In the high-stakes world of sports marketing, the search for the next Jordan, Tiger or Lebron never ends, highlighted every year by a special “Next” issue of ESPN the Magazine. But the mission to find Mr. or Ms. Next has skewed younger, gone global, and opened itself to some ridicule.
It’s not just a search for a star athlete. The directions of many of the world’s largest corporations hinge on their particular approach to the multi-billion-dollar sports-marketing industry. The athlete search that used to be relegated to college sports and large-scale amateur events like the Olympics has suddenly crept into almost every conceivable sports forum. So went the recent saga of Bryce Harper, a 16-year-old baseball prodigy who was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated last month with a headline reading “the Chosen one.” Already touted as a prominent figurehead in the future of sports marketing, Harper then decided to forego his last two years of high school and attain a GED to play baseball at a community college, accelerating his eligibility to play professionally.
But Harper could be considered a veteran in the search to find the world’s next great sports pitchman. Allonzo Trier is a basketball prodigy already being flown around the country to play in amateur tournaments and even has his own clothing line. He’s 13 years old and you can bet he’s on Nike and Reebok’s respective radars.
It’s a fascinating machine. Some say it is exploitative, but as the search for the next marketing superstar goes global, the system itself that has also opened itself up to exploitation. When word of Masal Bugduv, a 16-year-old Moldovan soccer wunderkind, started to trickle through the footy community, global message boards began to light up with word of this new prodigy. Just one problem, Bugduv didn’t exist: he was an online hoax whose creator has still never been revealed. While the Bugduv affair shone a light on the ridiculousness of looking for corporate assets among children, the truth is most companies will wade through 100 Bugdovs if it means potentially finding the next Michael Jordan.