Why an Athlete Brand Has to Be 'Immediate and Touch on More Than Sports Alone'

Photo Courtesy: Julia McInnis

Photo Courtesy: Julia McInnis

Julia McInnis is a former film producer turned startup founder. Before starting her business Lancealot, Julia spent four years working with the directors Chris Hegedus and DA Pennaker, and then a year and a half working with the investment group Chicago Media Angels while getting her MBA from the University of Chicago.

In addition to Lancealot, Julia co-hosts a WeChat show about sports, and is helping to launch a new incubator in New York City for female founders. Her favorite teams are the New York Rangers and Bayern Munich.

What are you most excited about today?

Lancealot is my biggest focus! The company is a marketplace for content creators who specialize in sports. The talent in our community ranges from video editors and Snapchat artists to augmented and virtual reality studios. On the client side we work with teams, players, content publishers, creative agencies and brands.

My co-founders and I started the company because we saw more fans — especially fans our age — not watching full games, but instead wanting to learn more about the players and their teams and communities. We call these "off-the-field" stories, and I think this type of content is only going to be more sought after by fans.

How does Julia define an epic athlete brand?

For an athlete’s brand to be epic, it has to be immediate and touch on more than sports alone. It has to resonate with other things that people feel passionate about, whether it’s something in arts and culture, business, or philanthropy. When an athlete brand does that, it can be so strong that anything the athlete associates with seems to absorb his or her values, personality and style.

And, of course, an athlete brand can only become epic with authenticity.

What's your favorite athlete brand at the moment?

Kevin Durant. It’s an athlete brand that I immediately understand when someone mentions him. When I hear his name, the words "curious" and "forward-thinking" come to mind right away. He's crazy smart and very plugged into what's happening in tech and culture. I think this reputation comes from a couple places, including his work as an investor and the different media and content strategies he's experimented with for connecting with fans.

When you look across the athlete brand landscape, what's one thing you think more athletes should be doing?

Great question, and I think it's finding a way to have a voice and an image that is distinct from that of the team that he or she plays for. There are so many teams with crazy strong brands, but only a handful of players on a given team will have public personas that can compete with their team's personality. I think it's important for players to do this because if they're traded, they want fans to care about them beyond being a good athlete.

The best way to develop that public identity is to do more athlete-generated content and to really share off-the-court activities or issues that the player cares about.

What's your best advice for athletes who want to kickstart their personal brands?

Be open-minded. Fans today are so fractured and exist in dozens of different communities on and offline. It's important to resonate with as many different types of fans as you can, so an athlete should experiment with different ways of reaching people. Some fans will get really excited about an AMA ("Ask Me Anything") on Reddit; others will want to listen to podcasts or engage with the athlete at events.

What's the number-one tool you're using right now?

I’ve got two: Twitter and LinkedIn. Both have been amazing for connecting with different people in sports, from content creators to prospective partners for our company.

Based on your knowledge and expertise, what's the future of athlete branding and marketing?

I think there's now a real opportunity for players who may not be the highest-ranked players in a league or team to stand out for fans. They can have a voice through platforms that are devoted to athlete-generated content.

There are so many good brands of all sizes out there, and not everyone needs to be sponsored by a Fortune 100 company in order to have a strong public identity. I think that group of "mid-level" athletes is going to find more opportunities to partner with these companies, especially globally. We're going to see a lot of this in eSports at the pro and semi-pro levels.

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