Actually, winning isn’t everything.
That’s what retired NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt, Jr., spent 45 minutes Wednesday emphasizing to the Carolina Panthers.
Now a broadcaster with NBC Sports, Earnhardt was invited to speak to the team during move-in day for training camp at Wofford College. He spent most of his remarks emphasizing how important — and fragile — branding is for professional athletes: That’s something Earnhardt didn’t grasp when he first started driving on stock car racing’s top circuit 20 years ago,
“i thought if you win, that’s all that matters. Most athletes think that. But it’s not that simple,” Earnhardt told the Observer on Thursday.
“I didn’t realize how important your personal brand is. What ‘brand’ even meant. Why it’s very important to have a good relationship with the media, the power of the media, and how you can work together to accomplish what you both want.”
Earnhardt, 44, had a driving career that included 26 Cup wins, including two Daytona 500s. He had an initial boost as the namesake of a seven-time NASCAR champion.
What set him apart was perennially being voted NASCAR’s most popular driver by the fans. How he revealed himself to the public — a regular guy dealing with his imperfections gracefully — helped make him tens of millions of dollars and transitioned him into a spectacular second career with NBC.
Image is crucial in motor sports because sponsorships pay for race teams, but Earnhardt told 90 football players Wednesday that their personal brand is something they must understand and protect:
“I told those guys I grew my brand into something great — something I’m proud of. But if I knew then what I know now I’d be so much further down the road as far as building business opportunity and charitable goals.”
Cam and Twitter
Earnhardt directed his remarks mostly to the younger Panthers; he says veterans such as quarterback Cam Newton and tight end Greg Olsen already know most of what he was sharing. Earnhardt included Newton in his presentation as a star to emulate, as far as using social media such as Twitter to help mold public perception.
Earnhardt used the inherent egos all elite athletes must have as a way to focus them on long-term effect of image.
“All of you want to be superstars,” Earnhardt said he told the Panthers, “so you better have a plan for how to be as superstars. If you feel you can be one, then you’d better prepare a brand.”
Earnhardt advised that whatever image an athlete presents to the world must be something he can live with — authentic, not contrived.
For Earnhardt, that meant never stop being the kid from Kannapolis:
“The idea is to be real,” he said. “I was the guy next door because that’s who I really am.”
For instance, Earnhardt showed up for most public appearances in T-shirts and jeans. He shared with the media normal-guy struggles, like realizing as he approached 40 he could no longer make chicken wings and pizza his diet staples without getting fat.
His “secret” to being comfortable with fame was actually never get all that comfortable with fame.
“I was always fearful of feeling too much adulation from the fans,” Earnhardt recalled. “Fame, celebrity was not something I wanted to become too comfortable with because it’s not a part of your real life. At some point, people stop caring who you were.”
Why war with media?
Earnhardt told the Panthers that learning to share yourself with the fans through the media — getting to know reporters and having genuine dialogue — is as productive for the athlete as for the media outlets.
“You can dread going to (interviews) when they’re unavoidable,” Earnhardt passed on. “Or you can enjoy it and understand it can be a boost to all your future business and charitable goals.”
That’s different from being careless; Earnhardt said not thinking before saying the wrong thing — whether in an interview or by sending out a foolish Tweet — can undermine lots of goodwill.
Earnhardt said he learned a new perspective on this working for NBC; seeing the process from those asking the questions.
“The media has got a job to do,” Earnhardt said. “If you put in a little effort, they’ll make you look good.”
Earnhardt grew up a devoted Washington Redskins fan from before the Panthers entered the NFL in 1995. Some Panthers players needled him Wednesday about not switching allegiance to the hometown team.
“The Panthers are my second team,” Earnhardt said, “I’ll never totally give up the Redskins, but rooting for them lately has been hard to do.”