Athletes and the Attention Economy: A 'Zero-Sum Game'

  Photo by Andrew Jay on Unsplash

Photo by Andrew Jay on Unsplash

“In the digital space, attention is a currency. We earn it. We spend it.” – Brian Solis, digital analyst and bestselling author


As he transitioned out of his professional basketball career, Malcolm Lemmons kept asking himself why people would continue to pay attention to him, now that he was no longer an athlete.

“What made me unique? What experiences or obstacles have I been through that others might be able to relate to?” Lemmons asked himself. “From there, everything else started to fall into place.”

In the "Attention Economy," a term coined by Thomas Davenport and John Beck in their book The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business, attention is viewed as a high-demand, low-supply asset that, when consistently attracted at scale, can be turned into a highly lucrative business model.

Herbert Simon, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1978, predicted the Attention Economy seven years earlier, when he wrote:

“In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”


In other words, a surplus of available content is forcing people to become exponentially stringent about the content they consume. For people and brands that publish commodity content — content that is of little-to-no intrinsic value — the Attention Economy isn’t exactly in their corner, since search engine and social media algorithms don’t reward such content.

For smart, strategic and creative content producers (i.e. athletes), however, the Attention Economy creates a virtuous cycle.

For example, the more time I spend watching and enjoying JuJu Smith-Schuster’s videos on YouTube, the more time I’ll spend engaging with the NFL wide receiver’s content in the future, and the more search engine and social media algorithms will automatically put his videos in front of my eyes (which means more scalable and even passive income for Smith-Schuster, via the YouTube Partner Program).

It's important to understand that, even if an athlete isn’t currently churning out dynamic multimedia productions like Smith-Schuster, every athlete who uses some form of the Internet (e.g. social media) is a content producer. And, if you’re producing content, you might as well be more strategic and creative about how you maximize its potential earnings, influence and impact.

“As content and information becomes increasingly abundant and immediately available,” says Craig Hepburn, a senior digital marketing executive who formerly worked at Microsoft and Nokia, “attention becomes the determining factor with regard to whether information is consumed or not, and entrepreneurs and businesses that understand this will be the ones that win.”

'A Zero-Sum Game'

The reality is, many athletes and their brand managers are not winning because they don’t consider content to be a precious or earned asset. They either take it for granted or assume they’re deserving of it, simply because they’re an athlete. While being an athlete was presumably enough to command and keep mass fan attention in years past, the Attention Economy has changed the game.

“The idea is that we’re all competing for a finite amount of attention, and it’s a zero-sum game,” says Elisa Gabbert, an SEO and content marketing thought leader. “If people are paying attention to your competitor, they can’t pay attention to you at the same time.”

Nowadays, athletes have more competitors off of the field than they have on it, including traditional-turned-digital media (e.g. ESPN), new media (e.g. Bleacher Report), social media (and each of its billion-plus users), team- and league-driven media (e.g. MLB Advanced Media), and athlete-driven media (e.g. The Players’ Tribune).

Not to mention, every business, brand and organization that engages in Internet marketing, as well as the myriad of entrepreneurial “influencers” who have massive online followings, many bigger than mainstream professional athletes.


Browse our Instagram gallery of the latest and greatest in athlete brands:


'Day Trading Attention'

One of these entrepreneurial influencers is Gary Vaynerchuk who, as of May 2018, has more than 11 million social media followers. The CEO and co-founder of the award-winning digital agency VaynerMedia claims that he’s been so successful at building his personal brand because of what he calls “day trading attention,” or the exchange of something perceived as valuable (content experiences) for people’s attention. Exhibit A: Wine Library TV.

“The attention of the end consumer (the fans) is all that matters, and when you understand where it is,” Vaynerchuk says, “that’s where you need to strike, create and spend against.”

Too many athletes and their brand managers, however, are not spending against digital media, which the average U.S. adult consumes at a clip of nearly six hours per day. Instead of making more-than-minimal investments of time, money and resources to produce eye-catching, thumb-stopping content experiences, they mainly share uninspiring, unimaginative content because they think that being an athlete, on its own, is enough to command and keep mass fan attention.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but, no matter how skilled, experienced or accomplished you are as an athlete, being an athlete, on its own, isn’t nearly enough to compete at a high level in the Attention Economy.

“People have wasted too much time and attention on shitty content,” says AJ Kohn, a digital marketing executive and startup advisor. “The result? We’re making decisions faster and faster by relying on those past experiences. We create internal shortcuts in our mind for what is good or bad. It’s a shortcut that protects us from wasting our time and attention …”

'Eight Generatives Better Than Free'

According to digital culture expert Kevin Kelly, the Attention Economy is increasingly one where content producers (i.e. athletes) must separate themselves from all of the redundant copycat content on the Internet. He recommends adding valuable intangibles to content offerings, which include:

  1. Immediacy – priority access, immediate delivery

  2. Personalization – tailored to fans

  3. Interpretation – content that is obviously inspiring, motivational, entertaining, humorous or produces other emotions which create desired associations to the athlete brand

  4. Authenticity – genuine, natural, credible

  5. Accessibility – re-engaging fans who engage an athlete

  6. Embodiment – video, podcasts, virtual reality and other highly immersive forms of content

  7. Patronage – when people consume content “simply because it feels good”

  8. Findability – publishing content in every place fans “live” online (e.g. social media, email, search engines)

“The money in this networked economy,” Kelly concludes, “follows the path of attention.”

Immediate Attention, Short-Term Attention, Long-Term Attention

To compete at a high level in the Attention Economy, consider the three types of attention that athletes should aim to attract: immediate attention, short-term attention, and long-term attention.

Immediate attention is achieved through micro-content quick wins (e.g. Instagram photos). Even though it only takes a couple seconds of our time, immediate attention is the foundation; without it, athletes will be hard-pressed to garner short-term attention, which requires anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes of our time.

The problem with short-term attention, however, is that it only lasts until something else warrants our attention. In the digital age, this happens all the time, like when you start watching a video on your phone, but 10 seconds into it, you receive a text, click through to message, and never end up watching the rest of the video. Hence why studies have found that humans now have shorter attention spans than a goldfish.

Long-term attention, lastly, is a state of expectation, acquired via repetition, and deeply linked to what we have experienced time and again. The opposite of quick wins, it is contingent on long-term interest that repeatedly triggers short-term attention. Long-term attention is the reason why Lavar Ball and his family were offered (and make major money from) the Facebook reality show Ball in the Family.

“In the near future, we'll start to see that obtaining sponsorships, endorsements and other revenue opportunities are not as much about being the best athlete,” says Lemmons, who now runs Players Point to help athletes grow and market their personal brands, “as they are about acquiring the most attention and awareness from the end consumer.”