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The Future of Sports Marketing: The Virtual Fan Network

Virtual Fan Network Picture

Who said trading cards were dead?

Sports Marketing is evolving, though at a much slower clip than most other industries on the globe, but where it will eventually end up is still uncertain.  One thing is for certain: Brian Wilhite, CEO and Founder of the Virtual Fan Network, intends to lead the charge for where sports marketing is going and what it is going to become.

I had the opportunity to sit down on the phone last week with Brian to discuss his company Virtual Fan Network, or VFN for short, and I learned that perhaps one industry that many have declared DEAD in the sports marketing world (trading cards) may be where Brian and VFN have found new revenue streams for both athletes and companies in the age of digital marketing.

We also discussed where VFN came from, what it is now, and what the future holds for the San Fran Bay Area based company.

How did VFN begin?

Brian noted to me during our great conversation last week when he started the company in June 2011 he had observed that the social web and the world overall was manifesting into something that in his opinion was a game changer in how we interact especially on the mobile platform.

Brian also felt that the one thing without a solution already was working with professional athletes.  (Something that is always preached, find your hole in the social and business landscape and do it better than anyone else in the world.)  Brian thought the world of sports marketing had not innovated very much since IMG was created over 50 years ago.

Brian contended that if was able to design a turnkey consumer platform that was shareable and technology driven and gave the fans a new and extra unordinary relationship with fans that it would be able to have a huge market and entry point into dollars that were now being spent in huge chunks on the world wide web.

The future is NOW!

With so many high barriers to entry the world of sports marketing has always to a degree been inefficient.  I see this everyday when I am talking with my clients or friends when one person gets all of the blame or the love for winning a game when it really takes about 50 to 75 people in an organization to get a W or take an L.  But, because of this 99% of athletes don’t have endorsement deals and it is isolated to the top 1% of athletes.  VFN thought there were opportunities to bring the other 99% of athletes and the other million brands that are out there today.  Since it is digital it can be targeted and it is possible to take local and regional fans and unlock localized brand dollars for the athletes.  It is an opportunity for much smaller brands to localize and humanize with a major high end athlete and connect with their fans.

Really in my eyes what VFN is doing is what famed social media and digital age author Gary V wrote about in his most recent book “The Thank You Economy” (two thumps up from me!) It talks about how we are going to go back to a small town approach where, because of the digital age and social media, we interact with the little guys again and small business are just as important as the big brands.  VFN has opened up the door for the other 99% of pro athletes and 101-1 bazillion other brands!

How does it work?

VFN allows fans to download digital player cards.  These are not just your ordinary old Topps trading cards.  They have twitter and facebook links to the athletes, favorite music, hobbies, upcoming events and so much more.  It enables the fan to interact with the athlete on a level they couldn’t reach before.  Hand in hand with this comes VFN’s agreement with the athletes to produce this information on the cards and to get them digital endorsement deals with brands that want to pay and have the connection of an athlete but would be unable to do it on a national level.

VFN has had success with many different types of companies and clients in doing successful digital platforms for them.  They range from, a campaign with Black Rock investments utilizing Olympic athletes just prior to and after the black out stage for endorsement deal around the summer games,  Gatorade, and the Bleacher Report.

The athletes are catching on and understand the potential to make money through VFN.  Brett Favre is an investor in the company and ambassador for the NFL.  They have lined up spokespersons for all the major professional sports and more and more brands are understanding the localized and humanized approach to using VFN.  The athletes can maintain and hold onto any conflicts that they have or don’t want to be used or featured in an endorsement for.

The brands usually need to commit to a minimum spend around $20-30k to begin a campaign with an athlete, which is not a high amount at all compared to top level endorsement deals and spends.  The radio station I work at typically charges a minimum spend for one of our high ranking on air guys around a similar level and that is just for spots on the radio station.

It is an all encompassing circle between VFN, the fans, the athletes, the brands, and the publishers to create a new platform of engagement in sports marketing.


Brian feels they are refreshing sports marketing.  It is a global business now and they are “a platform dedicated to the relationship between the athlete and the fan and improving it over time.”

VFN seems to have a dedicated workforce, a forward thinking model to capture market share, a goal to care not only about the dollars but make sure the fan gets a super experience, the athlete makes money (VFN and the athlete split everything 50/50!), and a genuine concern and excitement to give brands a client experience with an endorsement deal that they have never received before.

The sky seems to be the limit for VFN. Sports Marketing is turning its head to the future slowly but surely. (In my book I speak about a few ways to stay ahead of the curve as the digital age continues to rear its head.)

VFN clearly knows that this is happening and is leading the charge.  Refreshing Sports Marketing.  VFN may soon enough be the new era of Sports Marketing if everyone else is not careful. Until then Brian and the team at VFN will be taking care of one fan, one athlete, and one client/brand at a time!

Comment below with other great ideas and makes sure to like us on FaceBook and follow us @SportsNetworker

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8 Responses to The Future of Sports Marketing: The Virtual Fan Network

  1. deancollins October 31, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

    Interesting idea, do players own their own rights to do deals like this or does some of the sponsorship money have to go back to the Club or the League?Eg does Jeter own the rights to have photos taken in team pinstripes or does the Yankees / MLB demand to get paid?Its one of the reasons we were very clear from day one not to include any team/league colours or logos for our live fan chat sessions as we didnt think it would be viable to meet any license fees.
    Cheers,Dean CollinsFounder

  2. marketingmiker October 31, 2012 at 7:43 pm #

    Hi Dean,
    Thanks for the thoughts. The players split the revenues 50 50 from a deal with VFN but I don’t know if they have an additional rights fee to pay back to the team/league.
    I work in a similar situation as you describe with Ohio State so I understand what you are saying. Email me at [email protected] or send me your email and I can probably find out more info and an answer to your question.

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