Sports Agencies Pivot to Influencers as Athletes Lose Stage in Pandemic

Emily Caron
·6 min read

Excel Sports Management represents Derek Jeter, Peyton Manning, Tiger Woods and even the Minnesota Timberwolves, but the traditional sports agency also represents two digital influencers—creatives, as they like to call them, with established brands in fashion, photography or other cultural spheres with no direct sports connections. Don C, with his more than 400,000 followers on Instagram, is a streetwear designer, and Ben Baller (1.4 million and another 400k on his company account), a luxury jeweler whose clients include musicians Drake, Justin Bieber, and Kanye West as well as athletes Dwyane Wade, Floyd Mayweather, Apolo Ohno and more.

Despite the detachment from the rest of Excel’s clientele, the agency said these creatives are now outperforming some of Excel’s athletes on the marketing front after a global sports hiatus that was followed by altered seasons.

Don C was Excel’s first signed influencer, coming over about one year ago with his longtime agent, Matt Davis, now a VP at the agency. Excel’s first project for Don C was sport-centric: The agency secured deals for him with American Express, Levi’s, Mountain Dew, State Farm, Moet and more at NBA All-Star Weekend in his hometown of Chicago. The event tapped into Excel’s relationships within the sports space, but outside of a successful All-Star weekend, the agency said the deals done for its creative clients did not garner the same attention its athlete talent attracted.

That is, unexpectedly, until COVID-19 came along. The pandemic did not disrupt as many opportunities as initially expected for any of Excel’s clients. Deal flow slowed at first but resumed relatively unscathed, just adjusted. Those shifts resulted in a multitude of digital—a space of expertise for many influencers and creatives—and collaborative opportunities.

Over the last three months, Excel has negotiated more than a dozen marketing deals for Don C with mainstream brands including Samsung, Hummer, Footlocker, Champion, Vistaprint and Modelo, with more still in contract stages. Signed to the agency more recently, Ben Baller’s deals with Snickers, General Mills and DraftKings all happened during the pandemic as well. Both creatives collaborated with sports trading card manufacturer Topps, redesigning traditional cards. Ben Baller’s Mike Trout card sold nearly 35,000 units, with sales exceeding $550,000. The card sat atop the best-selling Topps Project 2020 list.

Athletes have long collaborated with sneaker and sportswear companies on product creation, but the extent to which these creatives can contribute differs. Don C helped design facemasks for Vistaprint, special edition caps for the new GMC Hummer EV and a few pieces for Footlocker’s COVID-19 relief initiative. His Champion deal included a 12-piece clothing collection. Ben Baller designed a custom diamond necklace for Snickers’ NFL sponsorship. Some deals are more traditional—Ben Baller did social media promotion for DraftKings, Don C helped Samsung launch the new Galaxy Z Fold2—but most add value beyond brand recognition.

“Value has been key in these deals. If you look at Steph Curry, a brand would obviously tap into him for his success on the court,” Davis told Sportico. “What our creatives are doing [is] similar to traditional endorsements—we’ve got to render services, there are appearances [and] social media requests—but a lot of the time we’re providing some sort of tangible asset. That’s more of a collaboration than what athletes tend to do.”

The unexpected deals done are a testament to Excel’s embrace of continuing cultural crossover. As Davis describes the “tremendous uptick” they’ve seen in deals for their creatives, he attributes it to “the tie between culture and sport.” But it’s also a result of every industry’s heightened digital-first focus. While both Don C and Ben Baller’s businesses lie in the real world, digital content is key to their success in a way that athletes aren’t as reliant upon.

Particularly during the early months of the pandemic, after the NBA paused and everyone else followed, sports were largely on the backburner. People were spending more time on their phones—and on the apps and social platforms native to influencers’ success—than watching stale sports reruns. Mobile app usage grew 40% year-over-year in the second quarter of 2020, according to one study, and influencers, at Excel and elsewhere, have reaped the benefits of the increased attention.

Influencer-centric agency Viral Nation, for example, is “having a record quarter.”

“It’s like every quarter over the pandemic has surprisingly been busier and busier,” co-founder Mat Micheli said. “Sports agencies are joining us [in representing influencers] because they want to increase their revenue, but it’s also a function of there being more influencers than ever and more economic potential. Some of these people are making hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars a year. In the athlete business, there are so many representation agencies. Boutique shops have popped up everywhere for all sports and have taken a huge market share. There’s only so many people that play pro sports at a high level. I honestly think we’re just at the beginning for influencers.”

Between what he sees as a saturated sports market and an increasing number of influencers and creatives seeking representation, especially given the influx of digital activation opportunities during COVID-19, Micheli isn’t surprised “at all” by sports agencies increasingly venturing into this space.

With only two clients, it’s too early to tell how seamlessly Excel could integrate an entire creative division into its business. But as the agency has pivoted during the pandemic, it has, at the least, increased the opportunities for its pair of creatives. And Excel isn’t alone. Wasserman has similarly expanded representation in this realm, recently starting to label clients they previously lumped into a “marketing” category as outright “influencers” for the first time. The addition of Peloton instructor Tunde this fall and 2K digital marketing director Ronnie Singh, better known as Ronnie2K on social media, shortly before that solidified this digital distinction for the L.A.-based sports marketing and talent management company. What’s more, Spencer Wadsworth, a soccer agent, represents Tunde.

Agencies like WME and CAA, both of which have sports arms, are already in the space as well, given their conglomerate roots and reach. WME represents native digital influencers including Addison Rae and David Dobrick, as well as sports-adjacent talent like Peloton’s Robin Arazon. Sports entities like the NFL have also turned to influencers. The league has formed relationships with 1,200 digital marketers in hopes of reaching a younger audience. All see opportunities for continued growth and collaboration for influencers, even during an economic downturn.

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