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Athletes In Business

Athletes Turn to LW Branding to Help With Personal Brand

With big-name clients such as Kirk Cousins, Darius Philon, and ESPN’s Olivia Harlan, LW Branding is poised for even more growth in 2019.

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In today’s world, college athletes looking to turn their talents into a professional career need more than raw ability. In order to remain relevant and profitable off the field or court, athletes need to develop a personal brand that makes them memorable with fans and future employers. Unfortunately, this is something that many athletes don’t consider before pursuing a professional career.

This is where LW Branding comes in.

A former Purdue University cheerleader, Lauren Walsh graduated from college in 2010. After graduation, she worked with Purdue football as a mentor for student-athletes. It was during that time that Walsh saw a need for athletes to have someone in their corner who was helping them to maximize all their capabilities off the field.

“While working at Purdue,” Walsh remembers, “I realized that a lot of these guys had spent their entire lives focused on football and missed out on some of the general life things that some of us may take for granted. It was basically at that point in time that helping athletes maximize their potential off the field became a passion of mine and something that I new I would continue to pursue.”

READ MORE: Meet the New Creative Team for the Alliance of American Football 

Walsh continued to work with the Purdue football team until 2012 before returning home to Chicago, gaining additional experience in the corporate world, and then making the leap to start LW Branding in 2015.

Based on her observations at Purdue along with her personal experience of watching friends navigate their way through their own NBA and NFL careers, she determined that there was not enough being done to close the gap and educate athletes on how to build their personal brand outside their sport.

Walsh and her team take a very strategic approach toward working with each client. “We really dig deep into who our clients are,” Walsh states. “One of the areas that most people miss the mark on when building a brand is that they focus on what they think everyone else around them wants them to be.

When the reality is that to build a strong personal brand that can convert to opportunities, you must understand who you are and then bring that to life. We spend a lot of time getting to know our clients as humans, understanding what their why is, their core values, goals, and non-negotiables. We then we leverage that to build a platform with them.”

This personalized approach and attention to detail is why LW Branding has grown their portfolio by 150 percent in the last nine months.

They have been featured in the national spotlight by outlets like the Associated Press, MSN, and the Huffington Post, while also continuing to receive client referrals, some even coming from agencies like Siam Sports and OTG Sports Management.

Walsh and her team help their clients build out a social media presence that allows them to convert their followers to dollars, while also enhancing their overall media footprint, including press opportunities. But perhaps the most important thing that LW Branding does for their clients is get people to not only know who these athletes are, but care who they are.

“There are a lot of players who think that just because you get drafted that you have a brand. It’s a huge misconception,” Walsh says. The reality is that just because you play on a professional team does not mean that you’re guaranteed to make money off the field or off the court. Prior to attempting to engage with any brands or endorsement opportunities, we work closely with our clients to increase their exposure as much as possible.

On top of helping players with creation of original social content, they also encourage players to engage in the content that their teams are producing, while also ensuring that they have a philanthropic footprint, leveraging their platform to give back. In particular, the agency encourages players to create behind the scenes content, which allows them to “humanize” themselves and create a personal connection with fans.

“Fans want to feel like they can relate to a player,” Walsh says. “If a Chicago fan sees that their favorite player on the Bears loves the same restaurant that they like, all of a sudden this fan now feels like they have a connection to this player. It happens all the time. I encourage my clients to lend as much insight into their life, but of course, only as much as much as they’re comfortable sharing.”

READ MORE: Overtime Is a Sports Network for the Next Generation 

LW Branding’s growth can also be contributed to Walsh and the team’s admirable hustle over the last several years.

“Our current state as a company is a culmination of years of hard work,” Walsh states. “The reality is that I spent the first three years or so just grinding…working 16 hour days, being at every event I could, every single draft, combine, and All-Star Weekend just shaking hands and trying to get my name out there. Then for the clients that we did have, we were consistently going above and beyond. Our clients were our best marketing tools. We also did a comprehensive rebrand of our own mission, values, website and social accounts recently. It’s been a long process and three years of ups and downs, tons of failures, and personal sacrifice to get here.”

After achieving the success that she has through all this hard work, Walsh advises any aspiring sports-industry entrepreneurs to be prepared for a similar path that will not always be easy, but certainly worth it.

In the new year, Walsh and her team will be busy spending time managing client engagements and networking at events like the Super Bowl, NFL Combine, NFL Draft, and Spring Training. LW Branding recently broke into the world of professional baseball, partnering with SSG Baseball, an industry leader with clients like Matt Carpenter and Jon Duplantier.

Now with names on their roster that many fans know like Kirk Cousins, Darius Philon, Uchenna Nwosu, Lance Lenoir, and ESPN’s Olivia Dekker, LW Branding is poised for even more success and growth in 2019.

Joe is currently a freelance marketing professional, writer, and podcaster. His work can also be found on the SB Nation network. Joe earned his bachelor's degree in communications from the University of Louisville in 2014 and a master's degree in sport administration from Seattle University in 2017. He can be reached via email at joe@frntofficesport.com.

Athletes In Business

UNINTERRUPTED Teams Up with Rapinoe and Bird

The brand, USWNT star, and WNBA vet have teamed up for a limited edition hoodie to pay homage to LGBTQ activism over the years.

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*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else.

In celebration of Pride, UNINTERRUPTED has teamed up with Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird to design a Love is UNINTERRUPTED hoodie. 

What’s the story?

The hoodie design, also a collaboration with streetwear designer Melody Ehsani, is inspired by Nigel Shelby, the 13 year old boy who tragically committed suicide in April due to homophobic bullying.

Inspiration for the design on the back was drawn from the LGBTQ pride flag, as well as in honor of Nigel (a photo of Nigel in a white hoodie with the rainbow flag became symbolic after his passing). The Lambda Symbol on the sleeve was first used by the Gay Activist Alliance in the 70’s, and later became a sign for gay liberation in general. The figure on the bottom of the sleeve consists of a stone texture, paying homage to the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots this year. 

Will they be sold?

Only 200 hoodies will be made, with all of them being sent to athletes with a pledge card attached in an effort to be worn as a symbol of each athlete’s commitment to protecting and supporting LGBTQ youth, signing the pledge and taking action.

More than athletes…

“UNINTERRUPTED, Megan and I believe that every single person should have the freedom and the opportunity to love and be loved, openly. We made this hoodie to raise awareness and empower peers and allies alike to protect queer youth and speak up against homophobic violence and bullying.” – Sue Bird on the project

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Athletes In Business

NFLPA Inspiring Players To Be More Than An Athlete

“We encourage all of the players to think of themselves as more than just football players,” said NFLPA Senior Player Manager Dior Ginyard.

Ian Thomas

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Photo Credit: Kevin Koski

The NFLPA is rolling out a new initiative asking players to define themselves beyond their playing careers – writing their own endings to the phrase “Athlete and ___.”

The motto is the brainchild of NFLPA Senior Player Manager of Player Affairs Dior Ginyard. Ginyard was reading Twitter comments about off-the-field football player stereotypes, and decided he wanted to help showcase the successes that many players had found in their careers beyond the NFL.

That led the NFLPA to create a new #AthleteAnd Workshop around its externship program. At the event in February, 24 active players met with executives from companies like LinkedIn and Twitter, as well as from the NFLPA and NBA, gaining insight into how to grow professional and leverage the opportunity their playing careers provide them.

The #AthleteAnd campaign is now being pushed even further. The NFLPA is reaching out to players to provide their own #AthleteAnd definition on social media, as well as capturing content around the concept at events. The organization is also giving players who share their message an ‘#AthleteAnd ____’ t-shirt and a Sharpie, so that they can fill in that blank themselves.

“We encourage all of the players to think of themselves as more than just football players,” said Ginyard. “That could be career-focused – maybe they’re an athlete and a photographer; it could be business-focused – an athlete and an entrepreneur or an investor; or perhaps it’s around education – an athlete and a graduate. Our goal is to really help the guys build confidence to figure out what their ‘and’ is.”

The phrase aims to encapsulate not only the pursuit of a career outside of football for players, but also how they can enhance their personal brand and continue their own education and personal growth – all providing them the confidence to define themselves as more than just an athlete.

This new campaign and content series comes at a crucial time for NFL players, who now on average have a career that lasts just three and a half years, and are facing a potential work stoppage following the 2020 season – making the ability to transition into a second career even more important.

“Even just five or ten years ago, it was taboo for players to express what they were interested in off the field,” said Brandon Parker, NFLPA communications manager. “Talking to some players, they want to focus on football and say ‘once I retired I can do these investments and build this business’ – we stress to them that their brand and stock is highest when you have that uniform on, so we want to help them find the time and bandwidth to pursue that while all eyes are still on them.”

READ MORE: Chase Minnifield Looks To Shift Entrepreneurial Stigmas for Athletes

Offering players career development tools and advice is nothing new for the NFLPA. However, Ginyard said rallying around this motto has allowed the organization to further evolve and hone its efforts.

“As part of our externship program, we’ve had a professional development day that was about resume building and elevator pitching – that was somewhat too in the weeds,” Ginyard said. “We wanted to take a step back, and get into how players view themselves and their identity – it can often be intimidating for a player to be with a top level executive if they just see themselves as an athlete, so we wanted to take that head on with a career development event.”

The NFLPA’s externship program saw 66 active players gain work experience this offseason at 27 different companies and organizations, ranging from Fanatics and Fox Sports to NASA and the LAPD.

The workshop featured sessions were hosted by a variety of executives, including Andrew Hawkins, a former NFL wide receiver who is now the director of business development of UNINTERRUPTED, and Carrie Leger White, chief operating office  of AthLife, which helps athletes pursue academic and career goals.

NFL linebacker Brandon Chubb, one of the 24 players who participated in the workshop, said that it helped him prepare for “life after football, even while football is going on.”

“I am an athlete, and I believe in myself as that, but the ability to gain insight and exposure allows me to expand upon that – I can be multiple words and adjectives beyond just an athlete,” he said.

READ MORE: NFL Helps Former Players Succeed In New Business Ventures

Asked how he would fill in his blank that followed athlete, Chubb described two of his off-the-field pursuits. He and his brother Bradley, who plays for the Denver Broncos, launched the Chubb Foundation in 2017, which he said aims to use “sports as a platform to activate human potential.” Brandon Chubb said he’s also working to open his own private equity firm by the end of 2019, and is in talks with an Austin-based business regarding an investment.

Parker said the message to players like Chubb is that by even becoming an NFL player “makes you one in a million – it takes incredible sacrifice and dedication to get to this point, so now how can you use those skills to translate to another industry?”

The NFLPA is aiming to make sure it’s highlighting the stories of players like Chubb who are pursuing their wide variety of passions off the field. For example, Pittsburgh Steelers Quarterback Josh Dobbs flew an F-16 fighter jet with the Air Force’s Thunderbird demonstration team this offseason; Brandon Copeland, the New York Jets linebacker, taught a financial literacy seminar at the University of Pennsylvania this spring.

Ginyard said the program will return again next February, expanding its programming and diving deeper into more engaging topics. He said the NFLPA also hopes to develop a network around the #AthleteAnd message so that players can share their personal experiences. The program may also be expanded to include athletes beyond the NFL, which could include WNBA and U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team players.

“There’s a fire drill that is inevitable when a playing career is over,” Ginyard said. “This is all about figuring out what does that second career look like, and where do your passions take you.”

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Athletes In Business

Female Golfers Open Up About Influencers’ Role in Shaping the Future of the Sport

In order to grow both the game and interest in women’s golf, both professional golfers and influencers agree that they have to help each other.

Anya Alvarez

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Photo Credit: Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

As a young female collegiate golfer, Paige Spiranac shared the same ambition of many like her: “My original dream was to play golf on the LPGA Tour,” she said.

After finishing up her collegiate golf career at San Diego State University in 2015, she began posting on Instagram. Soon after, the website Total Frat Move posted an article about Spiranac, and her following skyrocketed from 10,000 to 100,000.

“Plans changed a little,” Spiranac said.

Her newfound social media fame led to an invite for the Omega Dubai Ladies Classic in December 2015. Suddenly, Spiranac had an opportunity to create a business for herself as a social influencer in golf. Four years later, she now has more than 1.7 million Instagram followers, and brand partnerships with Philip Stein, Mizzen+Main, 18Birdies, Troon and Myrtle Beach Golf Tourism Solutions.

The 26-year-old has found an emerging niche in golf: whereas LPGA golfers struggle to find sponsorship, female golf influencers have gained leverage with brands in a sport watched and played more by men via social media – not at tournaments.

“I think part of the reason why women do so well in this space is that we look different than the typical golfer and we represent another part of the game,” says Tania Tare, 30, a golf trick shot artist. The New Zealand native has more than 200,000 followers on Instagram alone.

Like Spiranac, Tare never imagined Instagram could be her pathway toward a career. She joined the platform to post about her life for friends and family, and her profile was set to private. When she began creating videos, friends would try to tag her and share her posts, only for her privacy settings to block them.

“It got to the point that I was tired of having to send them the videos so they could share them, so I just decided to open my profile to the public,” Tare says.

As Tare’s following climbed, offers rolled in for branded posts. Tare has a current deal with Adidas, along with partners in Audemars Piguet watches, Troon and Oncore. She also gets paid regularly for golf outings. Tare has created a career arguably steadier than the tournament-to-tournament hustle of many pro golfers.

Just competing in professional golf can exact a heavy financial toll – that’s especially true for women. The average season on the LPGA Tour can cost upwards of $60,000 a year just to compete. Based on the LPGA money list in 2018, a player would have to finish 125th to break even. By contrast, the 125th spot on the PGA Tour brought in $847,000 last year.

LPGA Tour player Marina Alex, 28, who got her first win at last year’s Cambia Portland Classic, knows the grind. After playing at Vanderbilt, Alex worked her way through the Symetra Tour to get a shot at the LPGA Tour in 2013.

“At the end of the day, I believe with more TV exposure and a larger audience, corporations will see the value of their dollar invested in female golfers,” Alex says. “Influencers with a lot of followers get more traction than LPGA tournaments that are on tape delay. However, it would be great if more female golf influencers use their platform to promote [women’s] golf.”

In comparison, the top-ranked American female golfer – Lexi Thompson – has more than 419,000 followers on Instagram.

From the outside, it may seem like these influencers are just posting photos and videos, but that does not tell the whole story.

“This is a full-time business and a lot of thought goes into my posts, YouTube videos, and everything I do around my social media,” Spiranac says. “The brands I work with, I have to understand them in order to promote them on my page, and it’s not simply a matter of taking a photo and then posting it online.”

Nikki Bondura has more than 72,000 followers on Instagram, and while she has never aspired to play professionally, she saw an opportunity to build a career on social media with a focus on a sport she loves. The former Sacramento State golfer has strategically built a following around the lifestyle side of the game. She founded a company called ForeHerSports with business partner Tisha Alyn, which focuses on engaging and connecting with women in golf.

“You have to know who you’re talking to, what you are talking about and what value you are providing to your audience,” Bondura says. “With every post, there needs to be a call to action. Is it to sell a product, promote an event, inspire change, or to simply entertain? Furthermore, once a brand grows, there are multiple obligations at any given time, so it’s making sure every sponsor, partner, campaign and contract is met in a timely fashion.”

On her own, Bondura is a partner with Adidas and Rukket Sports, and she often posts sponsored ads on her Instagram platform. Perhaps the biggest milestone for Bondura was getting hired by Golf Channel and the LPGA as a social media correspondent at various tournaments. Players on the LPGA Tour consult Bondura for advice on how to build a following.

Working together with the LPGA is something that Spiranac, Tare and Bondura all want to do to help grow the women’s game overall – something that would make Alex and her tourmates excited.

READ MORE: Topgolf Lounge Opens New World of Possibilities For Golf

“Collaboration over competition is key and what I preach on a daily basis,” Bondura says. “In a market that is starting to get saturated like every other influencer industry, we have to stick together and learn how to build each other up,” Bondura said.

Influencers are proving that there is an interest in women who golf from both the brand and fan perspective, even if the focus is not on the LPGA players themselves. How the two sides will choose to work with each other to amplify the women’s game is still to be seen.

Editor’s Note: Anya played professionally on the LPGA Tour for almost three years from 2011 – 2014.

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