The relationship between sports media and professional athletes is so difficult to describe. But the plain and simple fact is that most professional athletes forget the most basic tenet of business: Without the media, the athlete will be a average paid, middle class working “joe.” Yet despite that fact, many of professional athletes that I’ve encountered as a photographer lose sight of this once they’ve hit the big time.
No doubt the emerging star embraces the media exposure and the requests for interviews and photo shoots. Why? Simple. Money, baby. The emerging star understands that exposure leads to discovery and discovery leads eventually to the pros (never discounting the significance of the athlete’s talent and perseverance). Pros receive hefty contracts from their teams and/or lucrative endorsement deals with various sponsors. That process all starts as early as middle school for some, high school and college athletes for most. Top notch high school athletes have press agents and people that handle their publicity. Hey, that’s smart in my book, but the problem is that most pro athletes forget that the media was an integral part of their journey to prosperity.
The reason teams pay big money to big name athletes is to draw paying fans into their arenas, stadiums, courses etc. How are fans going to be excited about seeing a particular athlete if the fans have no idea who they are? Without the magazines, newspapers, radio and online publications writing about and photographing the athlete, fans would have no desire to pay $50 to see a baseball game. Case and point: When the Dodgers signed Manny Ramirez, ticket sales went through the roof. Fans pay to see star athletes and those fans rely on the media to tell them about the athlete’s accomplishments (and failures).
Like many relationships, the athlete/media relationship doesn’t have to be based on love. But it does need a healthy dose of mutual respect and understanding to prosper. So it’s refreshing to come across pro athletes who still understand this union. And there are a number of them out there. A couple years ago I spent time with NHL player Jordin Tootoo , right, and his family at their home near the Arctic Circle. Very, very cool, humble people who treated me like family (even breaking out the good beer one night!). Another example was when I had the chance to spend a few days with LPGA star (and crossover celebrity who had her own reality show) Natalie Gulbis. Extremely genuine person who was friendly, helpful and thankful for the story and shoot SI did. ‘Course, her dad rides a Harley and has a law enforcement background, so it’s easy to see how she stayed grounded.
Most recently, I spent a few days with Brian Gay and his family in Mayakoba which is about an hour south of Cancun on the Yucatan Peninsula. Sports Illustrated’s Alan Shipnuck was writing a piece about Brian’s long and hard road to success on the PGA Tour, out this week and available here. Brian travels most the time with his wife, Kimberly, and their two young daughters. Brian is on the quiet side but was friendly, pleasant and accepting of spending quite a bit of time shooting away from the course. The same for his wife who told me on more than one occasion how much they appreciated the time we were putting into the story. That’s rare. Even more rare was returning to my room to find a bottle of wine, some gourmet cheese and a note from the Gay family thanking me again. Good manners or good business? Both! It’s smart business and plain old nice to treat people with dignity and respect.
Lorena Ochoa, the best female golfer in the world, and one of the richest, knows like few others how to treat everyone with respect. She’s notorious for stopping by to visit with the grounds crew at a tournament and for inviting them out to celebrate on the final hole when she wins a tournament. And she’s a fan favorite, too. Pure class. And a pure understanding of how it all works.
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