By Chuck Wielgus//USA Swimming Executive Director | Monday, April 25, 2016I’ve been fortunate to be around a lot of athletes from many different sports. Some of these athletes have been arrogant and self-centered, and some have been humble and thoughtful. How an athlete acts will be how people will judge him or her. That’s only natural.
In this age of social media, we are increasingly hearing about an individual athlete’s “brand.” An athlete’s brand is really about reputation; in other words, what we think of them.
Take Steph Curry for example. He’s the most exciting and fun player to watch in basketball, and he’s also established himself as a good father and a really nice guy. That’s what I call a good brand.
In 2009, I had the opportunity to be in Miami for the Super Bowl Game between the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints. One night before the game, I was invited to an ESPN party. It was a crowded and star-studded affair. When I arrived, several hundred people were already there and my wife and I found a quiet space to have a drink and talk.
A few feet away from us, standing all alone, was then rookie quarterback sensation, Mark Sanchez. We made eye contact only for a second, and then Mark walked over and politely introduced himself to us. When he asked what I did for a living and I told him about my association with USA Swimming, he was quick to point out that USC, where he went to school, had a pretty good swimming program.
I was impressed, but mostly I was taken with how humble and polite this collegiate superstar athlete was with Nancy and me. He acted just like a regular guy, we talked sports, talked about the game to come, after which I wished him good luck and we parted ways. It was just one of those simple encounters that left me with a good feeling about what appeared to be a really nice guy.
Now that Sanchez is with the Denver Broncos, my rooting interest in our home team here in Colorado is going to an even higher level.
Years ago, back before the hammer came down on him, I had occasion to meet Lance Armstrong. If I think highly about Steph Curry and Mark Sanchez, my meeting with Armstrong led me to an entirely opposite conclusion. I root for guys like Curry and Sanchez, and have no sympathy for an athlete like Armstrong.
An athlete who is long past his glory days of competition, yet still adored by legions of fans, is Arnold Palmer. Talk about an athlete with a brand; Palmer’s reputation as a nice guy gentleman is legendary.
Palmer is very aware of his reputation, and he always takes care to nurture his personal brand. Take for example his autograph. Anyone who has seen an Arnold Palmer autograph has no doubt at whose name they’re looking. The “A” and the “P” are large and every letter is clearly identifiable. And Palmer says, “When I sign my name I want people to be able to read it.”
What a simple lesson for every athlete … sign your name so that people can read it. It’s okay for a doctor to scribble out his name on a prescription, but athletes and others who are asked for autographs ought to at least do right and make their autograph legible.
In a few weeks, Omaha will become the center of the swimming universe. If past experiences are any indication, we can also expect that there will be hundreds of kids looking to take a selfie or get an autograph from athletes competing for spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic Swim Team. Even those athletes who have little chance of making the team will attract the attention of adoring 12-year-olds.
These kids aren’t collecting selfies or autographs to resell; they are collecting these things to post on social media, paste into their personal scrapbooks, or pin to a bulletin board in their room at home.
I’ve watched our top National Team athletes sit for hours and sign autographs for kids. I’ve also watched athletes stop to take selfies with young age groupers. I’ve seen swimmers give away their caps to kids, and I’ve even witnessed a few athletes who have given their medals to young fans. What a great thing it does for our sport when our most well-known athletes take the time to acknowledge and inspire the next generation.
So, if asked for advice about how to establish a personal brand, my advice to any athlete is to simply start by being nice. Above all, be nice to kids because they are the future and they are the ones who are looking up to you as a role model. When time permits, stop and take a selfie with a kid or sign an autograph … and remember to sign your name legibly! It will create an impression for a lifetime.