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No player is bigger than the sport – really?

In an interview for SportBusiness Review, Manu Leroy, head of marketing and communications at the Royal Belgian Football Association, was asked whether having a team of stars who all play for clubs outside their home country had an impact on their relationship with home fans.

His answer was illuminating, and highlights one of the major changes facing the sports sector right now. It makes no difference, he explained, because fans have access to TV coverage from leagues around the world and can follow their favourite players wherever they play. In fact, he went on, more and more fans are following individual players rather than teams and switching club allegiance whenever their player is transferred.

When City Football Group chief executive Ferran Soriano was asked about the trend at Globe Soccer in Dubai a couple of years ago, he was unconvinced that the idea fans would focus their devotion on players rather than clubs was even a thing. But as the head of an operation with an ever-growing portfolio of clubs around the world, that’s the response you might expect.

What’s clear is that it would take a Canute-like refusal to accept reality to argue against the idea that globalisation simply has to change the nature of fandom. Supporting your local team through thick and thin is no longer an automatic choice for a sports fan because the local team is not the only dish on the menu.

A fan of European or South American football from China will be free of the shackles of local loyalty and family tradition that influenced many of us in our choice of teams. Instead the world is their oyster. Why not declare as a Real Madrid fan? And if Cristiano Ronaldo was a major influence in becoming a Real fan in the first place, why not transfer your affections with him when he moves to Juventus?

As sport – particularly the big leagues with massive international reach – evolves, financial imperatives determine that revenues from overseas markets are an increasingly important item on the balance sheet. And that means embracing a new type of fan, who may fleetingly cloak themselves in a club’s colours but views the relationship through the affinity with players.

Leroy’s Belgian perspective provides more evidence for the trend of players moving closer and closer to the top of sport’s commercial ecosystem.

Ultimately sport is about talent and, in the professional era, top talent is richly rewarded. But until now there has been a system in which players are paid by their clubs or promoters in wages or prize money. Some get very rich; others just get by.

Could that status quo now be under threat? Could talent end up competing with clubs and federations for revenue and how would that impact the sports business in the long term?

Earlier this month, Mediacom Sport & Entertainment, part of the giant WPP marketing services conglomerate, announced it had signed a long-term commercial representation deal with the 19-year-old Real Madrid and Brazil star Vinicius Jr., who became the world’s most expensive young player when he moved from Flamengo on his 18th birthday.

The deal represents something of a coup for the company and vice-president Misha Sher sees it as a timely and logical move. “Never before have athletes had such an incredible opportunity to transcend their sport and develop a strong, personal brand that’s relevant in culture,” he said in the official announcement.

Mediacom is not replacing the player’s personal management team, which will continue to handle contracts and other football-related matters. Instead it will use its experience working with some of the world’s major corporations to devleop the Vinicius Jr brand.

While the arrangement may not be unique – super agent Jorge Mendes has a team of commercial marketers and digital experts to look after his stars in much the same way, and there are plenty of content creators out there – it can be seen as an indication of the way the wind is blowing.

Applying high level, near industrial branding disciplines to individual players is clearly the direction of travel. And players who build a massive, club-neutral fanbase, which connects through a deep understanding of who they are and what they stand for, offers unparalleled levels of engagement for brands and are set to be the big winners in the next phase of the evolution of the sports business.

If a fan follows a player because of their environmental activism, outrageous sense of humour or guitar playing (athletic brilliance is a given here) they are likely to become career-long if not life-long adherents.

All this will seriously challenge the long-held notion that no player is bigger than the club or the sport itself. Cristiano Ronaldo has already made us question the truth of that statement and, as the industry gets to work to create the next generation of globally connected, profesionally branded superstars, it will come under further pressure.

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