Football has changed a lot over the years. It's something you hear almost every single week whether it be in reference to VAR, the way the game is played or simply the player mentality. It's not just on the pitch where football has changed though. Off the pitch has probably seen the biggest changes and here we look at how footballers became brands.
Before you can truly understand how footballers became brands it's important to understand that the success those players now have ‘away from the game' is underpinned by moves in both the game itself, sport in general and the wider world.
The emergence of sponsors
When you consider what propels someone from a professional footballer into a brand is supported by a wealth of sponsorship deals then you can start to understand where this ties back to the game itself. Cast your mind back to when England lifted their only World Cup in 1966; specifically, think about that famous picture of Sir Bobby Moore holding aloft the Jules Rimet trophy. You know the kit. A striking red shirt, the three lions emblazoned on the chest with red socks and plain white shorts. What's missing though? A manufacturers logo. A shirt sponsor. They simply weren't a thing at that time.
It wasn't until over a decade later that the FA amended its laws to allow sponsors to appear on shirts. That was 1977. Fast forward to today and shirt sponsors are worth fortunes with Chevrolet paying Manchester United just shy of £50m every year. It's not just shirt front sponsors though. You've got competitions sponsored, which started in the early eighties with the Milk Cup and remains prevalent today with the SkyBet football league and the Emirates FA Cup to name just two. We haven't even delved into the naming rights of stadiums or sleeve sponsors, which based on Tottenham's recent addition of ‘Cinch' could be worth a further £10m a year.
Why is this relevant information to explain how footballers became brands you might ask. Well, it's the evidence that shows mega brands benefit from being connected to football and what is the next biggest marketable asset of a football club? The star players.
The Premier League
If sponsorship deals started to turn the tide towards football being a business then that process was accelerated in the nineties when the Premier League was born. That happened ahead of the 1992/93 season. So what actually changed as a result of the Premier League formation? Well, the main shift was coverage be it in newspapers, on radio or television and coverage means money. Lots of it.
Football wasn't reported on any more ferociously than other sports. That's not even close to being the case now. Take the 1991/92 season, which was the last of the old-style pyramid, as an example. There were 18 televised games. Initially, that number trebled but now you'll see 18 games aired across a matter of weeks. In addition to the sickening amounts of TV money this pours into the league – believed to be around the £2.5bn mark – it also means English football is the most-watched globally heightening the impact of sponsorship deals.
How did this impact players?
We've already touched on the fact that players are the next most marketable assets after the club itself. That is something advertisers tapped into a few years after the start of the Premier League knowing that a player pinning themselves to their brand could work wonders for sales; if you dispute how strongly that link can be made then we urge you to look at the sustained success Nike had courtesy of their collaboration with NBA star Michael Jordan. Yes, it's not football but it's proof the concept works. Why wouldn't it work with someone like David Beckham?
Beckham is the obvious name that came out of the nineties with real longevity. He wasn't the only player brands tried to tap into; Gary Lineker and Walkers Crisps are pretty synonymous nowadays after teaming up in the mid-nineties whilst the early 2000's saw iconic adverts like Thierry Henry's va-va-voom for Renault. It's not always non-sporting brands where these relationships are formed. One of the biggest relationships players and companies have is in footwear, or more specifically, football boots. The first boot deal of note was one commissioned by Nike in 1998; it saw them team up with Ronaldo Nazario with their R9 Mercurial’s.
The other thing that is important to note is that it's not just a case of a company saying ‘we'll pay you X to wear these boots'. The contracts are much deeper than that and, using the example of the ‘original Ronaldo' again, can be lifelong endorsements between the two parties. Sure, it started with a football boot but pretty quickly it grows into the gear you wear to training, the bag you carry, the cap you wear when playing a round of golf on your days off. It's endless and it's worth a staggering amount of money.
Another game changer
The period from the late seventies through to, call it, 2010 saw more attention for football along with more money being thrown around; transfer fees had gone from £900k to £80m whilst wages and those aforementioned sponsorship deals had progressed in a not dissimilar fashion. People thought the peak had been reached, that the bubble might burst but then social media blew up with the birth of Instagram adding to Twitter and Facebook.
Of course, this enabled football clubs to communicate with their far-stretching fan bases with ease but it elevated players to a completely new level – even for the most elite level players like the Cristiano Ronaldo's and Lionel Messi's of this world. Back ‘in the day' companies – and players or their agents – would have to assess what pull a name had. Even with global icons like Beckham, who we mentioned a moment ago, there wasn't a set measure of their appeal. It was just known that a) his profile was huge and b) it was bigger than player X.
Social media transformed that side of things. With Facebook, Twitter and Instagram there is no judgement call needed with respect of what reach a particular player might have; instead, you have cold hard statistics to tap into. You can see how many followers a player has and there are even ways to explore how many people see their posts; you don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand how much the advertisers love that. Equally, from the players side, your contract negotiation becomes a doddle.
What does it take to be ‘brand worthy'?
If you’re being cynical, it’s very easy to look at footballers enhancing their brand through ads and endorsements and accuse them of ‘doing anything for money’ but there is a lot more complexity to these arrangements than ‘he’s a good player’ or ‘they’ve got a lot of followers’ let’s use them. Instead there is a careful selection process where both parties look to ensure they share a similar set of values and that the player/advert complements their existing message/aura.
We’ll take you back to the era of the early 2000s. How does a company decide that a player is the right fit for what their product or their brand is trying to achieve? There were only really two ways for that conclusion to be drawn. One was from what you see on the pitch, the other is from what the media report on. Again, we’ll use the example of Beckham. Nowadays we know him as the well-groomed father figure who has the glamorous wife by his side and an eye for business. That wasn’t always him in the nineties so what did attract people to him?
Sticking to stereotypes and playing on personas
Beckham was always perceived as a good looking chap who took care of his appearance. That’s a big tick for any companies wanting to advertise men’s products centred around grooming be it razors, hair products or aftershave but it’s not just about what someone looks like. They need to trigger an emotive response in those customers who see the adverts.
With Beckham, very few could relate to his talent but what people could relate to was his working class background, his tireless work rate, his imperfect interviews and his all-round down to Earth nature that made him come of like a normal person who was just lucky to be doing the job he loved. ‘Becks’, as he was affectionately known, became that global we’ve spoken about, which meant his adds could air pretty much anywhere and the general vibe given off would be the same.
By contrast, take Roy Keane as another example. He played a starring role for the same Man United team as Beckham, he too was from a working-class family who had ‘made it’ because of talent and graft. Keane was the captain too and certainly had as much exposure – if not more – on match day. He wasn’t as marketable as Beckham though. Why? Well, he cut a cold and often isolating figure. He was a tough unapproachable character and it meant his persona and the vibe he gave off couldn’t lend itself to being the catalyst to push certain products. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t involved in marketing deals though but, often, they’d play on that ‘tough man’ exterior; for example, when he played a thief who stole Lineker’s crisps in a Walker’s ad that aired in Ireland, which happens to be a place where Keane is worshipped for the character he presents as.
Being a prominent person
Our last note on Keane touches on the importance of a player being prominent with the Irish public known to adore him. It means he’s a phenomenal person to use when targeting that market. It’s not the only thing that companies look for in their lead athletes; although that prominence is key. After all, the more presence a player has, the wider audience they’ll connect with and, in theory, the greater conversion you’ll have in respect of a view to sell ratio.
What defines prominence then? Well, you’ve got the Keane effect where someone has a really strong local connection but when you come to brands that are looking to penetrate markets on a global level you’re looking at things differently. Does the player feature heavily in media circles to the point where they’ll draw the camera as they leave the team bus to walk into the ground on match day? Will, they be discussed in pre and post-match analysis more often than not? Will they be the player regularly in the spotlight on match day?
You’ve always been able to judge this sort of thing with the obvious example being that someone who scores 30 goals a season will attract more attention than someone who plays in a less glamorous role – take Harry Kane and Eric Dier from Tottenham example. Both play for the same team, they’re both England regulars but only one hogs headlines.
With all of that discussed, we come back to social media and the importance it has played as footballers became brands. The two key aspects of the player we’ve spoken about are that they’re relatable and prominent. How does social media help inform this? The prominence side is easy; they have followers. The bigger their following, the more prominent they are. What’s less obvious is how it aids the relationship. How is Cristiano Ronaldo, the most followed footballer in the world with 507m followers across the three biggest social networks, possibly relatable?
Well, it’s an art form. Nobody really looks at his Instagram and thinks he uses a certain type of shampoo, for instance, but when it’s sandwiched in between posts about going to the gym, going to a restaurant, travelling on holiday and spending time with family the person himself starts to evoke a response in his followers. He’s no longer the biggest star in the world; instead Ronaldo is just a normal person – like you – who is in a privileged position.
So, how did footballers become brands?
Footballers becoming brands has been a long road, which has been crafted carefully over a number of years. In a summarised version of what we’ve spoken through the journey has been as follows.
Sponsorship plus wider coverage started footballers on the route to becoming their own brands as their own characteristics and profile unlocked opportunities. Then, social media arrived taking the subjectiveness out of negotiations and putting endorsement opportunities at their fingertips all day, every day.
Given how technology and marketing is developing, don’t expect the world of footballers as brands to slow.