COMMENT

Usain Bolt's presence at the Central Coast Mariners marks a new chapter in celebrity endorsements

If Usain Bolt ends up signing a playing contract with the Central Coast Mariners, professional sport in Australia will have entered a new age.

For argument’s sake, let’s call it the age of absurdity.

We’ve all seen celebrities promote a brand. In this case, the brand is the Central Coast Mariners.

But I’m not so sure we’ve seen a celebrity actually work in the brand's core business.

If Bolt is handed a Mariners’ contract, it will mark a new chapter in the industry of celebrity endorsement. Academics, I imagine, will be keen to study it.

An analogy that comes to mind is Bolt’s endorsement of Optus. Optus, no doubt, is more than happy to shower Bolt with cash to promote its various products. But what if the sprint legend decided he fancied becoming an Optus technician, even though he didn’t have the skills required?

When Bolt first spoke of his dream to play professional soccer, people were understandably fascinated. Many wondered, could he actually play football?

It gives me no pleasure to say that it's now pretty much clear he doesn't have the skill to play at a top level. This is common knowledge on the Central Coast among football experts who have seen him play and train for the Mariners.

Bolt himself has said he’ll need four months to get to the level of his teammates. Thing is, though, soccer skills need to be learnt at an early age and continually practiced and refined over many years.

If the Mariners sign Bolt to a professional contract, it won't be down to footballing merit. It will be purely down to his marketing value – his ability to attract paying fans, sponsors and media. It’ll be a commercial decision.

When Bolt played 20 minutes for the Mariners in a recent match against a Central Coast select-side from the local league, it was broadcast on Fox Sports.

To some, this was entertaining television. To me, it was a slightly sickening advertisement, in which soccer lost a chunk of integrity. This wasn’t the beautiful game, this was the ugly game.

Pundits stopped being pundits. With dollar signs behind their blinkered eyes, they became promoters.

It was only pundit Mark Bosnich, a former Socceroo and Manchester United goalkeeper, who had the courage to point out after the game that Bolt lacked skill.

As for the Mariners, their marketing machine has been in full swing. The club used the slogan “dare to dream” to promote Bolt. It felt like a Nike advertisement.

Just like Nike uses its “Just Do It” slogan to entice people to buy their sneakers and apparel, the Mariners are using Bolt to lure supporters and media attention.

Nike makes squillions by tapping into consumer psychology. It sells emotion and an aspiration towards greatness.

Likewise, the Mariners are offering people the chance to be part of Bolt's greatness. There’s a bit of a problem, though. Bolt isn't a great soccer player.

It'll be fascinating to watch whether this ends up putting people offside. At present, the balance of public opinion seems to be with Bolt and the Mariners. There are plenty of people ready to point out the benefits that Bolt is bringing to the club.

The story has gone global, with media outlets across the world eager to report on Bolt’s progress on the Central Coast. Plus, he’s bringing smiles to people’s faces.   

And there are some who think the attention on the club will lead to greater sponsorship and better players wanting to play for the club. This remains to be seen.

It was notable that the recent promotional match attracted loads of kids. Guess if kids are happy, their parents are happy. But we do wonder for how long. Attention spans aren’t what they used to be.

So where is the Usain Train heading? The Mariners might gain new spectators allured by the fame. Others will jump aboard, thrilled at the prospect of watching a train wreck. And some believe it’s possible that Bolt’s skills will improve enough for him to win a spot in the team on merit.

The Mariners know the risks of this strange new marketing strategy, which owner Mike Charlesworth has called “innovative and creative”.

At least one long-time Mariners fan has vowed to hand back his season ticket if Bolt is signed.

And while many are mesmerised by Bolt’s presence, there are plenty of other football fans who don’t feel so comfortable being part of the age of absurdity.

The Mariners are offering people the chance to be part of Bolt's greatness. There’s a bit of a problem, though. Bolt isn't a great soccer player.