The Real Reason Baker Mayfield Was the Number-One Overall Pick in the 2018 NFL Draft

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By many accounts, Baker Mayfield was not the most athletically gifted quarterback in the 2018 NFL Draft. There were concerns about his height, not to mention his maturity and arrogance.

Although Mayfield’s stock drastically rose during his senior season at the University of Oklahoma, which he concluded in Heisman Trophy fashion, USC quarterback Sam Darnold was predicted to be the number-one overall selection in seven of 11 mock drafts.

“Here’s the honest to God’s truth. From the start of this college football season to the end of the season, I had Darnold number one and Baker number two…” Cleveland Browns Vice President of Player Personnel Alonzo Highsmith said a few days after the draft. “On our way through everything, you couldn’t tell me Darnold wasn’t the best.”

That didn’t stop the Browns from taking Mayfield, a two-time college walk-on, with the first pick in the draft. Among a quarterback class that was heralded as one of the best in recent memory, Mayfield’s edge wasn’t his on-field attributes; it was his story and how creatively, confidently and charismatically he shared it.

“I think just telling my story, my journey of why I have a chip on my shoulder, why I work so hard. I think there’s a lot of things that they didn’t know,” Mayfield told an ESPN reporter when asked about the Browns drafting him number-one overall. “And so I told them those stories, and I was confident in it, and I was just myself.”

About 10 days before the NFL Draft, Mayfield teamed up with Identifi and Facebook to roll out Behind Baker, a nine-episode Web show that chronicles the weeks leading up to the draft and, more importantly, unfiltered insight into his life story.

Then, a day prior to the draft, Mayfield “shut down the Internet,” as Front Office Sports described it, by recreating the photo of Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre receiving a call on draft day in 1991. The post reached around half a million people between Twitter and Instagram.

“Since day one, we’ve always wanted to do things differently,” says Patrick Hayes, a member of Mayfield’s marketing team. “He just gets it. You can’t really teach that.”

To top it off, Mayfield even declined a live shot with ESPN at his home during the evening of the NFL Draft, instead opting to Instagram live-stream the moments before and during the call he received from the Browns, which some 20,000 people saw before ESPN's broadcasters announced it on TV.

“The 19-minute livestream was so great because it let fans become a star for a few minutes and live vicariously through the number-one pick-to be,” Matt Ellentuck wrote on SB Nation. “We were experiencing each moment as he was. Nothing was staged or edited out. This was real.”

In athlete brand strategy, life story refers to an athlete’s on- and off-field narrative, including the athlete’s goals, values, mission, style, symbol, competitive spirit, traditions, causes, hobbies, passions, affiliates, and past and present-day experiences.

The notion is that athlete brands become more meaningful to fans when fans know more about the parts that make up an athlete’s whole story. More meaningful athlete brands translate to more athlete-friendly fan attitudes toward the teams, leagues, brands, businesses and other stakeholders associated with the athlete, which results in a highly lucrative athlete brand.

“The one thing athletes should be doing is telling their story,” says Dior Ginyard, a player manager at the NFL Players Association. “Gone are the days of athletes relying strictly on traditional media outlets to tell their story. Fans have shown that they want to hear directly from their favorite athletes.”

“No one tells our story better than us,” says college basketball player turned sideline reporter Allie Clifton, who co-hosts the Road Trippin’ With R.J. & Channing podcast alongside NBA journeymen Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye.

This is why, as Jim Cavale correctly points out, fans don’t follow brand accounts (i.e. teams and leagues) to the degree they follow athletes — a reality that can be directly monetized by athletes and their inner circle, so long as they strategically and creatively leverage digital media to tell the athlete's life story.

“It’s a daily storytelling mission by the athlete … which goes beyond their athletic talent,” says Cavale, who founded the sports-meets-social-media software company INFLCR. “Being intentional about their message, and frequently distributing this message through their social media, to a market of people that this message resonates with, is the fulfillment of this formula.”

On the other side of this reality is that “most of us know very little about the athletes whose exploits we admire,” at least according to Creighton University professor Randolph Feezell, in an article he wrote for the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport.

Unfortunately, Feezell is correct: A large percentage of athletes don’t utilize the art and science of storytelling to (1) create critical associations for athlete brands, (2) help fans more passionately connect themselves to an athlete, and (3) produce a massively profitable athlete brand.

“An epic athlete brand has the ability to tell a compelling story that amplifies the vision, values and character the athlete brand represents,” says Dave Parker, who specializes in athlete management and brand consulting. “However this story is defined, it becomes the foundation for an emotional connection with fans and future corporate partners.

The more relevant, the more engaging and the more authentic those connections can be, the more you give your fans and your potential fans reasons to care.

To tell compelling stories that enhance the added value of an athlete brand, athletes and their brand managers should calibrate four contingent components: relatability, structure, approach, and rhetorical appeals.

Relatability is the ability for one person to positively identify with someone else. If identifying with characters in a book, show or movie brings people great pleasure and keeps them actively engaged, the same must be true for athletes: The ability for fans to identify with an athlete will bring them great pleasure and keep them actively engaged, the combination of which builds athlete brand equity.

More than anything, the idea is to inspire fans to say: I see myself in this.

The second component, structure, involves the elements of a piece of content, as well as the form (the channels and type of content, e.g. video) used to publish it. When determining the form(s) of your content, ensure the elements correspond with the unique user experience and expectations on each channel, as opposed to splashing one piece of content across multiple channels for the sake of simplicity.

Approach, the third of these storytelling components, consists of a balance between “creating” and “documenting.” Creating content means producing well-thought-out, polished media (e.g. an article, Web show, infographic), whereas documenting is the act of sharing relatively raw and sometimes off-the-cuff content (e.g. Facebook Live, Instagram Stories).

It’s worth noting that even the most raw and off-the-cuff content should remain in line with the overarching content strategy, so as to build and grow athlete brand equity at scale.

Last but certainly not least, rhetorical appeals ― or “modes of persuasion,” as Aristotle dubbed them ― are interdependent devices that tap into people’s logic (logos) and emotions (pathos), while establishing credibility (ethos). Together, these mechanisms play a cognitive, emotional and volitional role in helping people recall stories when it’s time to make a decision or take an action.

Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.
— Native American proverb

Storytelling is, therefore, one of the most effective methods by which athletes and their brand managers can stay top-of-mind, while inspiring fans to make decisions and take actions that tremendously benefit an athlete brand.

“People do not buy goods and services,” bestselling author and former dot-com executive Seth Godin says. “They buy relations, stories and magic.”