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The rise of Cameo, the message service that can earn athletes $30,000 a day | Sport

The first Sunday in February – the day of the Super Bowl – was always a key date for Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre. Now the second Sunday in May looms large in his work calendar.

“Leading up to Mother’s Day, I think I did 80. Basically 80 Mother’s Day Cameos,” says the former Green Bay Packers star. “Christmas, seems like holidays, special occasions, they ramp up. Maybe five to 10 a day. There may be a couple of days when I do none and then 18 show up. But generally, like Valentine’s, it kind of ramps up.”

Favre is the most popular athlete on Cameo, the fast-growing site where fans pay celebrities for personalised video messages and chats. At $400, he is rather more expensive than a card and flowers, but he has an average user rating of 4.9 out of five for the shout-outs and pep-talks he records from home in his warm southern drawl.

“It’s a simple and easy way to make money and also be engaged with your fans. How ingenious is Cameo? I mean, my goodness. And the pandemic hits and it’s perfect,” he tells the Guardian. “There’s no way you can be up close and personal with all your fans, it’s just impossible, and at times you don’t want to be, but this gives you a way to engage. They get something, you get something.”

While most of the more than 40,000 “talents” on Cameo hold, to put it gently, niche appeal, the site now attracts world-famous names. “The floodgates in my opinion have pretty much opened,” says Favre, who retired in 2011. “I’ve been doing Cameo for what, now three years maybe, give or take, and I just kind of assume that everyone is doing it.

Drew Brees for example. Reached out to me June or July, just asked me if it was legit, he was thinking about signing up and he asked me roughly about what he could expect to make in a year or six months. And I told him, I said, ‘I just did 80’. He’s like, ‘you gotta be kidding me’. I said ‘Look, Drew, not that you need the money but this is the easiest money you’ll ever make. You can do as much or as little as you want’.”

Brees, the quarterback who won the 2010 Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints, charges $750, with proceeds going to his foundation. Cameo offers wealthy stars the chance to interact with fans without the venom that permeates many social media platforms. For lesser lights, many in need of income and purpose after retiring by their mid-30s, it is a convenient tool to remain relevant and monetise the nostalgia inspired by their on-field feats.

Former players who previously had to travel to events to earn appearance fees, perhaps spending hours signing memorabilia, can sprinkle stardust from the comfort of their own homes using just their phones.

Provided the idol is making a sincere effort, a video greeting can have a powerful impact, according to Angeline Close Scheinbaum, a sports marketing professor at Clemson University. Research she co-authored on branding suggests that compared with text alone, consumers “connect more with video, you can use more of your senses”. Unlike autographs, Cameos can go viral: “on the one hand it’s personal but on the other hand it’s shareable.”

Cameo enjoyed its best year so far in 2020 as the pandemic curtailed in-person contact. Over 1.3m Cameos were made and more than 150 personalities earned at least $100,000. The company, which takes a 25% cut, achieved about $100m in total sales with an average order of roughly $70. Should the US supreme court rule this year that current college athletes are free to profit from their image rights, Cameo is poised to dive in to what should prove a lucrative market.

“In a world that’s so disconnected, we connect people to their favourite person,” says co-founder Martin Blencowe from his home in Los Angeles. “Now they can hit up Ray Lewis, they can hit up Gabby Douglas, they can hit up some great names … Hall of Fame category really works for us. A lot of it has been referrals, talent talking to their friends.”

Once a promising runner, the chirpy UK-born 34-year-old moved to California to attend university but injuries thwarted his Olympic ambitions. He set his sights on becoming a Hollywood producer and also worked as an NFL agent. In 2016, Blencowe asked his client, the linebacker Cassius Marsh, to record a video congratulating a friend on a new baby. “My buddy thought that was amazing,” he recalls. Cameo was born later that year when Blencowe and co-founders Steven Galanis and Devon Townsend developed the idea that selfies are the new autographs.

Blencowe and Galanis travelled to Minneapolis for the 2018 Super Bowl, “staying in some really basic motel about an hour out of town” and trawling the city in the hope of persuading sceptical targets to join what was then a small and obscure venture. This year Blencowe visited Tampa and watched the game with Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair. “Now guys are coming up to us,” he says. “That’s really cool.”

Sportspeople are one-fifth of the Cameo talent base, from wrestlers to lacrosse players to commentators. American football and baseball are the most popular sport categories. Browsing the roster feels like accessing a vast experiment where celebrities quantify the wattage of their own star power.

Spend $750-$1,000 and you could buy a moment of personal attention from Jack Nicklaus, Troy Aikman, Mariano Rivera, George Foreman or … Avram Grant. The one-season Chelsea manager risks pricing himself out of the market, you feel, but pledges to give the proceeds to charity. Or you could grab Roger Clemens and Sergio Garcia for a combined $900. The iconic skateboarder Tony Hawk looks a relative bargain at $200. Mia Hamm charges $125, Michael Owen, $180 (both to benefit good causes). Current MLS players Justen Glad and Juan Pablo Torres are among dozens available for $10 and under.

Favre, who led the Packers to victory in the Super Bowl in 1997, was the second-most booked celebrity in 2020, behind Brian Baumgartner ($195), and just ahead of Snoop Dogg (currently unavailable). Baumgartner – who played Kevin in the US version of The Office – reportedly made $1m from the site last year.

Among the most-demanded athletes, Favre is ahead of Lewis, the former Baltimore Ravens linebacker ($300), the actor and martial artist Chuck Norris ($450), and the former wrestlers Flair ($500) and Mick Foley ($99).

“Most, I’d say ninety-plus percent, are general requests, happy birthday to my mother, my son, my cousin, my uncle,” Favre says. “I can’t tell you how many Cameos I’ve done in regard to the Packers. ‘My dad’s a diehard Packers fan, he’s devastated by the recent loss, can you lift his spirits up?’ Those are endless.

“I think probably the oddest request would be to reveal the gender of a baby, or propose. ‘Hey, will you propose to my future fiancee if she says yes?’ I guess they think that they can’t say no to me, but of course they can.”