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Why marketing the Spurs is so complicated

Superstars build their empires around the importance of fueling their brand with athletic achievements and marketability. Although all of the required pieces seem to be in place, San Antonio still finds itself on the outside looking in when regarding the summit of the the national sports media landscape.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

While watching professional and college basketball games over the past few weeks, I have repeatedly seen the new AT&T "NBA Legends" commercial featuring Larry Bird and Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, and Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers. These commercials are advertising perfection, and this latest one would even make Don Draper envious. I never questioned the choice of athletes until Richard Oliver, senior sport writer for the San Antonio Express-News, mentioned something to me: "No Ice or Robinson in that commercial. Pity."

Those two sentences started my brain going – I have studied and taught the elements and requirements of what makes an athlete a marketing superstar, but how much of that success relies on the importance of the individual in our society?

The conceptual factor

According to Karl Marx, the idea of commodification explains the process by which capitalism transforms objects from their natural purpose, to objects that are for sale. Now take this concept and apply it to sports: Athletes are naturally designed to be SOLD. Our culture exploits players, teams, leagues and fans through endorsement deals, fantasy teams, marketing campaigns, ticket and merchandise purchases, and television rights. The power of athletes and teams on such spending and decision-making underlines the importance of sports as a commodity.

The industry's view

If the athlete is regarded as a commodity by our society, then that allows for the branding of him/herself as a product. Professionals have created several tools to understand the value of athletes, with one tool being the N-Score from Nielsen Research. This is a comprehensive, in-depth look at overall endorsement potential of sports figures by rating the brand effectiveness of professional athletes and sports personalities through attributes and demographic measures to best align brands with endorsers. Athletes and teams are given a "score" which helps businesses and companies to find the athlete that best fits as a spokesperson for their brand.

The academic approach

Research in sport marketing has found several elements to understand the effectiveness of athlete endorsements:

Physical Attractiveness = good-looking

Trustworthiness = positive off-court lifestyle

Expertise = athletic success

Personal Characteristics = uncontroversial personal life

Cultural-Meaning Transfer = popular in multiple countries

These scales conclude that any athlete to match all five elements above is considered the perfect endorser, or as I call it, The Golden Ticket.

So take all of that information and look at our American sport world – we have turned athletes into the ultimate commodity, expecting incredible athletic success in addition to being marketing giants. Examples of this are those sports figures that leap immediately to mind: Michael Jordan, David Beckham, LeBron James, Peyton Manning and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. All have built empires around pairing success in their profession with fulfilling value to the companies that sponsor them. They understand the importance of giving such value by fueling their brand with athletic achievements and marketability.

Remember the Alamo

When it comes to the San Antonio Spurs, one could argue that only a handful of players have achieved marketing success on a bigger scale, outside of the local realm. Think of David Robinson and George Gervin: those players had nationally recognized sponsorships with Nike, Foot Locker, and Cornflakes. Even Tim Duncan worked with American Express, Nike and Edge Gel, and currently pitches for Sprite, Adidas and Bridgestone. But no one has been on the scale of Jordan or James.

So, why not?

We in San Antonio find ourselves wondering again about our place, and our athletes' place, on the national landscape. No one can argue the success of the franchise, nor the individual success of players associated with the Spurs. The team has an incredible history of winning championships, which brings respect and credibility. Just last month, Forbes ran an article on the San Antonio Spurs, saying:

In fact, the Spurs mean and median winning percentage from the 1997-98 season to the present is 0.707. When the mean equals the median, this implies a high degree of symmetry. How fitting for this winning franchise. Even with 2 shortened seasons due to labor strife (1998-99, 2011-12), the Spurs have averaged 55 wins per season…with a median of 56.5 wins annually. Folks, this is the best run professional sports organization in North America.

So, going back to our checklist, the team and players have the expertise and athletic success. Very few controversies have hung over the team and players, either off the court or on, which means they have the trustworthiness and positive public perceptions. As for physical attractiveness, well that’s a purely subjective element and the importance of that could be argued. Lastly, the Spurs have produced international recognition for the team, by having international players on the roster which allows for marketability in multiple countries.

Visit France or Argentina, and images of Parker and Manu are plastered everywhere. Look around San Antonio, and you will see similar images of the team in several businesses and billboards. Are they too international to the point that the accents of some of the players hinder any large-scale commercials? Possibly. After all, you don't see campaigns of the Spurs in other markets, as you would LeBron or Kobe. So, does the lack of true international and cultural visibility prevent the team from being more prominent in marketing campaigns?

The small market kiss of death

Or does it come down to something that we have all heard before – the fact that we are in backwater San Antonio and it’s only the Spurs? Even the Forbes article mentioned above recognized this, saying that the franchise is in a small media market and does not have a "vocal and visible marquee player. Tim Duncan is an all-time great, but he certainly doesn't create the same buzz and fanfare as LeBron, Kobe." As one Pounding the Rock fan commented (three years ago):

It bugs the hell out of me, because the whole "Duncan is boring" argument is so effing tautological. No, he’s not boring. He’s unknown. Because [the NBA doesn't] feature him. Can he be charming and funny? Of course he can. Is he a fighter and a champion? You best believe it, and if you don’t, look up. See those banners? And the emotion he shows on the court is that much more powerful for being rare. You can promote that, you capitalist a-holes, if the money that promotion brings is really all that matters to you about this game. You can promote anything if you come at it from the right angle. But you’re lazy, NBA suits, and you like to keep the public lazy, and you take the path of least resistance — entertainment over enlightenment.


So it is the culture of the San Antonio Spurs that has prevented players from becoming marketing icons? Or is it the culture of sport that hasn't welcomed our players?

Ultimately, the importance of an athlete in our society plays a significant role in achieving the status of commercial giants. The Spurs brand is effective. The Spurs franchise produces players who embody a lifestyle and characteristics that athletes should represent. But, a "flashy" player like Kobe or LeBron wouldn’t fit into the Spurs culture, so does that mean the team won’t ever produce a marketing giant?

I always want to see the San Antonio Spurs respected and recognized on a national level, but maybe while the importance of an athlete in our society determines their level of "giganticness", Spurs fans are satisfied with what they see on the court and, like the team itself, don’t need or want the media attention. We have superstars and giants, defined in our own way, here in San Antonio. Our players are respected and admired by millions of fans for their athletic performance and upstanding character.

Maybe we don’t need Nike to tell us who is athletically important, or who is valued in our society, because we already know.