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JJ Shaw | The Instagram age of player power in modern football

JJ Shaw, associate at law firm Lewis Silkin, discusses how, on the back of social media, the players really can be bigger than the club.

JJ Shaw

The results of the Deloitte Money League 2020 are in.

Barcelona sit as kingpins atop the money tree, having toppled Real Madrid by breaking the €800m ($890m) revenue barrier. Spurs have been propelled into a stratospheric eighth place, driven mostly by last season’s lucrative Uefa Champions League exploits; Arsenal meanwhile have slumped to their worst financial place in the rankings since the 2000-2001 season. And so, the football calendar will roll-on, the money will keep on flowing, and the world shall keep on turning.

A particularly intriguing insight in the report is the fact that 75 per cent of the top 20 “Money League clubs” actually have fewer followers on their club Instagram account than their most-followed player.

From some rudimentary sleuthing, this does indeed appear to be true – Paul Pogba’s 38.9 million following edges out Manchester United’s 33.4 million followers on the club account. Mesut Özil’s 21.9 million following exceeds Arsenal’s 16.7 million. Even Harry Kane’s nine million following trumps his own club’s rather modest seven million. And then of course you have the superhuman brand power of the two aliens in our midst – Cristiano Ronaldo (198 million) and Lionel Messi (140 million) – who each seem to transcend club football altogether.

Player power

The old adage “No player is bigger than the club” has perhaps run its course. We are living in the undisputable age of individual brand power within football; where certain players are able to harness their image rights and their brand to greater effect than their own employers.

Social media has perhaps been the single-biggest factor in facilitating this power shift. Footballers have long been considered fashion icons and pin-ups; but social media has afforded them a powerful platform to showcase their lifestyle, fashion, training regime and private lives on a wholly new scale.

Players now have the ability to create their own content and communicate it directly to fans through social channels, driving engagement amongst a younger, tech-savvy audience. This has allowed many of the top stars in the game to amass vast online followings, thereby increasing the value and reach of their personal ‘off-field’ brand.

Elite players can further cultivate their brand through protection of their image rights. ‘Image rights’ is a term used to refer to a player’s proprietary rights in their personality and their ability to exploit (and protect) use of their name, nickname, image, likeness, signature and other personal indicia.

“Player power” represents both a blessing and a curse for football clubs. On the one hand, players have undoubtedly become more self-righteous and harder to manage. Managerial tenures are getting shorter as gaffers increasingly “lose the dressing room”, and we only need to look as far back as last summer to witness the likes of Antoine Griezmann and Neymar Jr. in protracted sulks; absent without leave in an effort to force a move away from their respective clubs.

Deloitte’s Money League report highlights that many ‘Generation Z’ fans (those aged 16-24) have more of an allegiance to individual players than a club. A top player’s natural popularity (primarily based on their standout performances on the pitch) can be significantly enhanced as a result of the connection they are able to build with fans directly via social media. This presents a unique challenge for clubs to retain their fanbase amid the inevitable flurry of transfer activity.

Furthermore, sponsors are now demanding clubs provide better access to big-name players in return for their sponsorship cash. At the negotiation stage, football clubs are being challenged to pinpoint and commit specific players to particular sponsorship obligations upfront, as savvy sponsors seek the chance to benefit from the player’s celebrity influence (it is worth noting that clubs can sometimes negate this by committing ‘club legends’ to such roles, who are generally readily available to be contracted for this purpose).

This has led to many clubs acquiring wider image rights from players (or their nominated image rights companies) than is typical in a standard employment contract (i.e. a minimum 3 players together in a club context), so that the club is then able to commit these personal endorsements rights of players to official club sponsors.

Endorsements

From a rights perspective, player endorsement deals are becoming ever more expensive for brands and companies seeking to involve footballers in their advertising and/or broadcasting ventures. As players increasingly demand higher fees for these rights deals, brands need to take extra care to be clear around the commitments a player is expected to meet as part of the deal, especially around the number of social posts (ideally with KPIs established around issues such as social post reach). Brands will need to be careful to ensure advertising rules are understood and complied with by the player too, to avoid the risk of the advertising materials falling foul of local advertising regulations.

On the other hand, increased player power represents an enormous commercial opportunity for clubs if leveraged correctly. The huge pulling power of individual stars offers clubs a chance to broaden their fanbase and attract new supporters that might be more interested in the particular player (i.e. through signing that player) or that might otherwise not follow football at all (e.g. if the player is also a renowned name outside of football, such as in esports).

Juventus’ signing of Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer of 2018 not only strengthened the Italian Champions’ team on the pitch, it was also a strategic move in respect of club sponsors, commercial partners and wider followers of the Juventus brand. Indeed, since Ronaldo’s arrival at Juventus, the club’s Instagram following has rocketed from 9.8 million to almost 36 million and similar social growth was experienced on the club’s YouTube and Weibo channels. The transfer of the Portuguese superstar was also followed by lucrative new sponsorship deals for the club with adidas (double the value of the previous agreement) and Jeep (which went from being worth €17m a year to €42m).

For now, one thing is for sure – player power speaks in the modern age. If a club’s future financial success is underpinned by an in-depth understanding of who their future fan is, then harnessing the brand power of the team’s star players should form a core element of the club’s financial strategy going forwards.

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