Ronda Rousey, Vernon Davis, Sanya Richards-Ross And The Quest For Authenticity - Lessons From SXSports

Left to right: Rory Brown,   Ronda Rousey,  Odell Beckham Jr, Maverick Carter 

Left to right: Rory Brown, Ronda Rousey, Odell Beckham Jr, Maverick Carter 

Back in the day, the English Professional Footballers Association had a tried, tested and rather quaint method of transitioning its retiring members out of the game and into ‘normal’ life.

Players in the autumn of their careers would be invited to go on training schemes in new professions. Ones where they could leverage their minor celebrity and earn a modest living.

Bar owner and driving instructor were among the most notable.

Of course, this was a generation ago but hardly the baggy shorts, black and white, Pathe news period. 

Still, if social media 1.0 encouraged everyone to become a broadcaster then social media 2.0 has pushed everyone to become a personal brand.

And sport, a primary driver of social conversations, has much more to sell than the rest of us.

Be true to your brand and your brands will be true unto you.

At SXSW, Anthony Rodriguez (CEO Lineage Interactive) declared: “These are not athletes, they are CEOs,” in a superb SXSports panel called ‘Pro Athletes Taking Control of the Their Brand Destiny’.

Superbowl 50 champion Vernon Davis added that he was reading ‘business books as well as playbooks’ these days. The Denver Broncos tight end also insists on spending a day with the CEO of a prospective new partner to check they are congruent with his ‘brand’. 


Davis has wedded himself to a health conscious lifestyle. It has meant he has turned down offers from burger chains despite “offering equity and something up front”. But when he 'buys-in' it is total. He used the money he made from a sponsorship with Jamba Juice to buy his own franchises in the smoothie-making outlet. He now has seven.

That is all very well for multi-millionaires trying to become multi-multi-millionaires.

For track and field athletes, leveraging a social media presence might be more about merely keeping solvent in the sport.

Olympics 400m gold medallist Sanya Richards-Ross does not have that problem. But she knows athletes who do.

In “Keeping the Buzz Going after the Crowd Goes Home” she made a compelling case for authenticity – both for its own sake and for profit. She has built her own social team while retaining a strong sense of her message and voice. Like Davis, she had turned down incongruent brands but, in a sport where some might earn just $10,000 in a quiet year, others might not be able to do the same.

And, as a female athlete on social media, she argued the pressure to maintain appearances was vast in comparison to her male counterparts. Meanwhile elite athletes who do not “look the part” miss out. 

Anna Rawson, formerly a golfer and model, has the opposite problem. Her looks got her an offer from Playboy but she turned it down because “if you do that you can never do Rolex”. The situation has changed now and, in any case, Rawson has since added an MBA from Columbia both for its obvious merits and “to be taken seriously”.

Ronda Rousey, on other hand, was more concerned about an accurate depiction in the media. In “Athletes Unfiltered” she argued that a sportsperson’s portrayal was dictated by others and she wanted “the world to see you as a person, not an event”.

Ronda Rousey talking at Athletes Unfiltered

Ronda Rousey talking at Athletes Unfiltered

Rodrigues added: “We don’t make shit up. We [portray] who you are and what you do. We have a bible – it is the person and the way they think”.

So the message is clear - authenticity, authenticity, authenticity. 

Be true to your brand and your brands will be true unto you.

And this is quite apparent among the eloquent athletes interested enough to speak at SXSW. They appeared in control of their careers, their bodies and their sense of themselves.

That is a hell of trio.

And of course they are tapping into a deep, relatively fresh well here. If they drill wisely and carefully they will draw off riches for years to come.  

At the time, if you did Playboy you could never do Rolex
— Anna Rawson

Those who follow may find it a little more difficult.

As the athletes’ rewards improve, the social media ‘machines’ will get bigger and a level of control/automation will naturally follow. And that isn’t always authentic.  

Just as communications departments emerged to channel the message for sports teams and wrestle the narrative away from journalists, surely social media specialists will try to do likewise for athletes.

Will their brands be just too darn valuable to be left in their own control?

Especially when post-retirement bankruptcy is rife in moneyed sports like NFL or European football.

The trick will be to balance both the tone and the tale while keeping the till ticking over oh-so unobtrusively in the background.

As long as you offer entertainment, engagement or utility then it works.

This is a massive opportunity. If models are making millions on Instagram and gamers doing likewise on YouTube then athletes, whose narrative plays out on more mainstream media, have greater potential.

Play your game, your social media and your brand correctly and those driving lessons will have to come from someone else from now on.


Talks referenced:

Keeping the Buzz Going After the Crowd Goes Home – Sanya Richards Ross, Matthew Futterman (WSJ)

Direct from the Source – Odell Beckham Jr (NY Giants – NFL), Ronda Rousey (UFC fighter), Maverick Carter (CEO Springhill Entertainment/Uninterrupted), Rory Brown (Bleacher Report – President)

Pro Athletes Taking Control of Their Own Brand Destiny – Vernon Davis (Denver Broncos - NFL) , Anna Rawson (Retired golfer), Anthony Rodriguez (CEO Lineage Interactive), Daniel Jeydel (Assoc Dir/Lead Ogilvy Digital Lab)

Thanks to Rebecca Feferman and Andrew McNeill of SXSports

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