LANE ONE: If you’re an athlete and want to get sponsored, be on Instagram, and other lessons from the L.A. Sports Summit

The "Sponsoring an Olympic Athlete" panel and Olympians in attendance at the L.A. Sports Summit

“We think about people you would just want to root for. People who are in interesting sports, people who look like they are engaging, people with big smiles, and all those things that sort of sound a little cliche, but people who you would want to watch, people you would want to spend time with.”

That was Rahsaan Johnson, the Director of Sponsorships & Brand Activation for United Airlines, speaking to the Los Angeles Sports Summit audience on Tuesday afternoon in an energetic panel about “Sponsoring An Olympic Athlete” and how the airline selects potential athlete endorsers.

Moderated by four-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming, John Naber, the panel included Johnson, Sheryl Shade, who has represented dozens of athletes, including Tara Lipinski, Shannon Miller, Mia Hamm, Nastia Liukin and Angela Ruggiero, and Lenny Krayzelburg, himself a four-time Olympic gold medalist and manager of the new Los Angeles Current of the International Swimming League.

Johnson, who hires athletes for United, was candid about the “art” of selecting and working with athletes, vs. any scientific approach.

“I think everyone here knows that United is a global airline. United flies to more cities around the world than any other U.S. airline, so when we think about which athletes are we want to partner with, although our partnership is with USOC, we think about what athletes might be relevant or interesting to people around the world.”

Asked about his advice to an athlete looking for sponsorship, he was candid: “If anyone asks me for advice, I will give you the biggest cliche you all have heard; you’ve heard it 100 times already. Think out of the box, right?”

He commented on Krayzelburg’s story about a Disney Company sponsorship of himself and Michael Phelps after the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, which involved a national tour with clinics and demonstrations at Disney properties that culminated with a program in a temporary swimming pool set up on Main Street in the original Disneyland in Anaheim, California.

“Swimming up Main Street: I’m going to take a wild guess there was media coverage at that event and people will remember it for a long time. At United Airlines, we have sponsored USOC for the better part of 40 years. It was 2014 before it ever occurred to somebody to put athletes in commercials. It was 2014 before we said, you know we have these planes that fly all over the place, why don’t we put an athlete in the plane when they do the commercial!”

Memorable moments attached to a sponsor are highly prized. Shade explained in some detail about the process companies go through to find suitable athletes to sponsor, and – in the 21st Century – it starts with social media:

“You usually get a questionnaire from any of the major sponsors of the Olympic Movement, and it’s all sorts of things: your background, what’s your story, anything unique, what’s your niche; what are all your social media channels and how many followers you have on each. That matters.

“An athlete may go into the Games with 20,000 followers, win gold medal and walk out with 800,000 followers. And that happens in a two-week period of time.

“So, social media is everything. Instagram is no. 1 by far. Facebook– most of the young millenials, they don’t like Facebook, they don’t do it; Twitter, maybe, but it’s all about Instagram.”

But, she cautioned, that a company has interest doesn’t mean there is going to be a deal.

“The money might be appealing, but you still have to look at it and say, ‘it’s not authentic, it’s not real, it’s not genuine, I don’t use the product, I don’t want to do it.’ Usually, the athlete will back away and tell you, ‘I’m just not comfortable,’ for whatever reason. So, normally in that situation, then I go back to United or whomever it is, ‘I have these three other athletes that would love to be a part of your campaign,’ and I give them the bios and all the materials as a background and see if they will use them instead.”

It’s also not a given that a cash sponsorship is needed, especially for United. Johnson noted:

“Typically, athletes who are being booked and having their travel planned by the USOC, they are sitting in Economy. Athletes value [United] Elite status, because it helps them get into Economy Plus and First [Class].”

Being careful not to divulge too much, he did share a recent discussion to illustrate the point:

“I may have been talking to an athlete a week ago, who was saying to me that he was willing to actually not get paid in cash at all. He just wants [United] employee travel privileges because he wants the ability to stand by and just sit in First because of his height. So the bigger thing is, it’s the travel and more specifically the [United] Elite status.”

Shade said the desire for in-kind services is also common with other forms of transportation:

“The other thing that athletes a lot of times want: they need a car. They don’t have transportation, so – I’ve done this many times – where I go into a local market, I find a dealer that’s going to give them a lease. …

“A lot of times, for an exchange, they want to support their charity, so [for example, a] Toyota local dealer might have a charity – juvenile diabetes – the athlete appears in that commercial for him and he’ll give him the car. For me, it’s still a win-win, because that athlete is now taken care of. And that’s OK with me, because in the end, it still works out. I’ll get other [cash] deals for them. I need the athlete to be taken care of.”

Johnson recalled a recent deal that also was sans cash:

“[Olympic Freestyle Skiing silver medalist] Gus Kenworthy was one of our sponsored athletes in 2018. The agreement ended in the fall of 2018, but we found out recently that he is an ambassador for the AIDS LifeCycle, the ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which was 2-3 weeks ago. United Airlines is also a corporate sponsor of the AIDS LifeCycle and has employees who are in teams. We reached out to Gus and asked if he would do a video on [his] Instagram page …

“We were working with Gus to bring attention to United being affiliated with AIDS LifeCycle and helping him to raise money as a requirement for people who would have teams. … It’s an opportunity for a brand and an athlete to come together in a way that provides value for both without involving cash. At the end of the day, there is a group of people who are following United Airlines who are not necessarily following Gus Kenworthy, but who find value in contributing to this cause that both United and Gus Kenworthy contribute to and support.

“So we will often look for ways to look for an athlete on an initiative that brings attention to something important to the athlete, ties it into something that’s important to United and creates value to both without creating economic cost.”

It was a fascinating discussion with all three sides of the sponsorship process represented: athlete, seller and buyer. And don’t feel too bad for Facebook after Shade’s comment that it’s not the favored social channel for athletes she represents … after all, Facebook owns Instagram!

Rich Perelman