Strong prospects: the marketability of the 2016 NBA draft class

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By Doug Zanger | Americas Editor

June 28, 2016 | 10 min read

Marketability of athletes is a continually morphing phenomenon. The days of tight messaging and big hype have been replaced with the much more fluid era of social media and content — where athletes, both established and up-and-coming, work multiple arena-sized audiences on a daily basis. The National Basketball Association (NBA) is particularly interesting, as the intimacy of the game can carry over into the social sphere.

Several NBA athletes (both active and retired) work Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram with aplomb, translating into increased profile and, as a result, potential for greater marketability. This year’s NBA draft class still is in the “to be determined” category for marketability, but Dave Rosenberg, chief strategic officer of GMR Marketing in San Francisco, sees some good upside to the draft class.

“It’s a very young draft class,” said Rosenberg, noting that a number of draft picks are 19 to 21 years of age. “I think that what comes with that is that the kind of trepidation that comes with sponsors, particularly some of the bigger sponsors. I tend to look at, in this draft class, who actually has adapted to the marketplace, so with their Twitter followers, how active are they? For the most part, it’s fairly good. If I was going to grade a draft class in terms of marketability, I would give them about a B. What’s actually bringing that up is the whole Ben Simmons phenomenon.”

Simmons, the top draft pick by the Philadelphia 76ers ticks many boxes with this play on the court — but his family story (his dad played basketball and Simmons’ family is very tight) appears to be a huge plus and mirrors similar stories with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors. The family angle, and its requisite lack of drama, plays well with brands and the fact that Simmons is a talisman of sorts could raise the profile of other players who are entering the league.

Jaylen Brown, drafted third by the Boston Celtics, who played college ball close to Rosenberg, at the University of California, Berkeley, is another notable example of an athlete who captures the right headlines.

“I can’t emphasize enough what he did in the community,” effused Rosenberg. “He was a McDonald’s All American, a freshmen — everyone thinks he’s going out [partying], yet this kid gets into Oakland and goes into some of the areas where he’s serving food on Christmas. He was doing all the right things because I think he knew they were the right things to do. I think that’s incredibly attractive, particularly going into a multi-cultural market like Boston where there’s clear separation of the different consumer segments.”

Knowing the Social Game

Simmons has already inked several deals and starred in a Foot Locker commercial that included D’Angelo Russell of the Los Angeles Lakers, who has endured a controversial stretch due to his sharing a private video of teammate Nick Young, talking about his infidelity. Russell is one of those cautionary tales to athletes who use social media. But it’s also a learning opportunity for the teams they play for.

Rosenberg estimates that some team marketing leaders and VPs have been around the game for awhile — and are still working in a model where messaging is closely guarded and brands — are shepherded tightly.

“I think the NBA is trying to do their best job in terms of working with these rookies to educate them, but it’s also the responsibility of the teams to actually specialize in digital — not just in sales, but in every aspect,” said Rosenberg. “You have to have education at the team level of social media to the extent that there’s research and that there are people there that have tremendous understanding of Twitter and of Snapchat and of Facebook. The marketing directors at teams actually have to become far more educated, so that they can be managing their brand which is coming from these young athletes. D’Angelo Russell is a good example because that just didn’t affect D’Angelo Russell, that affected the Los Angeles Lakers.”

Russell is a particularly acute example and likely the exception to the rule. Teams like Toronto, Miami, Dallas, Golden State and Portland continue to demonstrate how digital savvy can translate into good marketing, allowing their athletes the flexibility to be themselves, but ensuring that they are armed with the right information before they hit “send.”

There are two other variables that impact this draft class — engagement and where athletes end up.

“You’ve got someone like Brandon Ingram [drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers] He has about 55,000 Twitter followers, but more importantly, he’s got about 300 tweets. There’s some of these guys like a Jamal Murray who’s got a good following but never engaged with them,” said Rosenberg. “Buddy Hield [drafted by the New Orleans Pelicans], on the flip side, has got a huge following of about 55,000 Twitter followers, and tweeted over 5,000 times. You got some of these guys that really understood the power of the social network that they were creating, and that will bring them into the sponsorship world with a really good base. Brands will look at that and say, ‘okay, I can associate with him because he understood how important it is to communicate with his core target.’”

Despite big followings, engagement from anywhere in the world, geographic location is actually a key consideration — Marquese Chriss, a dynamic athlete with a strong personality, was drafted by the small-market Sacramento Kings.

“It’s probably unfortunate for him that [he] ended up in Sacramento,” noted Rosenberg. “I think he is really marketable. I think he is smart, he’s incredibly socially active but I don’t know if that’s the right market for him. I don’t know if he’ll succeed to the extent than he would have. If Marquese Chriss had ended up in the Bay Area [with the Golden State Warriors], 90 miles south, I think we would be talking about him big time.”

One interesting market dynamic is Toronto, where Jakob Poeltl, born in Austria, was drafted. The groundwork may have been laid with the likes of Latvian Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks — a good player, from a country outside of the US, in a global market.

“He [ended] up in a market that is really starving for stars,” said Rosenberg. “If they manage his brand right, that could be a very interesting Porzingis kind of alternative. Nobody really knows who he is, but I’ve watched him, he is a walking double-double, and he’s got Porzingis’ skills. Forget about whether nobody knows about him (Poeltl played at the University of Utah, a very small market), but this kid landed in kind of a secondary media market that’s going to do a great job with him socially. I think that he is going to be one of those guys that we’re going to look at and he’s going to be on the radar of the NBA in terms of stats for the next five, ten years.”

Overall, the prospects appear to be bright for the entirety of this year’s NBA draft class — and Rosenberg weighed in on the marketability of the top five picks, those stars a little bit more under the microscope due to their lofty place in the pecking order.

First pick: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

I think it’s outstanding. I think you’re going to see more family-oriented brand focused on him. I think Philly is going to embrace him, I do. I think that the whole aspect of this kid having his dad by his side, his mom and dad by his side is part of what Philly is all about, if you think about it.

Second pick: Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers

I think that it’s a market that very few could handle. I think that he is going to do well with sponsors down there, because he comes from a big program [Duke]. LA is not going to be as scary to him. I think that the aspect of going into the market where Kobe is now exiting, this is going to be really beneficial to him. There’s going to be a lot of brands that are going to be looking to attach to the Lakers in this new era after two fairly disappointing seasons for LA’s premiere team. I think he is going to get a lot of that benefit from a lot of different brands. If I was looking at him, I would be looking at the beverage category. Obviously, non-alcoholic. He has a great kind of visual presence. I think fashion and beverage, particularly replenishment beverage and replenishment foods are going to be that part of the SoCal lifestyle. I think that’s where he’s going to walk in and really do well.

Third pick: Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

I think it’s going to be more traditional. I think that Jaylen Brown, being such an intelligent kid, I could see him attached to more of the traditional brands that go on there, the financial institutions, not necessarily the car companies but more of the traditional categories that Boston is all about. He has taken the time to be part of the community where he came from. If I was a credit card, if I was a bank, this would be the guy I would want to be part of, because he’s smart about what he does. Coming into what is going to be a tremendous amount of money, how will he handle it? I think he’s going to handle it with a great deal of business and personal maturity.

Fourth pick: Dragan Bender, Phoenix Suns

This will be an interesting one, because you’ve got a 7’1”, 7’2” player walking into a marketplace who is Israeli and comes from Croatia. Where does he fit? The first thing that would come to mind might be more of the health and health technology, health and fitness. There is an interesting demographic and psychographic mix [in Phoenix] — you’ve got “sun birds,” and college students so you kind of want to attach him to what is the up-and-coming, more general market technologies — so things like smartwatches, and Fitbits, and replenishment drinks, and replenishment foods. I don’t know what his whole language comfort is, but the fact is, is that technology need to know does not necessitate that you have to have a language barrier.

Fifth pick: Kris Dunn, Minnesota Timberwolves

I think this might be the most interesting match, because Minnesota I think it’s an underestimated marketplace. I believe he is going to have a very easy time in this community marketing himself. I think that when you end up with what is conceivably a triple threat on the court —going double digits in terms of points, and rebounds, and assists, and steals — he’s going to be all over the court all the time. I think that that’s going to be incredibly attractive to sponsors. He can basically do anything out on the basketball court, which means he’s going to have this wide appeal and Minnesota having such an array of consumer segments like beverage, confection, fast food — but not fast food in the typical sense but maybe the more healthier fast foods.

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