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Kevin Durant and Tim Duncan. Who you got, Nike?

I highlighted in my previous post this article by NESN:

Kevin Durant Wants Endorsement Deals to Come to Oklahoma, But He’ll Need to Drop Tim Duncan Act

I have been thinking about this issue – that is, how NBA stars choose to market themselves, for a while now.  The author of the piece, Nick Coman, argues that by adopting Tim Duncan’s public persona, Durant is essentially undermining his efforts to become a household brand.  I think that may be a bit presumptuous, based on two hidden assumptions: 1) Durant thinks that the Tim Duncan model of marketing is a big winner; and 2) Tim Duncan even had a marketing strategy.

Why would someone think that the Duncan model is a big winner?

I found this quite interesting table, courtesy Sports Illustrated:

The Fortune 50 Highest Earning American Athletes

(note- this table reflects a 2009 study)

If you peruse through the list, you will see that the top earners, and NBA players in particular, often earn a huge chunk of their total compensation through endorsements.  The #1 NBA guy, LeBron James, earns 67% of his total compensation through endorsements.  Shaquille O’Neal makes about 43% of his money through endorsements.  It really isn’t until you get to Tim Duncan at #16 that you see a huge dropoff in endorsement percentage, where we see Duncan having earned about 15% of his total compensation outside of his NBA salary.

So as a total measure of compensation, Duncan earns far less in endorsements versus the other top flight NBA stars.  That seems to debunk the second assertion – Tim Duncan has not pursued an overall marketing strategy that is commensurate with his stature in the NBA.   He is by and large disinterested in the effort.

As to the first point, has there been any indication that Durant somewhere along the lines decided, “Yes, I want to follow what Tim Duncan did in getting his name out there.”?   What Durant has implicitly said in interviews many times over is state what his values are and what kind of person he is.   He has said that he is not interested in venturing to New York or Chicago or LA to put his name in bright lights.  He has said, “Ya’ll know where to find me.”  However, that isn’t pure obstinateness or a desire to shun the traditional advertising schemes; rather, it is Durant stating that this game is really about personality.  Tim Duncan, love him or hate him for his demeanor, has the public charisma of sheet rock.  He may be a great family man, teammate, and friend, but there is no doubt that the public image he portrays is devoid of any sort of color.

Compare Duncan’s persona with that of Pete Sampras, another top flight athlete who was long criticized for not having a bankable personality.  Sampras came up through the amateur ranks of tennis in much the same way that his equally celebrated nemesis, Andre Agassi, did.  Sampras won more titles, was more consistent, and left the game in a much more respectful state than Agassi did during his various up and down seasons.  And yet, Agassi was unquestioningly a superior pitch man.  Why?  He was simply more interesting.  He wore interesting clothes, he dated interesting people, he led a more interesting life filled with peaks and valleys.   His personal charisma attracted people to him.  And what happened when we later learned  that much of Agassi’s early career bravado was false pretense?  That he was really just a broken man looking for peace and joy, and that he willfully shared his pain and triumph with us?  We were drawn to him even more.   When we look back at Sampras, we really only began to feel like we connected with him when he went through the agony of watching his coach Tim Gullikson die of brain cancer, and then later when he got married to Bridgette Wilson.  Some people more than others demand emotion from their celebrities, but when the athlete does allow a glimpse inside, most humans, because they are human, can connect.  Thus far, Duncan hasn’t really given us any of that.

Here is an easy litmus test.  Take a look at this picture to the right.  Does that picture make Duncan any more interesting or likable or say anything about him at all?  I would contend it makes him about as interesting as Mr. Freeze in “Batman and Robin.”

Duncan doesn’t look imposing, interesting, or amiable.  He looks like he wants to be anywhere else but there.  And guess what? That’s how fans see him – as a serious guy who plays in a serious manner and they appreciate that level of professionalism.  Their admiration for him for the most part ends there.  This is the extent of Duncan’s charisma, and is therefore the extent of his marketing appeal.

Which brings us back to young Kevin.  Did you know that, after his rookie year playing for the erstwhile Supersonics, he banked just under $26 million, $21.6 of which was purely endorsement income?  True, Seattle loves its sports teams, but is Seattle any more strategic than Oklahoma City?  Did Durant walk away from some massive coffee bean endorsement deal when the team relocated?  Was he a virtual shoe-in for the coveted “fish monger” pitch when he had to pull up his stakes?

It appears that, whatever marketing strategy Durant is pursuing, it is working.  Does it have much of anything to do with where he parks his sweet conversion van at night?  I would say, “No,” which makes the NESN argument flawed.  What makes Durant a likable marketing personality is that he is just that – likable.  He’s kind, considerate, humble, values his family, and loves his teammates.  He is not the complex bundle of contradictions that is LeBron James or Kobe Bryant.  Nobody is forced to ask the uncomfortable question, “Who is he?”

Durant’s simple motto is basically, “This is who I am” (and unlike the WNBA, we actually care).  NBA fans and sports fans generally have dropped the decades-long facade that we’re interested in unknowable superheroes.  Christopher Reeves’ “Superman” has given way to Christian Bale’s “The Dark Knight.”  Shaq has literally gone from “Kazaam!” supernatural genie in a bottle on a big screen to a guy who Tweets that he’s going to show up in a park and pretend he is a 350 pound statue, and he hopes that some people will stop by and say, “hello.”  Despite a laundry list of things that Shaq has done that could turn people off, we still can’t get away from the inescapable truth that we just like the big guy.

So if Durant is going to be a driver of advertising dollars, it will ultimately come down to whether he is genuinely likable.  False likability can take you pretty far, but the days of it covering your entire athletic career are done (MJ was the last to enjoy this luxury).   Today, if you play the “likable” role but are in fact a insufferable prig, sooner or later the gig will be up and you will be left wondering how your house of cards crumbled (see: Woods, Eldrick).

Is Kevin Durant likable? Does he have a genuine charisma that draws people to him? So far, the answer has been an unequivocal YES.  And until the day comes when he is not those things, the dollar bills will follow him wherever he chooses to go.

post script: this entry kicks off a new series which I have unofficially titled, “The Marketing of a Superstar.” Over the course of the season I will be looking at the career arcs of some of the NBA’s most recognizable stars, not simply through their play, but by the way they, with the help of marketing firms and technology, have shaped their public persona.

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One response to “Kevin Durant and Tim Duncan. Who you got, Nike?

  1. Dan November 12, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    I wasn’t aware of Durant’s personality. I thought he just seemed to go under the radar because of the stage that he played on. It will be interesting to see if he is showing his true colors. I thought that Lebron was a real likable guy until he had shown a side that we weren’t aware of.

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