The PR people of the Golden State Warriors recorded Omri Casspi’s arrival at the team’s training area last week. They filmed him disembarking from the classy car that transported him and the white shirt with his name embossed awaiting him in the dressing room. Then he got respect from the kids waiting for him in the arena. No wonder, after he signed onto the ranks of the best basketball team in the world, with the real potential of changing “world” to “history” in the next few years.
“The country went nuts,” Casspi told the Oakland press about the Israeli reaction to his career development. “The Warriors are like rock stars.” Being part of it is a blessing, he added.
There’s no disputing that it’s a blessing to his career. The Warriors are the NBA champions and not a betting agency in town thinks it’ll be otherwise next season. If there was any question about Casspi’s signing with Golden State, it’s the money. His contract, which gives him $2.1 million for the year – a low figure for a player with his record – is probably worth less than he could get elsewhere. Which begs the question: Can Casspi redeem his new glory in some other way?
‘Cornflakes of the Warriors’
At food manufacturer Telma, for which Casspi has been doing ads for over six years, they wasted no time. A day after the contract with Golden State was signed, it ran a full-page ad in Yedioth Ahronoth for “The Cornflakes of the Warriors.”
Casspi, starting his ninth season in the league, is the first Israeli in the NBA, and has a great opportunity to boost his brand. However, this is also the first time he’s playing on such a high-profile team.
Oded Kramer, a former advertising executive, explains that from a marketing perspective, Casspi is in a unique situation compared to other Israeli athletes. “There is a problem with athletes in Israel – much of our sports culture is built on hatred,” he says. “That’s life: They love our team and hate the other team. It’s not very good for advertising.
“I know the theories about why Israeli athletes are lousy in ads,” he continues, citing their reputation for having a poor work ethic. “It’s hard to succeed when for everyone who loves you, there are two who hate you. But times have changed. In advertising, sports stars are a shortcut. The advertiser wants positive attention and I don’t need people to see Eran Zehavi and say ‘Ugh, Maccabi,’ or the opposite for someone from Hapoel.”
But when an Israeli athlete has gotten beyond this inner circle and reached the NBA, the circle of hatred evaporates, Kramer says. Casspi definitely has potential in advertising that he didn’t have before.
It isn’t that Israelis hadn’t played abroad before, but for one thing, this is the NBA, not soccer, and for another, Casspi got out of Israel before being “tarnished” by the hatred, Kramer says. The one parallel might be soccer star Yossi Benayoun, who advertised cheese. “For my money,” Kramer says, “there is a possibility here of doing something that no one has done, to become a true champion of leading [advertising] categories. If that happens, it would be an amazing achievement.”
Looking at other NBA players who came from relatively small countries, one might think the achievement is practically guaranteed. Take the Georgian who plays for the Warriors, Zaza Pachulia. Georgia has fewer than 4 million people, and almost all admire the No. 1 citizen – although he lives in the U.S. He’s so popular that he was chosen by the fans for the All-Star event in the last two years, after massive national mobilization.
“I always say that I represent my family when I’m in my country, but I represent my big family, which is Georgia, when I’m outside of my country,” he told the Mercury News in late May. “Every move I make, on and off the court, I’m thinking about doing the right thing for my country. It’s a small country, but I’ve said it before, we Georgians have a big heart, we all support each other in every way we can.”
Maybe, but Pachulia, 33, is also checking how deep the Georgians’ pocket runs. Last year in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, he inaugurated the Snap Fitness center, a complex featuring four basketball courts, weight-lifting rooms, dressing rooms, a restaurant and dormitories, which can accommodate up to 700 athletes.
Pachulia also plans to get into the tourism business. Two hotels bearing his initials, ZP, are already operating in Tbilisi. “The image of Zaza Pachulia has a positive impact on the network’s success,” said Dimitri Meltsessov, the hotel’s sales manager, as quoted by the Georgian website BPI. Thus Pachulia has laid the foundation for his post-basketball golden parachute, as did the Polish player Marcin Gortat of the Washington Wizards.
Gortat, the only NBA player from Poland, has also become an impressive marketing asset. In addition to helping the Polish Ministry of Economy in managing the apple export crisis of 2014, he made good money in recent years. “You could say that,” he answered a Polish journalist who wondered whether he was not only a person but also a brand. He now has 14 people working for him, including marketing managers and public relations people, and says that in the NBA you meet veteran players and business people every day. Which is why the Gortat brand is constantly developing.
Two years ago, nobody could predict how Kristaps Porzingis’ brand would evolve. He was the great basketball hope of Latvia – literally, at 2.21 meters (7 ft. 2-1/2 in.), but there were skeptics. When he was chosen fourth in the 2015 New York Knicks draft, he was roundly booed.
Porzingis may have broken the Guinness World Record for “the quickest transition from scorn to advertising contracts.” Less than five months after being scorned, when he began to realize his potential on the parquet, he already had three sponsorship deals – Delta Airlines, a mattress company and an energy drink.
Then, Porzingis claimed he took the deals because of necessity: His family often flew from Latvia to New York, he had sleep problems because of his height, and he adored the taste of the energy drink and often bought it at the supermarket.
Globally speaking, Porzingis is a much bigger name than Pachulia or Casspi. He’s become a brand name in Poland. It keeps him hopping. Just recently a major credit company in Latvia launched a campaign starring him.
For Casspi, joining a team like Golden State certainly can’t hurt. “He has the potential to do things that no one else could have done,” says Kramer.
Not all foreign nationals who play in the NBA attain superstar status at home. Jonas Jerebko is a Swede who plays for the Boston Celtics and, like Casspi, is the first homeboy to make the NBA. But the Swedes pay little attention to him. Nobody mounted a campaign to get him on the All-Stars. He hasn’t given his name to hotels in Stockholm or even had his face on boxes of breakfast cereal. Talking to the Telegram, Jerebko listed six sports that Sweden likes more than basketball, including reindeer racing and ice fishing.
Casspi is light years ahead, and with all due respect to Telma, Kramer thinks the Israeli can do better. Asked what campaign, hypothetically, would best fit Casspi, Kramer immediately replies, “If one of the big banks wants to talk about how you don’t need to come to the bank branch anymore and can manage everything digitally, what could be better than this giant winner sitting in San Francisco on the bay, and managing his bank account remotely? It’s so perfect, I don’t know how it hasn’t happened yet.”
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