- Agency has signed Real Madrid and Brazil footballer Vinícius Jr. on long-term deal
- Company will seek to develop star’s brand outside of football
- Athletes increasingly looking for equity and ownership positions in brands rather than fee-based deals
Mediacom Sport and Entertainment’s announcement that it has signed Real Madrid and Brazil star Vinícius Jr. on a long-term commercial management deal represented a major coup for the company but was otherwise unsurprising.
After all, representing talent is one of the things that the specialist division of the WPP conglomerate’s Mediacom operation does and over the years it has built a roster of talent including soccer and cricket legends Pelé and Brian Lara, Eni Aluko, now sporting director of Aston Villa Women, and the Arsenal and Germany star Mesut Özil.
But the singing of Vinícius Jr, a 19-year-old who for whom Real Madrid paid Brazilian club Flamengo €45m ($51m) on his 18th birthday felt different. That’s because while talent has historically built commercial value over a career of sporting success, here is a division of the world’s biggest marketing services organisation sending out a clear message that the game has changed.
Vinícius Jr. is a prodigiously talented young player with what promises to be a stellar career in front of him. He is all about potential and, as he begins to fulfil that potential on the field, he and his people naturally want to maximise the commercial returns. Hence the early stage involvement of Mediacom Sport and Entertainment led by Misha Sher.
For them the task is clear. To build a strong, culturally relevant and global ‘Brand Vinícius’ that transcends endorsements and becomes an enterprise in its own right.
“Athletes used to rely (for their commercial power) on where they played, the success of their teams, their own performances and the way the media perceived them,” says Sher.
“Technology disintermediated all that and gave the power to the athletes. Now they can communicate directly with fans and show different parts of themselves not necessarily directly related to sport. It’s an unfiltered connection, not something that’s seen via a club website, a newspaper or other channels. There has been a democratisation of the process and the barriers have come down.”
Now we’ve heard a lot of this before. That an athlete can be a media channel and connect with fans in new ways by telling their stories through social media is simply a fact of life and there are lots of people out there set up to advise on strategy and devise content.
But according to Sher, the marketing of athletes now goes so much further than that, pointing to a new level of brand building that emulates some of the world’s major corporations and their products.
It’s not enough to be a decent athlete nowadays if you have ambition. People expect more from you and firms want to be able to connect with your story and what you are about.
“These things are relevant every day. The role of the athlete is about more than playing sport, especially in today’s world. They have to be relatable and demonstrate strong affinity with issues that influence culture. It’s not enough to go home to the suburbs in your Lamborghini and play video games. People expect powerful authentic stories.”
He points to talent like the NBA’s Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant as well as the likes of David Beckham as stars who have had a clear brand building strategy and who have transcended their sports to become cultural icons which corporations are anxious to work with because of the nature as well as the scale of their engagement with the public.
According to Forbes, Brooklyn Nets star Durant earns some $35m a year from sponsorship deals and has invested in a multitude of companies. His own media company has deals with ESPN, Fox and Showtime, while his YouTube channel has 800,000 subscribers.
Similarly, Curry tops up his league-leading salary with some $44m a year in endorsement earnings which are invested through his own company. Both men are recognised as brands in their own right on and off court.
But for other athletes, even for those who have hundreds of thousands or even millions of social media followers, Sher believes much of their activity is unfocused and ultimately wasted.
“In the end everybody is just posting,” he says. “There isn’t a consistent narrative that is unique to that individual, so most athletes miss the opportunity to build any real equity in their personal brand. They fail to recognize that commercial opportunities in any form are a direct result of their ability to cultivate favourable, strong and unique brand associations in the minds of the fans.
“Nobody [no brand] is just looking for a footballer to spend money with. Having a million followers on social media isn’t enough in itself because a lot of people have that.”
“People are eager to hear from athletes who have a product themselves, not something restricted to a team but in their own right. They can be a brand which stands for something and has its own distribution network.
“The opportunity we see is around deploying our knowledge of brand building, media, consumers behaviour and technology to help talent develop strong enterprise value. This transforms their ability to maximize earnings outside of sport as they move from fee type arrangements to equity and ownership. The stronger their brand, the more appealing they become.
And it is that commercial realisation that is persuading athletes’ personal management to bring in specialists to identify, elevate and ultimately monetise the inner brand.
“In today’s world it is part of the talent managers’ role to provide what their clients need. If it’s finding a personal chef or a specialist trainer to improve their playing performance, they will do it. So, it is natural that they will seek out specialist help to develop commercial opportunities,” Sher explains.
“When we were approached about Vinícius Jr. we wanted to find out what he is all about, what matters to him and what he is interested in.
“What we discovered was a young man who wasn’t just one of the most exciting talents in world football, but someone who clearly has every attribute to transcend the game. Aside from being hugely charismatic, even at his young age he is already talking about using his platform to make an impact. When he talks about the environment or investing in education of the less privileged, both issues close to his heart as a Brazilian, you feel it is real. Here is a guy who came from nothing and he is already thinking about lifting others.
“Our job is to help athletes develop a unique and authentic brand story and then build a strategy that elevates that story in culture. This is done through owned content, brand and media partners, talent collaborations, purpose-driven initiatives and other avenues that help to elevate and reinforce the story we want people to know. What you end up seeing is a consistent thread. The most successful brands on the planet, be that Nike, Apple or Disney, do exactly the same. Wherever we experience those brands, they evoke the same emotions.
All of which raises a potential red flag. Not every athlete has an interesting story or natural affinity with a positive cause. In fact, not every athlete has much to say of interest beyond their involvement in sport; they are like many of us in that respect.
So, isn’t it inevitable that commercial imperatives will create pressure to somehow invent characteristics – if not an entire character – to fuel the athlete brand? After all, a lot of people have skin in the game; the athlete, his personal management and the agency or agencies involved beyond that.
“It’s not our job to tell people what to believe in and the fact is that you can’t fake authenticity no matter how good your management is. People can smell bullshit a mile away,” Sher responds.
It seems unlikely that will be a problem with Vinícius Jr., who offers the balance of youth, sporting brilliance, and social commitment which, Sher believes, stands him in good stead in a fast-changing marketing and endorsement universe.
“Think about Gen Z (those born between 1997 and 2012). They connect with people who see their role in the world as being much bigger than just playing sport. They want to see passion for making the world a better place. It’s not enough to score a lot of goals and win trophies. If you want people to love you, you need to connect with them on a human level.”
Already the Mediacom team is developing a comprehensive social and digital media strategy across key markets including the US and China as well as working on a content programme with ‘a major media owner’ to produce content that showcases the person behind the footballer.
Interestingly, Sher believes the signing of a player who could be soccer’s next global icon has also energised not only Mediacom but the wider WPP group.
“Since the announcement there has been so much interest and dialogue within the group because there is a realisation that there is a big opportunity here for us to deploy our scale and capabilities. There is no group in the world that has our marketing, media and communication expertise and this is at the core of what is required to build talent.
“Could this evolve into something we develop at the group level? I wouldn’t rule it out,” he says.