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Professional Athletes not in Touch with the Ethics of Endorsements

Writes Ronan Maloney

Sports and commerce may initially appear without a great degree of mutualism. However, it’s without a doubt that the sporting and business fields have integrated to date, and it is particularly visible through athletes applying their skill sets to sales and marketing in the business arena; on a micro scale, this is truly marked by the prevalence of the term “#ad” occupying the conclusion of captions across social media. Considering that the 2019 Super Bowl generated over $380 million just from in-game advertisements, it’s not delusional to think of every player involved as a sort of business-person. From Michael Jordan to Katie Taylor, sports stars are increasingly stretching their supernatural abilities to the business world by acting as brand ambassadors. Although the individual’s relevance to the advertisement can often prove questionable – honourable contenders to this statement include Kevin Durant’s involvement with Sonic, or Christiano Ronaldo to KFC – professionals within the sporting sector are expanding to an array of different industries, with particular emphasis landing on food businesses.

Food and beverage businesses are acknowledged as substantial drivers of this coalition, supported by their innovative strategies that may include adopting famous people in the sporting world as the crest of their brands. Delivering benefits such as increased brand recognition, healthier perceptions of the brand, and generally obtaining commitment from the individual’s more loyal fans, these marketing stunts are gaining major traction; after all, if the product is good enough to be consumed by a professional athlete, surely it’s good for me? Although packed with irony, the ethics behind this concept don’t sit well with me for more reasons than one. This primarily comes down to the fact that sports stars are commonly sought to advertise unhealthy food products. I struggle to find the morality behind an individual dedicating their career to a specific sport, and then acting as a brand ambassador for companies who mass produce stereotypically unhealthy products. With examples including partnerships between Serena Williams and McDonald’s, as well as Michael Phelps and Subway, these prestigious characters are advocates for a healthy lifestyle, and should connect with global audiences to fight against obesity, and reduce the consumption of these fat and salt laden products. The other issue that I personally find daunting is sports stars, who have fan bases consisting of young demographics, encouraging people to eat fast-food. Anyone who has seen how quick a child is to demand their favourite soccer player’s newest jersey or boots will know how susceptible this generation is to this type of advertising, and should therefore be just as worried as I am, especially considering the prevailing issue of childhood obesity.

Whilst I’m quick to blow the whistle on those athletes advocating fast-food, there’s certainly a lot to be said for those drawing attention to healthier diets, be it a less common occurrence. From this aspect, Lewis Hamilton stands as a major contributor by becoming a vegan to maximise his positive impact on both his health and the environment. Hamilton is also actively campaigning for veganism, and is on track to grow his vegan restaurant in London. In line with athletes entering the food industry, the Munster and Ireland back-row CJ Stander has become the brand ambassador for Hellbent, a company who produce high quality Irish beef with a South African seasoning. Other notable alliances have existed between Messi and Herbalife, and Ian Madigan with Avonmore Milk. The list goes on. Whether these athletes’ contributions to the food marketing arena are substantiated by their intentions to commit themselves to their own passion project, encourage healthier dietary habits, or to just simply acquire some extra revenue, is questionable; however, one might be reluctant to assume that it’s not the latter.

Some food for thought is that many athletes are actually making more money from endorsements than they are from their sporting careers. In this capacity, LeBron James has been majorly involved with global giants including Coca-Cola, so much so that 61% of his earnings have been from endorsements. Another surprising figure is accumulated by Tiger Woods, who has generated 97% of his earnings from endorsing brands such as Monster Energy. Although these statistics account for a considerable proportion of these athletes’ earnings, is it worth contributing to the 76% of sports sponsorships that are tied to junk food? Ethics aside, sports stars are evidently thriving within the food industry, proving that sports and business are not such different ball games.