Why top draft pick Victor Wembanyama is an unprecedented branding opportunity is an article published by Yahoo Finance on 23rd June 2023 that Strive’s Managing Director, Malph Minns, contributed to. 

Turn on your TV and, pretty quickly, you’ll see an NBA star selling something. There’s the Golden State Warriors’s Stephen Curry hawking Subway sandwiches, former Phoenix Sun Chris Paul cracking jokes for State Farm Insurance, and WNBA superstars Candace Parker and Sue Bird chatting it up in CarMax ads (with Curry, naturally). Then, of course, there’s future Hall-of-Famer and current Los Angeles Laker LeBron James, who seems like he’s selling everything in sight.

But soon, these stars will be welcoming someone new to the club, someone who may bring the game of athlete endorsements to a new level.

Meet Victor Wembanyama, 19, the most anticipated talent to come into the NBA since LeBron himself. Last night, he was drafted as the No. 1 overall pick by the San Antonio Spurs. For companies and marketers, Wembanyama – nicknamed Wemby – represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Commentators have described him as “unlike anyone we’ve ever seen,” while NBA superstars like Curry and Kevin Durant have publicly expressed their awe. Wembanyama stands at a towering 7’4″ – or something like that, as his official height hasn’t yet been reported – with a wingspan even larger.

“There’s never been a player with his physical skills, he could be LeBron 2.0,” said University of South Florida professor Bill Sutton, a former NBA executive. “There just aren’t any players who have a 7’5″ wingspan who also have his ability to defend, shoot, and move. He’s a Star Wars pick, that galaxy far, far away.”

A Star Wars pick: French basketball player Victor Wembanyama speaks during a press event ahead of the NBA draft, in New York City on June 21. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

For the NBA’s preeminent athletes, there’s a lot of money on the table, when it comes to endorsement deals. In the 2022-2023 season, James made $80 million on endorsements, for instance, while Curry, Durant, and Giannis Antetokounmpo all made more than $40 million apiece, according to data from Statista.

Some experts say Webanyama can top them all.

Wembanyama comes from a different place than many of basketball’s biggest stars – literally. He’s from France, played for the country’s Metropolitan 92s, and is entering a league still dominated by athletes from the U.S. In a showcase game last year against the pro G League Ignite – his first in the US – Wembanyama’s staggering stat line included 37 points and 5 blocks.

The Bleacher Report’s headline: “Victor Wembanyama Is Unlike Anything You’ve Seen Before (No, Really).”

The teenager’s gifts have led to numerous descriptions of him as a “unicorn.” In tech, that’s a term for a startup that’s reached a billion-dollar valuation with more to come. For investors, they’ll get the best return on a unicorn when they get in early. In Wembanyama’s case, a tidal wave of brands will be clawing to get in on the ground floor for what just might be a legendary career.

The Wemby sweepstakes already has its first, albeit unsurprising, winner: Nike (NIKE). The sneaker giant has reportedly struck a deal with Wembanyama, putting him under the same brand-roof as many of the NBA’s biggest names, like James, Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Devin Booker. Though we don’t yet know what Nike’s deal with Wembanyama will be worth, it could be in the ballpark of $100 million. The deal with Wembanyama is one Nike’s teased on social media and they reportedly already had a deal with him while playing in France, of an unknown value. (Nike did not return requests for comment.)

A screenshot of Nike Basketball's May 16 tweet.
A screenshot of Nike Basketball’s May 16 tweet.

Nike’s only the beginning. For example, dozens of energy drink, snack, and apparel companies are interested in pursuing a partnership with him, sources confirmed to Yahoo Finance. From here, the speed at which deals get done and go public comes down to the decisions that Wembanyama and agent Bouna Ndiaye make. (Ndiaye didn’t return a request for comment.)

The NBA’s gone digital

Why might Wembanyama surpass even the NBA’s biggest-ever stars? Because he just might be NBA’s first generational mega-star for a digitally-native world.

James was drafted in 2003, and Facebook wouldn’t be founded until 2004. Now, twenty years later, Wembanyama will enter a social media-saturated NBA and his presence on platforms like Meta’s (META) Instagram and TikTok gives him a direct line to an audience all his own. In 2023 to date, Wembanyama’s following on Instagram has ballooned 58% from 1 million to 1.7 million, according to Nielsen Sports. His engagement rate’s also off-the-charts. Influencers with 1 million followers-plus have a media engagement rate of between 1 and 1.3% – for Wemby, that number is 14.1%.

Those follower count and engagement numbers matter big-time. The NBA’s audience – a coveted one for companies – is increasingly dominated by Millennial and Gen Z consumers, who comprise 46% of the fanbase, said Malph Minns, managing director at the commercial and marketing agency Strive Sponsorship.

“What’s incredibly unique and a strength of the NBA is how they’ve cultivated the Millennial and Gen Z audience in a big way and tech has been an enabler of that,” said Ashley Brantman, SVP and Co-Head of Jack 39 at Jack Morton, a sponsorship consulting agency.

The NBA and its players’ social media savvy is inextricably connected to the league’s youthful, growing audience. “It’s not just the league’s powerful reach, but that of the teams and players, too,” said Strive’s Minns. “NBA athletes’ social media influence surpasses other professional sports athletes by nearly 2.5 times the average engagement per sponsorship.”

Basketball players overall also have an added advantage when it comes to gaining a following and, subsequently, commanding high prices in sponsorship negotiations.

“When it comes to basketball players, there are fewer of them,” said Jason Bergman, cofounder of MarketPryce, a marketplace that connects athletes and companies for potential partnerships. “They don’t wear helmets when they play. They’re on a national stage, and they’re more visible in all sorts of ways, so they’re also more expensive to work with. Sometimes, working with basketball players can cost five times more than working with football players. If you wanted to work with an NFL player, you might be able to do it for $1,000, but most basketball players probably won’t get out of bed until they’re looking at $5,000 to $10,000, so it’s a high bar.”

Branding opportunity: the Wemby ROI

The combination of Wemby’s talent, fit with the San Antonio Spurs, and his international background mean that the ROI on working with him on endorsements could be especially high. Working with a star can be a long-term investment for brands, especially if they make All-Star teams and spearhead deep playoff runs. As with tech companies, investing early in a star player often has a better ROI than, say, just buying an ad in a one-off.

Said University of Oregon Professor of Marketing T. Bettina Cornwell: “Brands typically pay, $7-10 million dollars per year for a 2.5 square inch NBA jersey patch” she said. “If you consider that they play 82 games per season and each game lasts over two hours, this can compare favorably to advertising. As an example, for the NBA Finals, ABC charged $1.2 million for a 30-second commercial. For brands with teams making it to the final tip-off, the economic value was considerable.”

Additionally, Wembanyama’s French roots matter. For brands, it’s a chance to expand their international reach, particularly in Europe. For the NBA, Wembanyama’s arrival could mark the culmination of decades of effort to appeal to audiences beyond the US.

“The fact he’s French makes him more identifiable with the international fanbases the NBA is spending a lot of time growing,” said Minns. “This is where the growth opportunity for the league and associated brands is… Wemby’s success will help drive eyeballs”

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Frequently asked questions

What is a branding opportunity?

A branding opportunity is a chance for a company or organization to promote and enhance its brand visibility, recognition, and image through various channels, events, or partnerships.

What defines good branding?

Good branding is defined by consistent messaging, a strong visual identity, clear communication of values, and creating a positive emotional connection with the target audience.

What is the main purpose of branding?

The main purpose of branding is to distinguish a company, product, or service from its competitors, creating a unique and memorable identity in the minds of consumers, fostering loyalty, and influencing their purchasing decisions.