The role of the athlete has evolved in three phases:
- The first phase was that of the athlete as object, the most rudimentary form of sponsorship, where the athlete was "the brand's human billboard". The brand exploits the high performance of its athlete and becomes the embodiment of that performance. The better the athlete's performance is, the more the brand is in the spotlight. "To establish itself as a reference in its sport, the brand takes the gamble of investing in athletes in the hope that they will become the best performers in their category. […] Investing in a multiplicity of athletes is then necessary in order to be sure to succeed at least in one bet in terms of return on investment", underlines Emmanuel Ferry.
- The second phase stems from a more partnership-based perspective and presents the athlete as "the guardian of modern moral values, beyond the world of sport". In order to impose itself on its market and establish its positioning and/or differentiation, the brand appropriates the values conveyed by the athlete, through a mechanism of image transfer. Examples include the partnership of Nike with Colin Kaepernick in his fight against racism, or the partnership between Axa, Berlei Lingerie, and Bumble and Serena Williams in her promotion of gender equality.
- The third phase is collaborative. It has arisen with the advent of social networks where the athletes "become their own brand and decide on their relationship with the sponsors who wish to use their services". Beyond the performance and the values conveyed by athletes, the community that they bring into the collaboration is of the utmost importance. Emmanuel Ferry says that "one of the best examples of this is Kylian M'Bappé with his 52M fans and an engagement rate exceeding 3.69%. To put this in perspective, an influencer is considered highly successful if they have between 1% and 3% of engagement. […] But in this field, the athlete also competes with new types of "non-athlete" competitors who appropriate the territory of sport via lifestyle". Nicolas Blanc notes that there are however two main risks that need to be taken into consideration: reputational risk (doping, personal life) and strategic risk (opinions, speaking out).
Looking back on his experience, the 2012 Olympic Biathlon champion Vincent Jay says that the management of athletes’ social networks is now essential and must be conducted professionally. "After my Olympic victory, my training rhythm was 6 days out of 7 and I devoted the remaining day to representation activities with my sponsors. This rhythm was exhausting and certainly contributed to the premature end of my career at the age of 26 ", says Vincent Jay. Today, he works for the Banque Populaire Rhône-Alpes. Within his role he accompanies young athletes over four-year cycles, where he notably makes them aware of the risks they may incur in terms of communication. These risks echo, more generally, the different variables that impact the value of investments, depending on the assets chosen.