Athletes' 'Flops' Bruise Their Brands
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At 6' 8” and 250 lbs., LeBron James plays basketball with a superhuman combination of speed and power that make him almost immovable -- except when an NBA official is nearby, and a slight push from an opponent sends him flailing inexplicably to the floor, like a careless commuter on an icy Cleveland sidewalk.
Game 3 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals featured what some are calling James’ latest flop. At one point, as tempers flared, the Cavaliers’ star sought to insert himself between teammate Tristan Thompson and the Raptors’ DeMarre Carroll.
Suddenly, an arm flew back toward LeBron’s face, causing the King to drop backward, dramatically, onto the court, at which point an official instantly issued Carroll a technical foul. Ironically, the replay revealed that it was James’ own teammate who had inadvertently hit him. In the postgame press conference, James firmly rejected a reporter’s suggestion that he had overreacted, to gain the foul call.
Whether or not this latest fall was fabricated, a large body of evidence supports the impression that James is inclined to needlessly collapse. A YouTube search of “LeBron James flops” yields several videos that catalog his most dramatic dives.
In fairness, James is not the only NBA’er overacting: Similar videos feature flops by various NBA players. Even reigning two-time MVP Steph Curry got into the act this postseason with a controversial Game 1 flop against the Rockets, for which the league, acting under its 2013 anti-flopping rules, fined him $5,000 for a first-time violation.
Flopping may seem funny, but it’s a serious problem for basketball and other major sports (like soccer, where “diving” can change the outcome of games). Yet, clearly, for an elite player like James, who earns $23,487,337 annually, a penalty of a few thousand dollars is no deterrent. So, what will stop James and other athletes from flopping?
The best bet is the bruising their personal brands take -- and therein lies a lesson for entrepreneurs as well as athletes. The thing is, every time players fake a fall, they become a little less believable. Fans and referees become more reluctant to trust the players’ reactions when they are fouled hard, which lessens the effectiveness of their game. A lack of integrity certainly can affect floppers on the court, but what does that reputation have to do with their brands outside the arena? Everything!
A main objective for an endorsement deal is an athlete whose personal characteristics mirror or enhance those of the corporate brand. And, there, integrity is frequently on the list. Why would people believe in and buy something recommended by an individual they can’t trust?
Interestingly, during the same playoff series in which he was found to be flopping, James also appeared in ads for Kia, aiming to convince consumers that he really did drive a K900.
Of course, it’s natural to be skeptical when an extremely wealthy endorser claims his car of choice is one targeted to the masses. But, how often do we see similar commercials in which the advertiser feels compelled to tackle such disbelief head-on in the ad?
I can’t think of another example. And, maybe Kia chose to address the disconnect because the distance between LeBron’s personal brand and the corporate brand is so great. But, one can't help wondering whether the company's pre-emptive approach had to do with LeBron’s believability, in general. Maybe we would give other rich celebrity endorsers more credence if they too told us that they drove a Kia.
Given James’ physical and athletic prowess, a good vehicle match might be something equally large and powerful, like a truck. In fact, more trucks are sold in the United States than cars, and Ohio’s top selling-vehicle is a Ford F-Series truck. Now, LeBron may not be a truck guy, but such sponsorship also might be futile because the brand promise of a Ford truck is that it holds up under any pressure.
And, unfortunately, “Like a Rock” doesn’t mesh with “Likes to Flop.”
What's more, LeBron's brand perception is also connected to his slip-ups off the court, as an endorser. In one major faux pas cameras caught the then-McDonald’s spokesperson suggesting that one of his secrets to staying fit was to avoid eating at the Golden Arches Realizing his duplicity, he quickly backtracked, smiling and saying that he ate at McDonald’s every day. McDonald’s and the King subsequently parted company.
On the list of the “Top 100 Highest-Paid Athlete Endorsers of 2015,” LeBron James grabbed the fourth position. His $44 million in sponsorship earnings for the year was almost double what he cleared from the Cavaliers. And, while James -- like Michael Jordan and hundreds of other NBA greats -- will one day no longer draw a salary for playing basketball, if he builds his personal brand well, he can continue to pull down earnings from endorsements for decades going forward.
So, the main thing threatening James' and other athletes’ endorsement opportunities is themselves. If they want the big bucks to keep rolling in, they can ill-afford to do anything on or off the court, or field, that causes consumers to question their integrity.
Therefore, the best way to stop "the flop" in basketball and other sports is to help professional athletes see, and appreciate, the long-term impact that their believability has on their brand. Are you listening, King, and all you entrepreneurs out there?