Invasion of the Product Player

Last week, after the steel tip tournament in Virginia Beach, the topic of conversation came up about elite players, product players, shirts, sponsors and logos. Some of the comments that were made were that there were now so many players sporting new shirts with company logos all looking like they are elite sponsored players. There was no differentiation between elite players, product players and everyday players. One can see how it might seem weird when there are more players in a tournament hall sporting shirts with more company logos than a 3 time World Champion that happened to be in attendance. But I can also see the perspective from the everyday player’s point of view. It’s their money to spend however they want to. And having the opportunity to buy these styles of shirts with the logos added in gives them a sense of belonging to a select group of players. I can see it as a source of camaraderie with players, especially when they sport the same brand and style of shirt.  Is it really the fault of the shirt companies? I do not think the blame can just be dumped on the new shirt companies with their “fancy shirts” as they certainly did not create the problem. These companies saw a business opportunity to fill a demand from the public and give them what they were looking for. I personally have to admit that it is so much easier to have a sublimated shirt with logos than it is to have shirts with patches and have to constantly deal with double sided tape, removing all patches before washing and then making sure they don’t fall off at some point over the weekend. Sublimated shirts are the greatest thing ever. And I do have to agree with the thought someone put out there that it really does lend a lot more to the professional look of the players that buy and wear these shirts. Whereas you would see just a lot of people dressed in normal street clothes and not really understand what you are looking at if you are a non-player just looking in the room, nowadays there is some small sort of uniformity in the dress of the players in attendance. So while the sponsor logo issue can seem to be a detractor, the overall look of the players since the addition of sublimated shirts is definitely a huge positive for darts.

Would it be more beneficial for those companies to create a standard for advertising and marketing not only of their own brand, but across the board in the steel tip and soft tip world? Another interesting idea was companies providing generic logos that can be used on shirts by their product only sponsored players, and then creating other logos with a different color variation that would be specific for their elite sponsored players. Would this eliminate the problem with not knowing who is an elite sponsored player for the company and who is sponsored as a product player? Would this add more value to the companies out there? I can certainly see where it would add more value for the elite players out there to be more easily recognized.
Or can it be the over saturation of product players from all the new companies trying to market in the darts field and are willing to offer what some consider limited giveaway deals to players in order to get their name and brand out there and recognized. Does it give so much free advertising for the companies that then the companies are not willing to pay a little extra to actually sponsor a player to help them get to a higher level? Honestly, I cannot see why they would when they can get all the cheaper advertising they want from the masses that are willing to wear their logo for free product only. And then there is no negotiating power for the elite player. It does not give any leeway for anything extra that the elite player can really offer the company that isn’t already being given freely by ten other local players who are product only players looking to be recognized and wear their logo to look like they are part of the elite group of sponsored players. From a marketing perspective, it’s easy to see why the companies would rather choose 10 lesser known players to be product players than one elite player. Chances are that lesser known product player plays a little more often locally and has the opportunity to expose many other local players to the product, while the elite player may spend more of their time traveling to tournaments every weekend and might not have quite the impact of product exposure that the local player does. Obviously, in this case, the companies are paying for a name to be seen in the later rounds and into the finals of the events. But does this create more brand awareness for their products than those 10 product players? It’s easy enough to tell that the cost for them is cheaper than actually sponsoring an elite player.
Can it also be a fusion of new blood into darts? Those same players who grew up getting participation trophies for Little League. Are those the same players now who want to get something in return for little to no effort? Are they willing to just give themselves away for nothing but product in return for being able to look like one of the top players and fit in the with the “in crowd”? Are product sponsorship’s and new dart shirts with fancy logos all over them the new “participation trophies” of today? One company owner went so far as to say that he was aware of a player actually lying about being sponsored. Do we all really need to stoop to that level?
When it comes down to it, the top players don’t feel so special anymore because when they walk into a room full of dart players, many of them are wearing the same style of shirts with logos all over them. There is less quality derived for those top players that travel 20-30 weekends a year to compete. In the market today for darts, top players should be differentiated in some way from the everyday player. At one time, new players wanted to emulate their favorite top players. Now it seems that being a product player is a more enjoyable avenue for them. So now players can just get a new shirt with logos so they can look like a top player themselves without having to put in all the extra time and effort to become one.

It has become a well-known and obvious frustration for the elite players of today and it’s not without merit. You have many companies out there making a whole lot of money on sales just here in the USA alone and not giving back much in return because they have learned the trick of using the product player for their advertising. Rumors are bandied about regarding some type of unionization of players or some form of committee put in place to help address issues such as these. Such a thing could bring bargaining power back to the elite player and set a standard into place for current and future players. This option just might give the elite players the opportunity to push back on these companies so that they start investing more into the market that they are gaining so much revenue from. At some point, the players have to make some sort of stand. But we all have to wonder if in the end, will those elite players be cutting of their nose to spite their face? The companies could just as easily say good bye to those players and continue using product players to promote their merchandise. We see so much merchandising at other sporting events, yet we don’t seem to see very much at all at dart events.

It now becomes a larger problem for darts in general. We now have companies that are getting advertising for little to no cost to them other than product.  They are not putting much of that money being earned back into the game at some level to help it grow. At some point, this trickles down into other areas. You now have elite players that have less to negotiate with and in return, they are getting less or they are getting turned down completely because those companies can get a lot more for a lot less with product players. This topic also falls into advertising and the other businesses that rely on advertisers in order to put a product out for the players, such as dart magazines…or yes, even a blog! I recently submitted an advertising proposal to a company and they asked if I would accept product in lieu of payment. Somehow I can’t see Coca-Cola offering ABC a few million cans of soda pop in return for commercial advertising.
A new trend could be that the top players now don’t wear fancy shirts with logos at all, thus creating another market for the shirt manufacturers. Perhaps an exclusive line of shirts made solely for those companies to buy for their elite sponsored players, so that only those players will be wearing them and will allow the rest of the players and general public to see that there is something different and gives those players the opportunity to stand out from the crowd. After all, they do put forth a lot of extra time, effort and money to be some of the best players out there. If sponsors are not rewarding them with some sort of compensation to help them achieve their goals in exchange for promoting their products, at least they can still receive the recognition they deserve for all their hard work with a shirt designed specifically them to be recognized as the elite player they are.
Anne Sleepy Kramer