Last month it was revealed that at the tender age of 20 Nick Kyrgios was already the most marketable athlete in Australia. A fairly incredible reflection of his rapid rise into the Australian sporting conscience, especially when you consider that his biggest successes to date have been reaching quarter-finals of the Australian Open and Wimbledon. Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ll know that he’s been in the news for the wrong reasons recently so I want to explore whether his recent escapades have damaged or in fact strengthened ‘brand Kyrgios’.
Brands have been quick to jump on board the Krygios rollercoaster, with his current sponsorship portfolio already boasting the likes of Beats by Dre, Nike, Bonds, Yonex and Malaysia airlines. It’s likely that these brands have always known they were taken a slight risk with the Canberra born tennis ace, his temperament and petulance on court have never been a secret, but they have all in some way recognised the unique qualities, swagger and individuality that he exudes.
His first big sponsorship gig took place last year when he replaced Pat Rafter as the new face, and body, of Bonds. After years of being associated with Pat Rafter it seemed logical for the brand to replace him with the next young, bright tennis thing. However it wasn’t long before Nick managed to court controversy after admitting on Sunrise that not only does he not wear Bonds on court, but he doesn’t wear underwear at all…
Not to be put off, this year Beats by Dre got behind Kyrgios in a big way with their campaign launching just before Wimbledon. They went beyond simply seeing him as a good fit based on his tennis ability and instead recognised everything else that he manages to bring to the court. It’s challenging, it’s bold and it’s cool.
For a young Australian to be wearing bright pink headphones at a tournament renowned for its ‘no-coloured attire policy’ certainly turned heads and created a stir, but he managed to take it upon himself to become the walking embodiment of the brand.
‘No audible obscenities’? – He swore on court and then at an umpire. ‘No racket abuse’? – He threw his racket in every game he played, once so hard it actually ended up in the crowd. But the behaviour that really led to Nick making the headlines was for ‘tanking’, after he appeared to throw a game after receiving what he perceived to be an unfair line call. The fans could tolerate his attitude but he had crossed a line, a line that not even the greatest tennis brat of them all, John McEnroe would have (according to John McEnroe). This would have been difficult to stomach for any brand associated with Krygios, they would want their man to remain popular in their key markets and Nick would have been made aware of the potential damage he would cause. He went on the defensive and escaped formal punishment meaning it will blow over to an extent, until next year at least, but he will forever be associated with this episode.
To add to the pressure every media personality suddenly held an opinion including former Olympic swimmer Dawn Fraser who said when asked of his on court behaviour, “If they don’t like it, go back to where their fathers or their parents came from. We don’t need them here in this country if they act like that.” Krygios, in typical Kyrgios fashion, lambasted Fraser labelling her ‘blatantly racist’ to his 180k Facebook fans. A message which he stands by a week later and a message which has garnered nearly 18,000 likes. That’s another thing about the self-confessed social media addict, his voice is loud and growing louder by the day. Since last January he has gone from a following of 4,000 to nearly 300,000, an influence that brands will be increasingly keen to tap in to.
So where does his latest behaviour leave the ‘most marketable athlete in Australia’? A position he holds over the likes of Daniel Riccardo, Tim Cahill and Michael Clarke no less. Well I dare say that he’s actually managed to strengthen his positon. If before the tournament he was a rising star he has now very much announced himself to the world. Beats by Dre must be delighted by the exposure he generated, particularly in the way he nailed the brief by living out the highly-played TV spot. I’m not suggesting he would have received a bonus per swear-word or racket-throw but I doubt they would have discouraged his behaviour either. They’ve simply encouraged him to be himself, be challenging, be bold, be cool.
His new standing as a ‘controversial sports star’ will certainly lead to brands thinking twice about how their association might be damaging, and he would certainly pose a risk for any safety-first Sponsorship Manager but if they can find a way to harness his unpredictability in a way like Beats have then they are on to something special.
Underneath all the controversy after all is a genuine star with the ability to sell tennis to the next generation, a brand just needs to strap themselves in and be prepared for the ride.