Facebook Year in Review: LeBron, World Cup dominate

Source: Audemars Piguet
Source: Audemars Piguet

What can sports business take away from Facebook’s year in review? Invest in LeBron and the World Cup.

LeBron James was the most discussed athlete in the United States, followed by Derek Jeter, Floyd Mayweather, Lionel Messi, Peyton Manning, Carmelo Anthony, Tim Howard, Luis Suarez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Dale Earnhardt Jr. The most important business questions are why those athletes and how can companies take advantage of this popularity? What do these names have in common?

Messi, Howard, Suarez and Ronaldo all played significant roles in the 2014 World Cup, which was also the most talked about event on Facebook, ahead of Ebola and the Super Bowl. While it might have been easy to predict that, investing in a soccer player is difficult for U.S. companies. Most if not all the ROI in the endorsement would originate abroad in non-World Cup years. Signing an up-and-coming star could work, but what if the player is left off his national team? What if he just doesn’t perform during the World Cup? This wouldn’t immediately translate into business benefits for endorsement companies. Could Messi be in the top ten again next year? Sure, but I doubt he’ll be No. 4.

(AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)
(AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

We’ve discussed at length LeBron’s branding power and effect on the NBA, but he has something else in common with another person on the list: Carmelo Anthony. Both were part of the NBA free agent frenzy this year, meaning they were discussed a lot on social media.

Companies can easily plan this out. Nike should (and will) probably have a campaign for Kevin Durant during his free agency tour in 2016. Activations and marketing plans can be hashed-out well in advance. This goes for any big-name free agent in any sport. If they are marketable and have the chance to move, they will be discussed on social media.

Derek Jeter had the power of his retirement and farewell tour. As we know, that was monetized at almost every stop. Companies would have to work closely with its talent to be able to activate here. Imagine a Peyton Manning retirement tour. Papa Johns and Nationwide would obviously attempt to activate around it.

William Perlman/NJ Advance Media for NJ.com via USA TODAY Sports
William Perlman/NJ Advance Media for NJ.com via USA TODAY Sports

The last three on the list (Manning, Earnhardt and Mayweather) are big names in their respective sports who won or played at the top of their game this year. Manning made it to his third Super Bowl (the No. 8 most talked about event) and set NFL passing records on his way to becoming MVP. Mayweather continued to win and sell fights, and Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 and is the most marketable name in NASCAR. This is more of the stereotypical endorsement deal: Sign big names, and activate at any chance.

The year in review confirms the global branding power of the World Cup. Even with FIFA corruption allegations, if a brand is associated with the World Cup it will get exposure. As for other sports-related topics/people/places that made the top-10 list, Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden were in the top-10 most tagged places in the U.S.

As sports business looks to leverage social media, it is important to keep in mind what and who is trending. Social media essentially provides free advertising, and can give endorsements the most bang for the buck.

Michael Colangelo is Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute and Senior Editor of The Fields of Green.

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