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Changing the Game for Athletes Pursuing the Business Side of Sport

Each year, Hashtag Sports looks to raise the bar on our conference experience, and this year was no exception. In addition to the introduction of The Hashtag Sports Awards which celebrated excellence in fan engagement through sports-led content & campaigns, we were excited to introduce a new athlete-centric program which has been designed specifically for athletes interested in the business side of sports.

For athletes interested in off-the-field pursuits, we know that Hashtag Sports is a source of inspiration and community building, but the conference also could be overwhelming to those new to such events. With this in mind, we worked with athlete brand consultancy BrandForward in 2019 to provide a curated and customized program that could prepare and guide athletes through the conference experience and ensure they maximized their time.

Designed by award-winning brand architects and athlete brand strategists Patty Hubbard and Stephanie Martin of BrandForward, the program – Athlete x Brand Navigate – provided each participant with a conference gameplan and introductions to contacts who aligned with the athletes’ career and business objectives, as well as professional development training onsite.

Patty Hubbard and Stephanie Martin founded their consultancy BrandForward to help current and retired athletes learn how to become the CEOs of their own brands. Having worked closely with professional athletes throughout their careers, the sports marketing veterans wanted to help athletes learn how to tap the power of their platforms and understand they all had unique stories to tell.

“Over the course of our careers, we saw a huge disparity between how different athletes’ stories were being told, how their brands were being perceived and the varying levels of access athletes had to resources and support off the field. We wanted to close that gap,” said Hubbard.

Now with clients across different 13 sports and providing professional development workshops for the athletes of organizations such as the LPGA, US Rugby Players Association and the San Francisco 49ers, Hubbard and Martin also wanted to create a forum where the athlete brand community could come together to learn from each other. The result: the Athlete x Brand series of events and workshops.

“We wanted to create a space where athletes and the people working on the next generation of athlete brands could come together, share insights and walk away with important connections, lessons and tools, as well as opportunities to collaborate,” said Martin.

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As part of this series, BrandForward continually assesses not only which trends, topics and individual stories to share, but also what type of programming could really help athletes accelerate their brand growth and endurance. It was a conversation with a few of their clients that sparked the idea for Athlete x Brand Navigate.

“One of our clients was invited to attend a conference earlier this year, so we actively encouraged him to attend. With the caliber of the attendees and the content that was to be shared, we knew this experience could provide him with inspiration for his off-the-field pursuits and some great business connections for the future,” said Martin. “After the conference ended, I asked him how it went. His one-word response: overwhelming. And then another client had a similar experience at a difference conference.”

After polling other athletes, BrandForward found that many felt they weren’t able to fully take advantage of the conferences they attended and didn’t feel comfortable breaking into conversations with what they perceived as a tight-knit group of people who were well-advanced in their careers.

“We thought: there was too much of an opportunity here for athletes interested in the business side of sport to not take advantage of the right conferences and business gatherings, so we designed Athlete x Brand Navigate to help guide athletes through the conference experience.

“Conferences can be overwhelming for anyone, and especially for those who just are beginning to pursue interests off the field, or are transitioning out of sport and into their next careers. In designing the Navigate program, we wanted to take the guesswork out of the experience and provide athletes with a program that was built around their individual needs and goals,” said Martin.

In looking for a conference that would meet the many of the interests of athletes today – entrepreneurism, content creation, digital media and brand partnerships – BrandForward thought that Hashtag Sports was a natural place to launch this type of program.

“With more than 120+ speakers, including athletes who are already leading the way like Baron Davis and Julian Edelman, combined with participants from across the industry, we knew Hashtag Sports would be a great place to test the concept, and connected with the conference organizers to partner on Navigate,” said Hubbard. “We were excited to see that the idea rang true with both current and retired professional athletes.”

With interest from across the U.S., Canada and Europe, the first Navigate cohort included drew athletes from ten different professional, Olympic and Paralympic sports.

The Athlete x Brand Navigate experience included a half-day workshop in advance of Hashtag Sports where the BrandForward team focused on personal brand strategy and helping the participants to develop their own brand story game plans. Held at the LinkedIn offices in New York, the workshop featured an all-star panel of guests to discuss changing face of athlete-driven content, including Justin Acker of Allied Sports, Matt Cohen of Point Seven Labs, Julia McInnis of Lancealot and Jenni Rutherford of The Players’ Tribune. Finally, they closed the session with presentation from Afiya Addison and Lindsay Robinson of LinkedIn on optimizing the impact of the participants’ personal profiles.

“The workshop really served as an important reminder of the importance of authenticity in telling your story. It made me think about my own approach to social media and how to tell a compelling story. BrandForward has really helped me think about how to define my brand even more and in a very clear way,” said Cassie Hawrysh, a Team Canada World Cup Skeleton Racer, SheIs ambassador and marketing consultant.

Over the next two days, Athlete x Brand Navigate participants got access to all of the panels at Hashtag Sports 2019, as well as individual opportunities based on their interests. For example, for the participants who were interested in being hosts or broadcasters, they got the opportunity to present live at the Hashtag Sports’ first industry awards show.

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“Hashtag Sports was a great networking experience. There aren’t necessarily opportunities where you can get people from such diverse backgrounds in one space, hear their thoughts and opinions on panels, and then also speak to them one-on-one,” said Alanna Flax-Clarke, a para-dressage rider whose sights are set on the 2020 Paralympic Games. “Coming from a para-sport where we don’t always have access to these types of opportunities, I found the one-on-one conversations really valuable.”

In addition to helping participants navigate the agenda, our Hashtag Sports team and BrandForward worked to set up one-on-one meetings between program participants and industry leaders in attendance at Hashtag Sports 2019.

“I was blown away at the level of professionalism, and attention to detail I experienced with BrandForward and their Athlete x Brand Program. As a former NFL athlete who’s now created a career in media and entertainment, I was not only able to connect with others in my field, but also learn from some of the most successful individuals in my industry,” said Dale Moss, former NFL wide receiver, entrepreneur, host and fitness model. “One of the most exciting opportunities was being able to be paired with mentors, and have meetings set up during the conference to gain perspective and also grow your network with the right people.”

BrandForward is returning to Hashtag Sports in 2020 with an expanded Athlete x Brand Navigate program as they seek to provide more athletes with meaningful experiences that could open new doors. In addition, they are hosting their next summit in San Francisco on September 24 at the Pac-12 Network offices.

“It is so amazing what Stephanie and Patty are doing with BrandForward. As an athlete, your life is really managed, but when the game is over and you are transitioning, you need help defining the direction and your brand. I was grateful to be here,” said WNBA legend, singer and Women’s Sports Foundation ambassador Kym Hampton.