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Tips on Booking Sports-Related Speakers for Your Events

Want to enlist a star athlete to connect with a crowd? We asked industry experts for their insight on choosing the right team player.

Michael Phelps, Apolo Ohno, Venus Williams, and Allyson Felix appeared on a panel session discussing the impact of the Olympics with moderator Billie Jean King.
Michael Phelps, Apolo Ohno, Venus Williams, and Allyson Felix appeared on a panel session discussing the impact of the Olympics with moderator Billie Jean King.
Photo: Courtesy of All American Entertainment

From conferences and sales off-sites to award ceremonies and fundraisers, sports industry speakers bring a certain “go team" energy that is undeniable.

Like a coach giving a pep talk in the locker room, these event speakers offer “qualities like determination, teamwork, and resilience, which resonate well with corporate audiences,” said Rose Lanham, former corporate event producer and founder of Atlanta-based Players for Good, a boutique speakers bureau representing professional athlete speakers with a reputation for contributing to their communities and motivating audiences.

“The audience may never hit a home run at Wrigley,” she added, “but a seasoned speaker can share the relatable life lessons that went into reaching their pinnacle,” with inspirational, engaging stories that leave employees and attendees energized.

And it’s not always the sports stories that win over the crowd. Maddy McPeak, All American Entertainment’s senior sales manager, said that in the case of athletes who have successfully made the transition from the sports world into the corporate world, their experience as an athlete is secondary to their leadership and expertise in business.

Many athletes are also business owners, authors, and advocates, positioning themselves as authorities on topics like diversity, equity, and inclusion; brand building; and financial literacy, Lanham added.

So how do you find the right fit for your event roster? We asked these industry experts to share their advice on booking sports industry speakers, including former star athletes, coaches, and broadcasters, for your next gathering.

Figure out the event objectives and needs.
Are you hosting a charitable fundraising event or a sales meeting? Do you need excellent emceeing skills? Your event needs and objectives will help determine the traits you’re looking for in a sports speaker.

“Sales conferences will benefit from a high-energy, goal-oriented tone—almost like a coach getting the team ready for a championship game,” Lanham explained. “For an emcee role, an athlete speaker with experience at a major network like ESPN or CBS Sports will be smooth reading scripts, seamlessly aligning their delivery with the foundation's objectives.” She continued saying that they can often ad-lib when needed, adding humor at the right moments. “They know their role is to entertain and the foundation’s is to raise funds.”

On the flip side, McPeak suggested planners consider turning a speaking engagement into a moderated conversation, tailoring the event to the athlete's abilities. “Many sports stars are comfortable with public speaking, but they may not have had the opportunity to master or fine-tune a full keynote speech,” she explained.

Paralympian Jessica Long spoke at an event in 2022.Paralympian Jessica Long spoke at an event in 2022.Photo: Courtesy of All American EntertainmentBook the right speaker.
Being an accomplished athlete doesn't always translate into great public speaking skills, so keep that in mind when making your list of possible options. This is also where speaker bureaus can help planners make the right decision and find the best fit for an event.

“It doesn’t serve anyone well just to pay top dollar for a big name,” said Mollie Plotkin, founder of speaker and entertainment booking agency Mollie Plotkin Group. “Like any athlete or celebrity appearance, you want to make sure the personality you’ve hired is a good fit for the audience. Find out if they have any connection to the group or nonprofit. Is there something in their personal or off-the-field professional life that connects them to your audience? Is there a connection that will give them a vested interest in participating? You want to make sure that the person you hired is as excited to be part of your program as you are to have them.”

When hosting a charitable event, Lanham said that planners might be able to find a speaker who has faced similar challenges or diseases, allowing an athlete’s personal story to resonate more with the crowd than their sports record. For example, former NFL player Merril Hoge triumphed through improper care of head trauma that ended his career, as well as cancer and open-heart surgery, in addition to his 20-plus years of experience as an ESPN host.

Plotkin added that for a charity event, “you must have someone willing to go the extra mile.” That includes signing autographs and taking photos with the audience, as well as being “gracious, humble, and charming.”

Lanham also recommended opting for speakers with local ties, like booking former Bears players for a Chicago-based company holding an event in Florida. McPeak echoed this sentiment, asking “would your audience have their guard up if you hired a former Kansas City Chief while everyone in the room was a Las Vegas Raiders fan?" She also pointed out that if you're scheduling an autograph session, "will you make sure there are no Adidas-branded items on the table since this is a Nike athlete?”

Looking for a current player? Consider their schedule. If an athlete is still actively engaged in training or a team competition schedule, McPeak makes sure her clients are aware of this before they book. “This can make scheduling much more difficult based on the timing of the event, and we like to be as transparent as we can about that.” She added that when a well-known athlete retires, like Jason Kelce of the Philadelphia Eagles, there can be an increased number of requests for him to speak at events. So even if game days aren't an issue anymore, their calendar might still be filling up.

Prep the speaker.
Before the event, speakers should participate in an intake meeting, where they can gather insights about the audience and the event’s objectives. Whether it's acknowledging sales targets, addressing recent organizational changes, or spotlighting specific employees, a well put-together brief enhances the impact of the speaker's message, Lanham explained. She suggests planners create a one sheet about the organization with any recent news to help the talent feel prepared.

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