Life in a fishbowl: Phelps and Federer under the sports marketing and performance magnifying glass
It's been a bad couple of days for two of sport's greatest superstars. Last night I was watching Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn on ESPN (great shows - if anyone in South African broadcasting is reading this, you should make a point to watch them and learn what expert sports analysts should be like - informed, fluent in English, and opinionated), and the topics of conversation included:
1. The Superbowl (what a game, incredible)
2. Michael Phelps for his marijuana-smoking bong photo (see below)
3. Roger Federer for his tears on the podium after the Aussie Open final
There's little I can contribute to the Superbowl discussion, because it's so heavily analyzed and discussed by experts in the USA, so I'll leave it at my description of an incredible game, the Steelers effectively winning the match twice after a brilliant comeback by Arizona. It was, to use a cliche that is overused, a pity that one team had to lose, because both were excellent. In the end, however, the officiating played more of a role than it should have, but the lack of discipline, particularly by the Cardinals, was costly. Still, incredible plays.
However, on the Phelps and Federer matters, there is more to say. And while they may not be scientific insights and analysis, they are sports management and marketing matters, and that's the other half of my area of specialisation, so here are a few takes on those issues, starting with Roger Federer's tears.
Tears of a champion
Roger Federer is well-known for crying on the podium, but usually it's as the winner. On Sunday, he was the loser, beaten by Nadal for the third straight Grand Slam final, in an epic match, and it was all too much. He was unable to complete his speech the first time around, but came back later to acknowledge Nadal's efforts and the crowd. The internet chat rooms have been buzzing with hate speech, eulogies and apologists for Federer, with just as many supporting him as condemning his tears as those of a bad loser. People's emotions clearly tend to run away with them, as they did for Federer on Sunday.
My take is that Federer's tears are a symptom of what may go on to become a very deep problem for him. The pressure and the stakes are clearly now so high, and the whole world has seen that. Displays of negative emotion are generally not encouraged in sport, because they provide the opposition with a weak spot to be exploited, and that fact would not have gone unnoticed. Federer is now there to be beaten, and as I discuss below, Nadal has put Federer into a position where about five or six other guys will now be aiming for him.
That said, part of Federer's appeal is his human-ness, and I certainly wouldn't criticize him for it. Some have said that he is self-indulgent and only concerned with himself, which is a little harsh. What I will say is that for the last year or so, every time Federer speaks, he comes across as very defensive, because he's had to justify why he is no longer so dominant. So he's in a difficult situation, but his handling of it has not been, in my opinion, what it might have been.
Federer's "kingdom" and the over-inflation of status
He has continued to defend himself, talk himself up and build pressure for himself, and it often seems that he has accept the role created for him by the media as the "custodian" of the sport, and that he now has this enormous responsibility to defend his kingdom. It's quite ridiculous, actually, because he's just a tennis player (a great one, at that), but his own positioning seems to have caught up with him, and his tears may be a sign that this "kingdom" has changed and he's trying very hard not to believe it. Eventually, the facade cracks and Sunday night is the result.
Nadal's gesture of consoling Federer on the podium was one of the greatest I've seen in sport. Nadal is a champion, intelligent, brave, talented, humble and mentally unbreakable. Federer, however, does not seem to have many of those qualities. He is a champion and gentleman, of that there is no doubt. But some of his decisions, his tactical play, his statements, come across as arrogant and indulgent, and may well be part of the crack that Nadal exposed on Sunday. And I do believe he'll go on to surpass Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles. About a year ago, it seemed he might run away with it, and possibly get to 20. That no longer seems possible, with Nadal now, in my opinion, the undisputed number 1.
Federer's mental block
Federer has now lost 12 times out of 18 matches against Nadal. Admittedly, many of them are on clay, where everyone loses to Rafa pretty much 100% of the time. But for Federer, the signs are very worrying indeed. Everyone on the internet is saying that he has this mental block against Nadal, and I certainly wouldn't dispute that - in the final set on Sunday, he just melted down completely and handed the victory to Nadal. So I think it's certainly true.
However, as I tried to point out in my post match analysis, Federer's problems are much deeper than a mental barrier against Nadal. There is also a technical issue with Nadal, in the forehand vs backhand match up (which I discussed yesterday), and a question of fitness and ability. Let's not forget that Nadal was 2 sets up in Wimbledon and it actually looked like he would win in straight sets until the rain intervened. He also murdered Federer on clay in Paris last year, and in this final, he came in with 314 minutes of tennis in his legs. That must have had an effect. Yet he was still able to win the match.
Federer's real challenge is about to come from everyone else, NOT Nadal
The point is, the odds are stacked against Federer moving forward. But here's the thing no one has really commented on. I believe that Federer's biggest problem in the future is not going to be Nadal, but rather a cluster of players who have now been shown the way to beat him. Remember that last year Federer lost against a host of players who he had previously been unbeatable against. And since his crown slipped, a number of players have narrowed the gap - Murray, Djokovic, Tsonga, even Monfils and Verdasco are now in striking distance.
And so Federer's biggest danger is that he used to be the untouchable, now he is one of the many great players in the bunch, and Nadal has been the catalyst who has closed that gap and led the way for everyone else. Let's not forget, for example, that Andy Murray was the form player before the Open, and he beat Federer in three out of their last four matches. Federer would struggle to beat Murray right now. So too, Tsonga, Verdasco, Gilles Simon, and Djokovic all have their sights set on a target that is infinitely closer, and getting closer all the time.
What's next for Federer?
There are a few hardcourt tournaments in the USA, where I'm sure he'll feature as always. But we'll get a really good indication of the changing dynamics, because those tournaments are likely to be very closely contested, with about five or six players all with equal chances of winning. I think it will be very open, and even Nadal might battle to win those tournaments.
Then we go to the red clay of Europe, and Nadal's strongest part of the year. His game is perfect for the clay, whereas on the hardcourts, I still think he has a sub-optimal game. That's another reason why Federer will win another Slam, unless Nadal can adapt his game on the hard surface. Clay, however, is another matter, and if Nadal stays healthy, he should win a few tournaments. For Federer, unfortunately, the timing could not be worse, because he'll only have his confidence further undermined as the very definite second-stringer for those two months.
Then we move to Wimbledon, and by then, we'll have a much clearer picture of how the sport is going. By then, I think that we might have found that Murray and Djokovic have closed Federer down even more, and Federer will have not one, but three challengers for that Wimbledon title.
Should be a fascinating season. But one thing is for sure - Nadal is now the man to beat.
Michael Phelps: Regrettable behaviour with potentially enormous consequences
For those who may have missed it, Michael Phelps, he of 8 gold medal fame from Beijing, was caught on camera smoking from a water pipe (bong) that is usually used for smoking marijuana. The story was published in News of the World (a UK tabloid), with the photo apparently taken at the University of South Carolina. In response, Phelps yesterday issued the following statement:
I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment. I'm 23 years old and despite the successes I've had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again.The problem for Phelps is that this has already happened before - at the age of 19, just after the 2004 Athens Olympics, he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and made similar comments about his irresponsibility and his commitment to change his behaviour. Back then, he was fined $250, did some community service work including talks to school kids about the danger of drink-driving, and the story went away pretty quickly.
The implications: Is it that bad, or is it worse?
This time, it might be a little different. He was famous in 2004, having just won 6 gold in Athens. But post-Beijing, he is THE superstar. And most importantly, the sponsors have come onboard since Beijing, recognizing his transcendant value in sports. This kind of publicity is enormously damaging. In Hollywood, they say that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Unfortunately, in sport, that's not true, particularly when you're the All-American, wholesome athlete whose success is built on your reputation for hard-work, discipline and excellence.
Part of me therefore thinks this kind of behaviour is "normal", though wrong, and it does seem a little hypocritical to condemn him for it. He was not competing, he'd just come off what must have been years of dedicated training, and having cilmbed a higher Olympic summit than any other athlete in HISTORY, he may be forgiven for letting himself go a little (note that I'm not condoning his behaviour, which was wrong and stupid, as it would be for everyone else. All I'm suggesting is that it's being hyped up to create controversy that really should only be mild).
It's also hypocritical because dozens of other sportsmen and women engage in this kind of behaviour all the time. There are widely reported and substantiated stories of cyclists at parties using potbelge, a concoction of heroin, cocaine, caffeine, amphetamines and other analgesics. Athletes have even written autobiographies of their wild partying after big events, and been celebrated for them. I've hosted world-class athletes (at Olympic Champion level) who swing wildly between extra-ordinary discipline during training and exception lack of discipline away from it. It seems to me that athletes have personalities that lend themselves to the extremes of both training and wild, "irresponsible" behaviour. So certainly, Phelps is being held to a different standard here.
Endorsement 101 and consequence
That is the result of his exception profile and the fact that his endorsements are really based on his discipline, success, excellence, purity and work ethic. When a company makes a decision to endorse an athlete, they do so with a very specific strategic purpose. Endorsement is part of promotion, which is an element of the marketing mix, which is itself driven by the company strategy. So you have to appreciate how a company views an endorsement from a strategic standpoint. Part of it is brand awareness - just put your brand in people's minds and they'll buy it. But the best kinds of endorsements have a strategic element, and endorsement does not actually work all that well unless the brand and the athlete can craft some kind of "synergy" in the form of a strategic fit.
Nike's endorsement of Tiger Woods works because Tiger appeals to the masses, is a world-class performer and relates so well to the market Nike are targeting. He communicates the values of the brand simply by being himself and winning. Nike are hoping that you make associations with their product based on his behaviour. It's a tenuous link, but works well in some instances. There is also the obvious product integration, in that people will buy Nike gear because they idolize Tiger. Tiger therefore pushes Nike gear, and tells people what it means. Nike chose him for those reasons and anyone else, or any other behaviour, would not fit with their strategic intentions.
(Just as an aside, sometimes endorsements are absolutely ridiculous. In South Africa, we have a cricketer who endorses a skin care range called Sanex. They make shampoos, deodorants and soaps, and we see adverts of this player in the shower, using the shampoo, with the message that our skin must perform as well as the player. The funniest thing of all is that this player is himself losing his hair, and so the company are promoting shampoos with an agent who is slowly going bald. I'm sure they see value in it though - for them, it's nothing more than exposure and brand awareness)
For Phelps, those fits are often not as simple (as they are not for many athletes). How, for example, does Phelps communicate Mazda (one of his endorsers - he is the face of Mazda)? He could do this through his performances (allowing Mazda to leverage the association by promoting the world-class performance of their cars in conjuction with his, much as Rolex does for Tiger), but that's about it. When he then tarnishes his own image with this party lifestyle, Mazda's value is reduced. He devalues their brand and as a result, his own (and vice-versa, since the endorsement is an equal partnership or marriage)
Also, Phelps is only the biggest thing is sport every four years, at the Olympics. Swimming is, sadly, nothing like golf or basketball. LeBron James gets $90 million from Nike, but he is in the media every year, for 7 or 8 months a year. And he's pushing basketball shoes, not swimming costumes, which are obviously a much less sought after product. So Phelps' endorsement value is tenuous at best, and away from the pool, he has to compensate for that apparent marketing weakness. Being caught smoking and partying is not the way to do it. So unfortunately for Phelps, he's probably reduced his potential quite a bit as a result. Other than that, I feel that people are hyping this up far too much.
The tabloid media
Without wanting to condone Phelps' behaviour further, one thing I must point out is the absolutely disgraceful coverage provided by News of the World in their story. Those who know the tabloid media will of course not be surprised, but the gutter media in this article is really disgraceful. Quotes by people saying that Phelps "out of control from the moment he got there.“If he continues to party like that I’d be amazed if he ever won any more medals again” were a feature of the article.
They also make a point to harp on the doping issue, because cannabis is banned during competition. What they fail to point out is that Phelps was not competing and cannot be banned for an out-of-competition test for this substance. The IOC have since confirmed that, and the paper will have known it, yet they deliberately emphasized doping, casting doubt on Phelps' legality as an athlete (effectively implying that he is a doper). If it was up to me, tabloid journalists would be deported to salt mines and kept there forever...
In any event, a bad couple of days for two of sport's superstars.
Both will pull through, they'll emerge on the other side and keep winning and one day this article will seem over-hyped itself.