Thu | Apr 26, 2018

Andre Burnett | Could Bolt-mania propel Usain to US billionaire status?

Published:Friday | August 26, 2016 | 12:00 AM
André Burnett
Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt of Jamaica crosses the finish line to win a 100-meter exhibition against a bus along the 9 de Julio Avenue in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Saturday, December 14, 2013. (AP Photo/DyN, Rodolfo Pezzoni)
Olympian and athletic legend, Usain Bolt.

Among all the other discussions about Usain Bolt that I've been a part of over the past month, only one in particular was divisive enough to spark a three-hour-long telegram argument.

The subject - whether Usain Bolt could make it to the US billion-dollar mark that has proved unachievable to the vast majority of athletes across sports. One of my peers was adamant that it couldn't be done because Usain isn't an equity holder in the major products that he endorses and to get to the bil', he would need to build something and profit off of that.

My counterargument was simple. Bolt owns 100 per cent of one really major product - Usain St Leo Bolt - a rare occurrence, the likes of which will never be seen by anyone alive to read this. Stop me if you've heard that 'content is king' sometime in the last few years. In the past few days since Bolt achieved sporting immortality, the world has seen that the man is as intriguing and captivating as the athlete.

*Insert bad joke about his triple on and off the track here*.

Let's look at Kobe Bryant as a case study who seems to be the next athlete who could be on his way to the fabled billion. Kobe, the slightly inferior Jordan clone, just announced his US$100-million venture capital fund and if he is as serious about investments as he was about copying Jordan then this is looking like a sixth ring.

Just like Usain, Kobe's talent ultimately outshone any negative feelings about the person himself.

Just like Kobe, Usain was initially divisive. It seems like a waking dream to recall the uproar when an injured Bolt was bashed for running with his chain clenched in his teeth.

The Americans are still salty about his celebrations but they were a lot louder in 2008 acting as if they didn't remember Maurice Green literally using a fire

extinguisher to douse his spikes after 'burning up the track'. That actually happened. Seriously. Look it up.

Think of Kobe's final season in which Nike and the NBA crafted a nine-month content generation campaign where Kobe's personality and story were carefully managed to make sure that by the time the Mamba was out, you could hardly find anybody that still hated Kobe.

Kobe doesn't have half the personality, charm and magnetism that Usain has, but his uber-seriousness and snarling competitiveness have become almost a parody and kept him relevant even after injuries took him out of the elite player standings.

In the wake of his newly minted 'legend' status, people want to know Usain for the other 23 hours, 59 minutes and 50 seconds that he isn't killing it on the track. That's important because earnings from the sport itself won't ever put him anywhere in the region of other elite athletes.

The issue with track and field and its inability to generate consistent big advertising and media spend is one that can't be fixed because it's inherent to the sport itself. What do I mean? The most exciting track event is 10 seconds long (or short).

The problem here isn't hard to divine. It's really, really, really, really hard to place an ad in a 10 second bit of content. The reason that Arsenal 'player' Jack Wilshere, who isn't really an athlete, can be paid more than the sum of a bunch of track athletes is a football match is 90 minutes long in comparison.

That's not the best analogy, but I can't help making fun of Arsenal whenever I get the chance.

A better example is the fact that Mike Conley will earn over US$150 million over the next five years.

You may take a few seconds to Google 'Mike Conley', because it's really not an issue if you don't know who he is. But the point is that a really average basketball player is earning that eye-watering amount because of all the ads that broadcasters sell to make a 48-minute game into a two-and-a-half-hour TV show.

Despite those limitations, Usain has been able to earn like a genuine superstar because of his transcendence of the sport itself. He's also been able to add a whole other level of theatre to an otherwise low key sport by entertaining before, during and after the race. The 'during' is unprecedented because nobody else has been this spectacular while entertaining the audience.

Who else gets goose bumps when they watch 9.69 in Beijing? The world has chuckled at the shot of him grinning as the rest of the field struggle to exceed their poor human limitations.

And, he provides content that is rewatchable and even more important, shareable.

And, apparently, his penchant for partying is so newsworthy that he has captivated the world and it has created a feeding frenzy.

With each new development, the rate at which everybody is kept up to date is impressive. Article links and one line jokes are being shared on Twitter and Whatsapp groups, memes are being posted on Instagram and Facebook is a hotbed of public opinion about what people think about Bolt.

But forget what people feel about Bolt. The important thing is that they feel at all. He isn't being viewed as an athlete; he is a personality, a semifictional hero - like when people can't quite differentiate between the actor and the character that they love.

This means that he is literally 'walking content' (TV show idea alert: Ideas that keep coming back to life - *badum tish*).

With every race he has until the end of his career, he will be bigger than the race or the tournament and that means there is more content to generate, more media to sell and products to endorse.

But right this minute, the content being generated around Bolt isn't owned by him; it's being dictated by media companies. I would wager that the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom has seen quite the uptick in visits to the online version of their tabloid.

That means the journey to a bil' - if Usain is even interested in that at all - is to capitalise on that captive audience who want to be with Bolt via their phones, TVs and computers. And where people are gathered, marketers will follow.

His marketability has also expanded. Up to this point, the obvious marketing spin was to position Usain in sync with phenomenal speed and, to lesser extent, his fun personality. Now copywriters will have new buzzwords to add to the whiteboard in the brainstorming session: legend, excellence, one of a kind, transcendent.

Plus with every passing day that he isn't doing boring old training, there's a chance that he'll do something to create a buzz across continents. And #bolt will be back at the top of the searched lists on your favourite social media app.

Hell, if nothing else works, a reality show about his love life when he gets back home could be ETV's newest hit.

Andre Burnett is an advertising and creative specialist leading the fight against business cards.