seem to Replace Team Pride with Personal Brands
A brand. It is a specific set of traits, characteristics, level of quality, image and/or experiences that have become collectively synonymous with a specific person, place, “thing” or organization. It is definitely not a new concept as the advertising and marketing world have been using the term for ages. From beverages to clothes to cars to restaurants, companies spend immense amounts of money and time dedicated to building, refining and marketing their “brand.” And in the ultra-competitive sports industry, branding is only further intensified. From the high school to collegiate level, schools are always looking to build a “brand” for their sports programs so they can attract the top talent. Teams are constantly crafting both the product on the field (the team) as well as the fan experience (e.g. the stadium) to build a “brand” for their organizations. Product companies like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour (to name a few) are always trying to get their products endorsed and used by the right athletes at the right times so that everyone watching around the world knows exactly what their “brand” stands for. All of this has been building and evolving over time, gradually seeping down from the organizational and team level to the individual athlete. Nike and Michael Jordan were one of the first tandems to truly establish a world-wide “brand” for a single athlete. But it didn’t stop there. “Branding” (the art of building a brand) continued to expand outwards, working its way beyond just professional sports into collegiate teams and collegiate athletes (“Johnny Football” anybody?) and even into the high school ranks (Bryce Harper?). With the world becoming increasingly connected, visibility of athletes has been able to reach even the most unknown or remote town. Now, if you’re showing high potential as a freshman sports star, you’re already starting think about how you might craft your “brand” to be recognizable, memorable and, ultimately, profitable. And why not? One YouTube video, one Tweet to ESPN SportsCenter’s Top Plays, one mention in Sports Illustrated and you’re instantly out there for any and all scouts to see. Rarely do you see ESPN show the top ranked high-school teams and yet everyone is aware of who are the top rated players. Using my earlier example, can you name where Bryce Harper went to high school? Or community college? It doesn’t even matter because the teams change, but the players (and their brand) continue to live on, continue to grow. It’s to the point where I begin to wonder if we’ve finally tipped the scales so that the player is actually bigger than the team. There might be no “I” in team, but there sure is an “I” in branding and every athlete (and sports-related company) knows that.
So what’s the impact? As with any major shift in an industry (and especially within sports), there’s always trickle-down impacts ranging from the smallest of alterations to the biggest of trends. The so-called “playing field” of scouting has been leveled for both player and team/organization – any player at any level has multiple avenues to get noticed while coaches and scouts have numerous sources at their fingertips to cull through the world’s best talent. Hopefully this means that professional sports (and the financial gains that ensue) can reach players that might never have gotten noticed due to socio-economic standing, school district or media coverage. That’s the feel-good portion of the change.
Unfortunately, this “branding” trend has also made personal stature, personal statistics and personal gain paramount to anything that one might achieve as a teammate, as a leader. Starting at the high school level (and now even younger), kids are encouraged to play for AAU teams, “select” squads or at sponsored events so they can work on their game, improve their skills, but most of all…so they can get their name out there. Team names change each year, sponsored “showcase” events (e.g. McDonald’s All-American game) just randomly assign colors or cardinal directions to their teams and kids change schools just for scouting purposes. Parents, coaches and the young athletes themselves seem to care much less about the name on the front of the jersey than promoting the name on the back.
This is only further carried on through the college ranks. Many athletes might claim that they are looking “bring a championship to XYZ school,” but do they really care about the school winning the championship? About the unique mix of camaraderie, trust and shared pride of raising a banner in the gym where they practiced, worked and bonded and in front of the fans that willed them through every last minute. Do they really think about that? Or are they just thinking about the ESPN front page article with their face on it and confetti raining down. The interviews, draft hype and endorsements that come flying in the door when they bring glory to XYZ school, become the “savior” of the school and cash that in for fortune and fame after a year. Heck, Johnny Manziel has only played one season of football and he’s already trying to trademark his “Johnny Football” nickname.
And, of course, it is already more than taken over the professional level of sports, i.e. where it all started and maybe the only place it should really belong. Rare is the professional sports stars of today that decides to commitment himself or herself to a single franchise for their entire career. To work hard to establish themselves on that team, in that locker room, in that community and for those fans. To sacrifice personal gains in order to further the team’s progress and ascension as champion. To stick with the team in moments of defeat as well as triumphs of glory. Case in point is my boy Dwight Howard – he had a chance to be the ambassador of Orlando and leader of Magic basketball, but instead he chased dollar signs (and “better branding opportunities”) to a dysfunctional Lakers team that has ironically only tarnished his image.
As Coach Krzyzewski so astutely stated in this intriguing ESPN article, “I don’t know so much that they’re [today’s athletes] divas as they are a little bit more concerned with their individual outcome than their collective outcome.” In fact, the only time recently he said he’s seen that team pride amongst star athletes is in the Olympics. When each player remembers how to put their team first and their “brand” second. It’s a fascinating and encouraging sign that today’s athletes still know how to have pride in their team’s success, still remember the unparalleled glory of sharing a team championship rather than reveling in personal achievement. Maybe we need to figure out a way to harness that feeling and that mindset and bring back to other levels of competition so that the team concept can have a comeback. Whether it’s reinvigorating our younger national teams to play in more world-wide tournaments or having our coaches and parents teach their young athletes how to commit to a team and lead them through thick and thin, I believe we need to bring the “team player” back. And I can’t do it along because like the saying always goes: ”there isn’t an ‘I’ in team…”
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