Even with the current economic downturn, business opportunities for professional athletes remain plentiful. And the truth is off-the-field success doesn’t just happen to “star” players. There are numerous examples of athletes with average-at-best playing stats that have secured lucrative endorsements and other post-career opportunities. Business success for these athletes is determined by the strength of their personal brand image and the size of their fan base. And while it’s fairly obvious that as an athlete you can maintain control of your own brand, you can also positively impact your fan following through creative Web marketing techniques.
In the business world, the terms “viral marketing” and “social marketing” are buzzwords used to describe methods of a reaching a broad number of people through very personal communications methods. These concepts, used by virtually all Fortune 500 companies, can also be used successfully by today’s athletes. The fact of the matter is today’s sports fan wants their information up to the minute and on demand. No longer is it acceptable to talk to target audiences from the top down. Today, you need to hold virtual conversations with your key audiences, which includes fans and potential sponsors. By doing so, you can not only increase the size of your fan following, but also create a stronger bond with those fans.
Contemporary ways to reach out to your fans include writing a blog, having your own Website, participating in social marketing sites such as Facebook and MySpace and posting videos on sites like YouTube. All can be successful and all can be essentially meaningless without a business plan in mind. 
When developing your personal business plan, you need to start by asking three basic questions:
(1) What are the companies I should target as potential sponsors;
(2) Who are the consumers that these target companies care about; and,
(3) How do I best connect with these consumers? 
When identifying potential sponsor companies a good starting point is to think about the things you are passionate about. This can include products that you use or activities that you enjoy. For example, a hardcore video game player may consider targeting the game makers and the manufacturers of the game consoles. In this scenario the consumers of interest are most likely young males in the 14- to 35-year-old range. Reaching these consumers may be best achieved through participating in gaming-related blogs and Websites, or by posting viral video clips that feature the athlete and appeal to the gaming community.
A player’s agent once told me the best way for his client to market himself was by playing well. I agree that performance on the field is vital to a player’s overall success. However, I ask you this – if you have two players with similar on-the-field achievements, who is a sponsor company more likely to contact, a player who rests on his stats or a player that finds ways to portray his positive image and already has established relationships with the fans the sponsor covets?
The mistake made all too often by today’s athletes is that they wait for opportunities to come to them. The better approach is to create the opportunity yourself, strengthen your fan following and present a “no-brainer” business proposition to the sponsor company. 
As an athlete, you are given a “stage” that is viewed by many. However, the spotlight can quickly disappear once your playing days are over. Don’t let the opportunities slip away. Look at the new ways of doing business that can lead to better off-the-field success.
Dean Fisk is president of X Factor Sports Media and has over 17 years of experience developing communications programs that strengthen brand awareness for athletes, athletic organizations and Fortune 500 companies. X Factor Sports Media is a unique communications agency focused on helping athletes understand and benefit from the numerous opportunities offered by today's new media and social marketing outlets. Dean can be contacted at dean@xfactorsportsmedia.com