Self-Branding 101: How to Build a Lasting Brand as an Athlete

As an athlete who performs at the highest level, you’ve worked your ass off to get to where you are today. Countless hours of practice and preparation, both on and off the field, propelled you to the top level of your competition. When you make it this far, your life quite literally revolves around your sport and how you can continuously improve.

This is the life of an athlete. 

Impressive, then, is the array of professional athletes who have simultaneously dominated in their sports and built a successful, lasting brand for themselves. At one point, Michael Jordan was just a basketball player (well…the greatest basketball player. We said it). Today—and since 1984—Air Jordan is a person AND a shoe. 

But not all self-branding is the same. 

Other than his “jumping man” logo, PGA Tour golfer Phil Mickelson has taken a different approach to self-branding, using his status as a staple in golf to partner with more business-oriented brands like KPMG and Amgen. Mickelson definitely made his mark on the PGA Tour, but the baton has clearly been passed to the next generation of golf greats in Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, and Justin Thomas. Nevertheless, Mickelson has leveraged his personal brand to rake in upwards of $750 million in endorsements over the course of his career, and he’s not done.

Being sports legends in their own rights definitely helped MJ and Phil build their brands, but there’s a lot more that goes into building successful athlete brands than what happens on the field. Today, we’ll be talking about how to self-brand and how you can ensure longevity when it comes to your brand.

What is Self-Branding?

Branding used to be something restricted to companies, but in the digital age of social media and the Internet, this is no longer the case. Personal branding, or self-branding, is the creation of a uniform public image consisting of your skills, experience, and personality. It’s how you present and promote yourself. Most of the time, the creation of your personal brand will involve telling your story. Providing some more personal context allows you to differentiate yourself from others.

Professionally, your brand is the image that the public sees of you. It can be a combination of your athletic performances, how the media depicts you, and information available about you online. You can choose to ignore your personal brand and let it develop organically (possibly out of your control) or you can work intentionally on self-branding through calculated actions and partnerships (NIL sponsorships for college athletes).

Why is Self-Branding Important for Athletes?

Your personal brand is one of your most valuable assets. It’s how you present yourself to prospective coaches, employers, clients, and partners. Self-branding gives you the opportunity to highlight your biggest strengths and passions and thus present yourself in the light in which you want others to see you. It also helps you connect with brands that align with your interests and aspirations.

To build a lasting personal brand as an athlete, you need to be considered influential. 

You can leverage your role as an athlete to gain initial recognition from fans, and, in some cases, national audiences. But this alone does not make you influential enough to stay relevant to the biggest athlete brands once you move on from your college career.

How to Gain Influence Through NIL Sponsorship

An abundance of opportunities arrived in July 2021 with the ending of name, image, and likeness limitations on NCAA athletes. People quickly began to realistically ask questions like, “Could athletes make thousands of dollars while living in a college dorm?” and, “Can NCAA athletes be brand ambassadors?”

And realistically, the answer is yes.

We’re not saying it’s easy for college athletes to make tens of thousands of dollars. It definitely isn’t. But the foundation you build right now through NIL sponsorships could set you up nicely to make hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars through endorsements down the road.

Follow these rules to build a successful personal brand as you step into the arena of NIL sponsorships.

  1. Know your purpose

Behind every successful self-brand is a meaningful purpose. What gets you out of bed in the morning? What problems are you looking to solve? Why should people care? Ask yourself these questions. People are more drawn to brands (and people) who communicate a clear purpose.

  1. Know your audience

You can’t please everyone. When self-branding, keep in mind who exactly you want to reach. One of the appeals of athlete marketing for brands right now is that it opens up a door to the Gen-Z audience. This target audience has always been more challenging for brands to reach. It’s become clear that influencer marketing resonates with Gen-Z because they’ll take the word of someone they follow because it’s someone they can trust. As you seek NIL sponsorship opportunities, keep in mind how you may be able to leverage this type of audience to score endorsement deals with brands.

  1. Be authentic

Largely fueled by distrust in advertising, influencer marketing has exploded as a way to regain audience trust. This is why authenticity is so important when establishing your brand as an athlete influencer. Keeping it real is how you will win. This includes keeping it real with yourself. Remember that purpose we talked about earlier? Your business endeavors should always align with your personal goals and interests if you want to stay on solid ground. This is how you maintain credibility and can potentially gain influence.

  1. Stay relevant

Relevance will be the backbone of your long-term personal brand. Maintaining relevance takes effort. Being active on social media is one of the best ways to stay active with your audience. Brands are attracted to athletes with a good grip on the current state of the world and what’s trending. If you find yourself with little time to manage an online persona, you could hire a team to handle your social media, depending on your budget of course.

  1. Form meaningful connections

Just like for any career, connections are king. It is essential that you build meaningful relationships with athlete brands to achieve longevity for your self brand as an athlete. Choose brands that align with your purpose, have a strong following, and are seen as relevant in the eyes of other brands. This will serve you well as you look to grow your portfolio of brand connections.

Start Building Your Brand Today

Thousands of brands are waiting to hear from you right now in the Icon Source app. Our platform is connecting brands and athletes and facilitating endorsements in a single marketplace. Visit our NIL Hub to learn more about the opportunities we’re creating for college athletes. When you’re ready to explore NIL sponsorships, sign up and start searching—we’ll be right there with you.

Drew Butler

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