By Andreas Themistocleous, Contributor
Think about Dennis Rodman. He was never the basketball talent, yet he won multiple championships with the Pistons and the Bulls. He was never a top-3 name mention in any team conversation, yet years after his retirement the media still bother to ask his opinion on basketball issues. Rodman was a performer; he had a niche. He made himself necessary to his team. At the end of his career, he probably tried every possible route to self-destruction and failed even at that. Truth be told, he was so weird that he became interesting. Perhaps not the greatest of examples, but nonetheless an example. Athletes can be financially successful, even if they don’t perform well in sports.
Differentiation is perhaps a key success factor in this process. Rodman did it by pushing differentiation to the extreme and making himself the spectacle. He utilized smart communication techniques to remain visible and become a talking matter. His association with legends in the game made him available to the media world. Should that be a principle of good practice? Not if you ask me, but it’s there as an option.
Athletes that don’t perform well in sports tend to get overlooked when it comes to revenues generated outside of sports. It is perfectly normal to assume that they will not have their own endorsement of shoes or clothes, or their own commercial of fast-moving products or luxury goods. Who wants to be associated with a mediocre athlete that doesn’t get much playing action and cannot be portrayed as a role model by definition, right? Of course, they don’t have big sports contracts either, adding to the problem. Their long-term financial viability, let alone financial success, is in jeopardy. However, the reality is that not every financial success has to be tied with on-the-field performance. Athletes who don’t excel in sports, can still be financially successful. Let me hint at how.
In discussing differentiation, it is always important to remember that it stems from needs. It could be the needs of the fans, the media, the sponsors, the corporate world. It derives from needs and becomes a reality for the go-getters. I have several examples in mind. One has to do with youth sports. A professional athlete is the embodiment of a mentor, or a role model for kids in sports. Not so much in relation to the on-going performance of the pro athlete, rather the journey to becoming a pro athlete; the hard work, the sacrifice, the ethics, the choices, the attitude, the whole package. The second example is social responsibility. Not in the context of donating money, but in offering support, cooperating with organizations and individuals to give back to the community and create new resources for the community. In both instances, professional athletes can properly utilize these situations to become more visible, to connect and network and to create new channels of opportunities. Consider how many pro athletes turn to coaching, or broadcasting for that matter, based on the wealth of knowledge for their sport. Front-office jobs in professional or collegiate sports are also high- profile options.
If you ask me, the true predicament of this endeavor is not the “what”, it’s the “how”. Becoming financially successful in the absence of good sporting performance, is all about taking the qualities of everyday sport life and transferring them into the new reality. The qualities that make an athlete a great asset are the exact same qualities that helped the athlete become a pro in the first place. Hard work, great ethics, goal orientation, accountability, self-motivation, constant self-improvement, goal setting, passion for excellence and passion for the task at hand.
I must admit, I do understand the benefits of achieving top sporting performance and how that can directly relate to financial success. At the same time, athletes around the world (myself included) often argue that doing the impossible, or doing what others told them it can’t be done, is one of the greatest challenges and achievements that gives them pleasure and personal satisfaction above anything else. So, when referring to an athlete, we shouldn’t really be dogmatic about good performance being a prerequisite to financial success.
Some say, where there is will there is way. Others say “if they tell you it can’t be done, you tell them to watch and learn”. Those sayings aren’t just words. They come from everyday examples of athletes who understand that there are no exceptions to rules, just rules that can be rewritten.
Andreas T. Themistocleous (BSc, MA, MBA) is a native of Famagusta, Cyprus. He is a former basketball player, a NCAA Division I student-athlete and now a sports management/business professional. He has served in the sport industry from several positions, most notably in club football management, as a Board member of sport federations and as lecturer in academia. He is currently in the sports services industry. To connect and network with Andreas, find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.