The Commercialisation of Football Players: Personal Brands, Sponsorships and Off-Field Value

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            Welcome to our latest series of blogs. In these episodes we will be delving into the world away from the sport itself that modern footballers find themselves in. This will span across the lifestyle that the players live off of the pitch; their secondary careers for once their career as a football star ends for which the foundations are laid and it begins during their playing career; and also their growing significance as commercial entities.

            I will begin this week by explaining the impact that the commercialisation of individual players has had on the game of football. The opportunities of brand endorsements, commercial paid partnerships, lucrative sponsorship deals, ambassadorial roles and social media influencing is becoming increasingly attractive to players that find themselves in the public spotlight for a narrow window of time. It is of utmost importance to the player and to their agent that they sensibly, effectively and appropriately maximise the opportunity that the player has and the benefits that are coupled with it.

            For this week, I will narrow the scope of focus onto general commercial deals, the idea of developing a personal brand for a player and the concept behind endorsements. I will also analyse a case study of a player that encapsulates exactly what it means to materialise the off-field opportunity of a global football superstar. I will only briefly touch on aspects such as boot deals and image rights as these are more complex and common areas that I will address individually in another blog.

Players as Commercial Entities

            The purpose and incentive of off-field commercial opportunities for players is to maximise the rewards they receive from their short window in the public spotlight. These rewards come in the manner of financial gain, positive publicity and can also give the player an early advantage for once they move on from football and may have to seek a new career path. Unless, of course, they earn enough from a combination of on-field performance as well as sponsorship deals that they need not find a new career! Importantly, the on and off-field performance of a player are affected by one another. Most commercial sponsorship deals will include performance-based clauses and bonuses; I will explain this in more detail in a future blog.

            A further attraction of commercialising individual players is that a large presence in the public eye, such as in advertisements, campaigns, charity work or just a frequent appearance on social media allows the player to engage with their own fan base as well as with the clubs. By regularly posting the right content on social media and being seen to be involved in activities away from the football field enhances the interaction between players and fans and they become a more relatable role model, which further attracts additional opportunities.

            In recent times, it has become more common that global superstars within football can be far more influential than the club which they play for. This is judged in terms of their social media following and global recognition. For example, even the European powerhouse, Paris Saint Germain, who boast an Instagram following of over 60million, are dwarfed by their superstars Lionel Messi (362million) and Neymar (179million) and even pipped by young star Kylian Mbappe (72million). Neymar and Messi also oust their previous club Barcelona, despite being one of the most iconic clubs in the history of football, they have a measly 110million followers compared to their former stars.

For a club, signing certain players can have additional benefits away from football due to the commercial value that they add to the club. For example, Messi moving to PSG makes them a more attractive prospect as a club to major sponsors. Clubs will try to obtain an image rights agreement with the player in order to benefit themselves from any commercial deals the player enters into and attracts to the club. Image rights agreements will be explored further in a future blog but for now it is important to recognise that they contribute to rising transfer fees for popular players.This is reflected by the statistic that 60% of all sponsorships entered into by the major brands such as Adidas, Nike, Puma and Underarmour are with individual players rather than clubs, leagues, stadiums or competitions.

 A considerable difficulty in the modern era for players is that some of the biggest clubs in the world will now take 50% of commercial income generated by an individual player or sometimes up to 75%! Consequently, this makes developing the personal brand and public image of a player more important, particularly when a player relies on utilising their personal brand more as clubs are not entitled to this income. It is the external sponsorship from companies and brands that the club can claim such a large percentage of. I will explore this in greater detail in a future blog.   

Companies and brands may be interested in players for a wide array of reasons. Paid partnerships come in many forms. Some of the largest players may become ‘cover athletes’ for or the ‘face’ of brands, such as is the case with Jack Grealish and Gucci. They will be featured in TV advertisements, events, public appearances and part of modelling campaigns. These kinds of deals are often global as the player being used has global recognition and therefore commercial value in many countries.

            For other players that do not reach the levels of global stardom but are still very well-known and recognised in the public domain, they will sign commercial deals in ambassadorial roles that may only stretch as far as social media posts and use of the product the company provides. However, they also may feature in TV advertisements, photoshoots, public interviews or other marketing campaigns. Their exact obligations are specified as part of the endorsement contract that they will sign with the brand.

            For the players, these deals bring lucrative financial reward as well as a useful array of complementary gifts from the brands. The sponsorship agreements that players may have cover an almost limitless scope of product categories. They may sign deals to become an ambassador for car dealerships, phone brands, clothing apparel, betting companies, airlines, luxury watches, headphones, everyday things such as toiletries and even brands in the food, beverage and alcohol industry. Further to this, the most common sponsorship deal that almost all footballers of a certain standard will sign is a boot deal; I will explore this in far greater depth in a future blog.

Building A Personal Brand

            It has become a common trend in the modern football era, particularly with the top players, to work towards building a strong and popular personal brand that is attractive to potential sponsors. As we will see in the case study given in the following section, possessing a world-renowned personal brand opens up a unique variety of opportunities to companies and to players which comes hand-in-hand with lucrative remuneration and publicity.

            Players may work directly with professional media agencies such as MediaCom and We Play Forward to develop personal brands and seek the best commercial opportunities. This process begins with the player establishing their own values, principles, behaviours and visions in order to inform those helping them as to what form of commercial partnership the player might best engage with. For example, religious and cultural beliefs may alter and restrict the companies that would be appropriate for a player to endorse, such as a personal objection to gambling or alcohol. This would mean the player is unlikely to enter an agreement with a betting or alcoholic beverage commercial partner! This was the case recently with Kylian Mbappe who took a stand and refused to be a part of a new gambling advert. However, a stance such as this may open up alternative opportunities such as partnering with a betting-rehabilitation charity or a responsible-drinking campaign. It is the responsibility of the player and their agent to find a sponsor that fits appropriately with the attributes, personality traits and interests of the individual player.

            A player can build their own personal brand in a variety of ways. Through the manner of their interaction with their fanbase and the insight they provide them through their social media channels, the players begin to develop a specific public image. Their personality and interests shape the kind of commercial sponsorship deals they are likely to become involved in. Some players will become widely known for certain ‘trademark’ things or behaviours. The most typical example of this is Cristiano Ronaldo’s ‘Siiii’ goal celebration. Other examples include Leroy Sané who includes #inSané on his social media posts, or the ‘JLingz’ hand sign seen being used by Jesse Lingard.

If developing a personal brand is successful enough, players may even venture beyond partnering with a large brand and take on the challenge of monetising their own brand through some platform. There are several examples of this such as the aforementioned JLingz brand which is now a line of clothing or the street apparel brand belonging to Mesut Özil, M10 Streetwear, named after his M10 trademark. Alternatively, players may enter collaborations with brands in a variety of ways that will name the product after them. There have been many examples of this such as the David Beckham Homme aftershave, the Chris Kamara Street Soccer video game or the CR7 Drive Sports Drink by Herbalife and Cristiano Ronaldo, one of many that Cristiano has developed as a result of his global brand.

Case Study: CR7

            Predictably, in football at least, David Beckham, Neymar, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have accumulated the greatest earnings from commercial deals and other off-field ventures. Beckham continues to generate an annual income of approximately $40million, he laid the foundations of his personal brand early in his career and still works with major brands now such as H&M, Sainsbury’s, Samsung, Adidas, Breitling and his own fashion brand, Kent & Curwen. For Neymar, his commercial income of over $20million is generated across a large variety of brands from Nike, clothing brand Relay Jenas, C&A underwear, GAGO MILANO watches with which he has three of his own branded pieces, Beats by Dre headphones, food and beverage giants McDonalds and Red Bull, Gillette toiletries, Panini stickers and many other brands that have paid large sums to collaborate with the Brazilian. The full extent of his reach can be seen in the exhaustive list below:

To continue, Lionel Messi supposedly earns around $33million annually from endorsements with leading brands such as Adidas, Gatorade and Pepsi and a number of partnerships in different categories.. However, arguably the greatest personal brand in football and certainly the most lucrative is the CR7 trademark, belonging to Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.

In 2021, Cristiano was one of the world’s highest paid athletes across any sport. He earned over $100million in that year alone. Notably for the purpose of this blog, over half of that figure (approximately $55million) was earned through commercial sponsorship deals away from the football field. This placed him third in the world of sport for endorsement income, behind only Lebron James and now-retired Tennis star, Roger Federer. He has earned over $1billion across his illustrious career and his ability to balance his match performances with an extraordinary ability to globalise and monetise his personal brand has been a significant feature of his success.

Aside from the footballing ability, attention-capturing character, marketable appearance and catchy goal celebration, Cristiano’s social media has played a vital role in catapulting both his fame and his fortunes away from the pitch. His Instagram following of almost 500million users puts him way on top as the most followed person on the planet, streaks ahead of second-placed Kylie Jenner and third-placed sporting-rival, Lionel Messi. His Twitter following of over 100million also puts him near the top of the world, around 30million behind number-one ranked former US President, Barack Obama. To indicate this significance of Cristiano’s influence, it is important to note that within the very first 24-hours following his departure to Italy, Real Madrid lost one million social media followers whilst Juventus gained over 6million. The impact of his move to Juventus in 2018 and then subsequently rejoining Manchester United in 2020 is shown in the graphic below:

These world-leading social media statistics have made what Cristiano has achieved commercially possible. His channels have provided him with an enormously powerful and influential platform to connect with his fans in a unique manner. Brands have identified this opportunity to have Cristiano promote and endorse their products to his engaged audience of millions and hence many have vied for his signature and commitment as an ambassador. This enthusiasm to sign one of the game’s greatest states was reflected as he became only the third athlete in history, after Lebron James and Michael Jordan, and the very first footballer, to sign a lifetime deal with Nike worth over $1billion. Alongside the fundamental sportswear apparel and boots deal, the CR7 brand has been utilised widely. It is suggested that companies will pay around $1.5million per promotional Instagram post onto Cristiano’s page.

Cristiano has taken on endorsements with an expansive variety of brands. These include nutrition brand Herbalife, through his own drink ‘CR7 Drive’; streaming and media platform DAZN; Clear shampoo; and he is a global ambassador for the luxury watchmaker Tag Heuer, among many others during his career. He has been a part of an array of advertising campaigns and his face is seen across cities from bus stop posters to large LED Billboards. It is the perfect example of monetising one’s position in the public spotlight.

Importantly, Cristiano has developed his own personal values and attributes that form his global brand known as CR7. The trademark has become synonymous with things like fitness, lifestyle, family-oriented and, of course, the ‘Siii’ celebration. This has enabled him to collaborate with companies and to set up his own ventures. CR7 has been used in naming his own fragrances; his own fashion brand of underwear, shoes and other apparel; a hair clinic; and even his own CR7 lifestyle hotels which can now be found in New York, Lisbon, Madrid, Paris and his home city of Madeira, which happens to be conjoined with the Cristiano Ronaldo museum.

His endorsements, partnerships and off-field work have not always been about attracting large and lucrative deals with major brands. It is almost imperative that a player of such calibre, and other footballers of any level that have the financial ability to do so, align their principles and their personal interests with charitable causes. In Cristiano’s situation, he has often emphasised his family values through partnering and supporting charities such as UNICEF, Save The Children and the Red Cross. He is also a regular blood donor and even auctioned his 2013 Ballon d’Or trophy for $600,000 which was contributed to the Make-a-Wish foundation. Building a successful brand as a player is not just for the purpose of receiving pay packages; it is also about achieving a position and status in society that can be utilised to make a meaningful and positive difference to the world around the player.

by Dr. Erkut Sogut & Jamie Khan

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