What Can Show Jumpers Learn From An NBA Star?

March 30, 2018

The question of “How do we showcase our sport and its riders in the best way possible?” is an eternal one for equestrian endeavors. Mainstream media so rarely touches on the parts of the sport that we know make it great—the relationship with the horses, the years spent accumulating skills, the art of developing a horse to be their best on a specific day.

I watched a 60 Minutes interview that aired on March 25 and highlighted a star professional basketball player, Giannis Antetokounmpo. I have zero interest in basketball, but Antetokounmpo’s backstory was so compelling and his personality so engaging that I was entranced. His history is a journalist’s dream—a talented kid of extremely limited means who got a big break when he was spotted by a scout while playing club-level basketball in Greece. And now, five years later, he’s a National Basketball Association star and a millionaire.

Giannis Antetokounmpo taking a selfie with fans.

But his circumstances aren’t the most interesting thing about him. Antetokounmpo has a disarmingly easy way about him that’s so very relatable. I feel like up-and-coming riders should study Antetokounmpo’s story and how he presents himself to the public. He has an extremely humble and charming approach to an interview, and he makes a point of including his fans on his journey. “On a night after a game in Cleveland, an hour after a tough loss, 200 [Greek American fans] were waiting for him. He joined them in singing the Greek national anthem and hung around to take a selfie with his people,” said the 60 Minutes narrative. There’s no ego or pretense to Antetokounmpo. He’s a two-time All Star with incredible natural talent, but he still practices intensely and strives to be better. He makes millions a year, but lives in a two-bedroom apartment.

All this makes people want to watch him, want to wear his jersey, want to get his autograph. It makes them fans of him, and also of the sport. When Antetokounmpo started playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, the arena seats were mostly empty. Another player joked that he could hear his mother coaching him from the seats. Now, the seats are packed, and the Bucks are building a $500 million new arena.

Freakish natural talent + a Cinderella-type story + an accessible and charming personality = a superstar who helps his sport grow. We have so many stars that shine within the sport of show jumping, but we have yet to find one that has really broken out into the mainstream spotlight. Our sport is full of compelling stories, but because the brutal reality is that horse sports are seen as unaffordable to the general public, it’s tough to find a way to get the general public to get interested. 

That challenge was brought up in the two-hour panel discussion, "Jumping Into The Future: A Panel Discussion About Our Top Sport," that took place in Wellington, FL, on March 27. Young rider Daniel Bluman asked the panel, which included the likes of George H. Morris, McLain Ward, Lucy Davis, Max Amaya, Ian Millar, Leopoldo Palacios, Guilherme Jorge and Juliet Reid, if the chance of a middle-class 12-year-old making it in show jumping were realistic, given the sport's financial demands.

Ward's answer was that it's possible—perhaps not easy, but possible. "It may be more extreme now because the price of horses has gotten much higher, and the sport has certainly grown in expense, but the same could be said for a person who wants to be a Formula One driver," Ward noted. "How is he going to get noticed by Ferrari? He’s got to market himself. So yeah I absolutely think there is an opportunity. Is it easy? No, absolutely not, but nothing worth it is."

Marketing yourself—to owners, to fans, to students. It's essential in the world of show jumping today. Of course, it would be great if show jumping had its own Cinderella story, but in the meantime, riders can take a page from Antetokounmpo’s book. Being humble, accessible and willing to discuss the ups and downs of the sport and life go a long way toward helping fans care about an athlete.

Molly Sorge, the managing editor of Jump Media's content, grew up eventing and achieved her A rating in Pony Club. She spent a few years grooming on the A circuit before starting a 20-year career at the magazine The Chronicle of the Horse. She joined Jump Media in March 2018.