During a break in the action of this past season’s Texans vs. Bengals Monday Night Football showdown, the ESPN broadcast team opted to take a moment during the telecast to praise Houston DE J.J. Watt.
The admiration wasn’t for Watt’s on-the-field performance, however. Instead, the announcing duo of Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden wanted to commend the perennial Pro-Bowl pass-rusher for what he was doing off the field, namely his well-publicized charitable work with children battling serious illnesses and wounded combat veterans.
Tirico finished the segment by praising Watt’s noble intentions, saying that he “visits hospitals and soldiers, and he does it without cameras. He’s not seeking attention.”
Immediately after Tirico finished speaking, an expansive collage of pictures of Watt with sick children and wounded soldiers appeared on the screen.
That one conflicting message and image is an excellent example of why there are now looming questions beginning to fester about just how genuine and sincere Watt truly is.
The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year is a perfect case study concerning the difference between a celebrated athlete’s carefully crafted projected public image and the true intentions of both him and his team of handlers and beneficiaries.
There is a time in every star athlete’s career, especially in today’s culture where every player has multiple social media accounts and platforms to reach fans (i.e. potential consumers of sports apparel, soft drinks, fast food, etc.), when he becomes just as much of a brand as he does a player.
Watt has clearly reached that point in the process.
A significant signal of an athlete transforming into a brand that can be bought and sold is the introduction of an all-encompassing logo. Most of the big time global money-makers like LeBron, Jordan, Tiger, Lionel Messi, Usain Bolt and Tom Brady all have them.
J.J. introduced his official logo back in May.
A logo’s a simple symbol with a complex message. It’s something a player’s fans can identify with as well as a dog whistle to Corporate America that an athlete is ready to take his marketing strategy seriously and ascend into a new echelon of potential earnings.
If this offseason is any indication, it’s clear that Watt and his handlers have a sincere desire to be included in that special tier of marketable media darling athletes.
His “rehabilitation schedule” from an offseason surgery to fix a nagging groin injury that was conveniently used as an excuse for why his play suffered down the stretch of the 2015 season has been packed to say the least. It’s an event-filled agenda that’s included co-hosting the Country Music Awards, presenting an award at the ESPY’s, filming a commercial for H-E-B Meal Simple with new Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler and making an appearance on the Jimmy Fallon Show to play something called Egg Russian Roulette.
What Watt’s biggest offseason priority has truly been, though, is undoubtedly clear: The marketing of his first sneaker, produced by his official sponsor Reebok, called the JJ I Trainer.
For the low, low price of $99.98 plus shipping, you can own a pair of a shoes that, according to Watt himself is “the best training shoe to train in every single day.”
#HuntGreatness is the tag line and hashtag that Reebok’s marketing team has asked Watt to propagate, and he’s certainly obliged.
Though he’s been sidelined at the Texans preseason camp due to his
rigorous schedule of offseason media and marketing appearances recent back surgery, Watt has been out and about, adorned in a shirt with the phrase Hunt Greatness, which you can buy at Reebok’s official shop for the low, low price of $25 plus shipping.
It’s now at this point in the transformation process from athlete into brand when casual observers can begin to ask themselves, what’s this J.J. Watt fella really all about?
To begin to form an answer to that question, let’s start by looking at the backlash and criticism Watt has faced recently.
Let’s start with the true pioneer of sports talk radio, WFAN’s Mike Francesa.
“I’m so sick of hearing about Watt, it’s ridiculous. His team never wins anything.”
I remember going on lunch break and listening to this rant live. At the time, I was thinking Mike just pretty much perfectly summed up the ill-guided reverence that the fan base, the franchise and the city have specially reserved for the almighty J.J. Watt™.
“The idea is what, to get Watt a highlight they can show all week on Sportscenter?”
He does what he wants without consequences. He has become the power. Everything serves him, his ego and his brand. When looking at that specific situation: first down, in a playoff game, Alfred’s been running strong, short-yardage goal line, and you call a direct snap to a defensive lineman?
That right there goes to show where this whole Watt craze in Houston has gone.
Phony has been another word that’s been thrown around this offseason in regards to the social media updater/weight room lifer.
Stugotz of ESPN’s Dan Le Batard Show fired that verbal bullet when Watt posted a snapchat video of himself at the gym during Kobe Bryant’s last game, saying “Kobe Bryant got to where he is by working his butt off. By showing up early, staying late, Workouts like tonight are inspired by Mamba. I want to get like Mamba not watch him.”
“Get over yourself, man. Seriously. Why do you have to make their night – Kobe’s night and Steph (Curry’s) night – about J.J. Watt? And, I don’t believe you for one second that you were there lifting weights and working out rather than watching the basketball. I don’t believe him for one second. That’s what bothers me about him. He’s a phony and he’s a fraud. So, you can take a picture of yourself working out and post it on Instagram, and then tell everyone that you’re not watching Kobe and Steph? You can do that, but my bet is that he posted that while watching Kobe and Steph.”
Some folks choose to train in the quiet of their own self. Some folks choose to constantly broadcast how hard they’re working “to be great” and turn it into a marketing hashtag.
Watt’s one of the figures who fits into the latter category because, well, social media’s available to him, and he and his team of PR handlers utilizes the medium to the fullest.
If that includes selling exorbitantly priced shoes to the greater Houston area, or shilling for whatever company needs him to make a commercial — It’s his prerogative, right?
Ultimately, only J.J. Watt knows the truth and only he knows why the guy in a Hunt Greatness t-shirt with noble intentions who doesn’t want attention has a cameraman following him around at training camp to capture those special moments.
The “aw shucks guys, I’m just a simple boy from Wisconsin, what am I gonna do with all this money” routine probably doesn’t fly anymore. But no worries, J.J.’s got this system all figured out.
Exploit, accumulate and become the brand.