The rise of the individual athlete and their economic power.
Idée Fixe topic #7
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I’m Toni Cowan-Brown and I share with you insights from tech, politics, and pop culture that matter and dominate our minds. I’ve also added a section on the latest in the F1 2020 season. And each month I dig into one specific idea that is particularly top of mind. 🧠
🎙 Creativity & Optimism (Another Podcast)
How do optimism and technology coexist? What does owning your work look like? Are we still being surprised by tech? These are just some of the questions we asked this week's guest - Nicolas Roope, agency and startup co-founder who has ridden many of the revolutions we talk about on this show.
🎙 Everything Formula 1 w/ Toni Cowan-Brown (European Straits, July 2021)
I had the pleasure to sit down with Nicolas Colin - who writes the weekly newsletter and hosts the podcast by the same name European Straits - and talk about all things Formula 1. We discussed the history and roots of the sport, the age-old debate about driver or car, the uniqueness of F1 vs. spec series, the evolution of the Power Unit, the USA market expansion, DTS, and the rise of the individual athlete.
What has happened in Formula 1 over the past three decades? Quite a lot, it turns out, between the evolution of the power unit, the constant shortening of the pit stops, and many other things that you’ll discover if you listen to the podcast.
Idée Fixe #7: The rise of the Individual Athletes and their brands.
A lot has happened recently in sports that has relevance outside of this space and as such, it felt like the perfect topic for this month’s idée fixe.
From the racial attacks following England’s loss in the final football match to the Hamilton Commission report that was just released on the topic of improving the representation of Black people in UK motorsports, and the NCAA’s new policy allowing college athletes to monetise their brands. And everything in between.
Let’s talk about the rise of the athlete and the economic power they wield, as well as the fans that create enormous social and IRL relevancy for the athletes and the teams they champion.
🖐 Heads up this is roughly 1,800 words.
The Rise of the individual athlete
People want to connect with people, not institutions, brands or corporations. This is certainly one of those sentences that has been thrown around a little too much to the point that it has lost some - if not all - of its meaning. And yet it is still very true, we trust people more than we trust brands and institutions.
I was halfway through Packy McCormick’s piece on the Cooperation Economy (honestly the whole piece is worth reading - it’s brilliant) when he introduces the idea that “the media brands that are succeeding are the ones that put the individuals first.” You can probably replace ‘media brands’ with just about any industry - and the fundamental point that people follow people remains true. McCormick refers to this shift as an “individual empowerment at the expense of employers”.
But what really caught my eye was the comparison he draws to the NBA - as a perfect case study to analyse what players decide to do with this power.
Despite the set rules, the trend in the NBA has mirrored the more wicked society at large. Over the past half-century, the balance of power in the NBA has clearly shifted from the teams to the players, from institutions to individuals. […] While there have always been dynasties in the NBA -- the Celtics, Lakers, and Bulls all dominated for a decade or more -- the past decade’s Super Teams are different in that they formed because groups of superstar players decided they wanted to play with each other, and then made it happen.
Athletes are no longer pawns that are interchangeable and at the mercy of the teams they play for. Athletes today hold a little more power than they ever have. Social media has undoubtedly played a role in helping athletes create a brand for themselves, outside of the sport they play, and it’s this brand and presence that the athletes are leveraging. Looking at the number of followers some of these athletes wield in comparison to the teams they compete for or the sports federation, it’s pretty obvious that people follow people.
👉 More reading on the topic:
🗞 The cooperation economy (Packy McCormick)
Monetization and the college athletes
Money speaks volumes in sports and one way to make money is to leverage your brand and monetise it - which is sometimes easier said than done. This is something that more creators have started doing over the years. And the potential is huge and diverse - brand deals, media companies, DTC merch, advertising, sponsorships…
Things have changed pretty radically for college athletes in America. Just last week a new policy went into effect that would allow for such monetisation.
“CAA announced an interim policy that allows student athletes from all three divisions to monetize their name, image and likeness, often referred to as NIL.” (CNN, July 2021)
It used to be the case that their compensation was a scholarship to the school where they play the sport they are good at, but their compensation would end there. For a long time, they were told they couldn’t monetize their NIL [Name, Image, Likeness], brand and online presence.
They are the ultimate influencers before influencers were a thing. And now they can actually monetise their brand without having to choose between the sport and making money. And they wasted no time whatsoever - and rightly so. Those that are willing to commodify themselves and have a brand to build on, will most likely become a well-valued commodity. Athletes no longer simply want to be brand ambassadors, they want to be the brand.
I highly recommend watching the video below as a great explanation of all the things that are now possible for these college players.
👉 More reading on the topic:
🗞 The Internet Has Thoughts About Addison Rae’s UFC Reporter Gig (Complex, July 2021)
The economic and relevancy power of the fangirl
This is somewhat my ode - in defense of the Fangirls, not that they need any defending whatsoever. I initially made this rant on TikTok.
In the music space, female pop fans have long been portrayed as sad, hysterical, and sexual predators - even though many of them are under-aged (go fucking figures). We have seen this same phenomenon in sports too. And I’ve increasingly seen this in F1 and I’m pissed.
This negative reputation is purely down to society's sexist double standards. Male fans can be just as obsessive over things as fangirls. Seriously, have you seen the grown men who are football fans when their favourite team loses an important match? Sadly we don’t need to look too far for such incredible scenes. Honestly, I could rest my case here but I have more, much more to say.
The general and repetitive message goes a little like this: male musical or sports appreciation has to do with a deep, thoughtful, smart and complex understanding of the industry. Girls and women (but especially young girls) are blindly driven by craze and lust.
The term fangirl is often equated to crazed groupies when in reality the female fandom in music, fashion and sports is full of experts with deep knowledge and understanding of the topic - they might come at it differently, their knowledge may be different but they absolutely know what they are talking about.
More importantly, they wield great power - both economically and in terms of relevancy - on the athletes, teams, and the sport they champion. They are the number one consumer buying your merch and products, tickets to your events, creating word of mouth and getting their friends involved…
They self-organise - gather online and offline. They take up space, make a lot of noise, build communities and through all of this, they create relevance, more so than any other consumer group. And they know how to “love [something or someone] without apology or fear” says Yve Blake.
And regardless of all of this, they are still dismissed as ditsy, crazy, obsessive, desperate to the point where they are ridiculed. Let’s also not forget that it’s often grown adults humiliating young women.
When a fangirl dares to declare herself a fan of F1, for example, it can only be because “she’s interested in the drivers”. And simultaneously asked to prove herself with some random facts and historic knowledge of the sport. Two immediate moments that most men will never have to experience.
Sexism is obviously part of the problem, but the constricting gender roles that society has spent decades pushing on us certainly plays into this narrative too.
My take on the F1 fangirls is that they are most likely one step ahead of everyone else. They have the finger on the pulse and are aware of what will come next for the sport. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the teams and players that take note and respect this consumer will win - and win big.
In F1, I think Lando is that champion of the fangirl. He's the Harry Styles of F1 if you will. Remember when Harry Styles defended his young female fans saying:
“How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans — they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool.’ […]”
Finally, these fangirls push the industry to have the conversations that should have been taking place a long time ago - conversations around sexism, racism, LGBTQ rights, racial justice, sustainability... And their mere presence has turned drivers such as Marcel Kiefer, F1 Esports RedBull driver, into a champion of the Fangirl and a pretty epic leader.
The F1 fangirls deserve all of our respect. And we should be paying close attention to them.
👉 More reading on the topic:
💻 Why are Fangirls scary (TED talk) by Yve Blake h/t gemma Milne for pointing me to this incredible video
Athletes, Sports and Politics
From Fangirls to politics, power and influence within sports. These three additional pieces have come to the forefront of sports most recently. Colin Kaepernick really reignited the belief that athletes can be (if they chose to) so much more than the sport they play. When you ‘google’ Colin Kaepernick today, his name is followed by ‘American Activist’ not a former athlete or former footballer.
Female athletes have often been at the forefront of important conversations and seem to take huge advantage of the moment to facilitate conversations about topics such as mental health, gender pay gaps, sexism and misogyny in the industry, racism… It is undoubtedly a powerful moment for these women, their fans and the industry as a whole.
Women athletes have never been so inextricably linked to political discourse as they are today — speaking out on criminal justice reform, #MeToo, Senate races, publicity rights for their name, image and likeness (NIL), and inequalities in the NCAA. (POLITICO, Women Rule)
The IOC's new rule allows athletes to freely “express their views” just not during events. So maybe not so freely after all. And this rule certainly didn’t stop some Olympians from taking a knee ahead of a match.
Axios did a piece on how ‘Olympians are getting their voices back’ - it’s an interesting way of phrasing this as I would argue that maybe it’s less that Olympians are getting their voices back but rather that society is ready to listen and that trying to separate the athlete from the human is no longer possible.
Women are at the point where they’re not going to sit back and think in that old-fashioned way of being lady-like and just taking it. I think we’re at an age in 2021 that when women see something that needs correcting, they’re going to say something,” Rep. Cheri Bustos, a two-sport college athlete (basketball and volleyball), told Women Rule POLITICO.
As someone who talks and writes about F1, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up Lewis Hamilton, another athlete using his platform and voice to raise the alarm (and relentlessly) about the lack of diversity in motorsports. Something that he initially received a lot of criticism for because ‘can we not bring politics into sports’. A phrase mostly only used by the middle-aged white man who has most likely never been on the receiving end of racism or sexism.
Lewis Hamilton recently launched the Hamilton Commission which has just published its first report on ‘Improving representation of Black people in UK Motorsports.’ And he is a perfect example of an athlete using his voice and platform for good and setting the bar high for the federation and the sport as a whole to follow in his footsteps.
👉 More reading on the topic:
🗞 The awakening of Colin Kaepernick (NYT, 2017)
🎬 Naomi Osaka’s Netflix documentary