Football has changed dramatically since I was an apprentice at the turn of the century. During the beginning of my career, my focus was solely on proving my playing ability and securing my first professional contract.
What wasn’t evident – and I imagine is the case for many other athletes – is the impact our image has on the future generations of fans, not only as professional competitors, but also ambassadors for our respective sports.
While sponsorship has turned football into a rewarding career path, it has also built a legacy for global brands ready to pay heavy sums for long-term partnerships with the biggest sporting properties and events. As a result, football has grown at a rapid pace, though often without thought to which companies it partners with or how their exposure influences the health and well-being of the fans.
Therefore, as the sport matures and takes ownership of its digital content output, I want to appeal to rights-holders more broadly that there is a more authentic – and more lucrative – way to do business
According to Deloitte, European football alone was worth a record €28bn ($33bn) in 2019. That may well have taken a knock since the disruption caused by Covid-19. As we know, commercial partnerships account for a huge slice of the pie as companies continue to see value in the sport’s global popularity.
When Cristiano Ronaldo removed two Coca-Cola bottles from the top table during a Uefa Euro 2020 press conference in June, and called for people to instead drink water, the media attention he drew demonstrated his influence beyond the game of football.
What is also highlighted is the nonsense of representing branded products on the top table. While Coca-Cola and Heineken are within their rights to maximise their deals with Uefa, the placement of their bottles alongside players and coaches appeared incredibly out of touch and detracted from the voices of the tournament’s talent.
To be crystal clear, while I’d prefer to see Uefa work with more nutritional food and beverage brands that athletes themselves use daily, the greater issue is not the fact that brands want to promote their product or protect their investment. It’s instead the lack of ambition from sporting bodies like Uefa to change the way they market themselves. By continuing to run with outdated commercial models, I fear we risk doing our sports, our athletes and our fans a massive disservice.
There are other, smarter avenues that sports can now capitalise on. It is no longer good enough for sports rights-holders to partner with brands ready to pay the highest sum for sponsorship rights. They must instead seek to challenge their respective teams, athletes and sponsors to educate audiences around the impact of their products in wider society.
In terms of food and drinks brands, this might include campaigns around the importance of a sustainable and balanced diet and, while it’s important that we enjoy the pleasures of life, not to overindulge. Although this might sound counterintuitive, research shows that brands which put purpose before profit are more likely to increase trust in their product and generate more meaningful sales.
While all manner of companies will continue to pay large rights fees to be associated with sporting talent, it’s only a matter of time before greater numbers of fans begin to question the types of brands they, and their children, are exposed to.
To achieve greater brand advocacy, governing bodies and sports teams must be prepared to challenge prospective sponsors, whatever the cost, and trust that, by going against the grain, they’ll increase revenues by forcing high-paying brands to take responsibility for the health and welfare of people who associate their products with the sport.
Considering the popularity of sport, leaders within sport are not doing nearly enough to educate people about nutrition and an opportunity to reinvent the sponsorship revenue model is being neglected. Isn’t it strange that, while we hold athletes in high esteem, we still see increasing levels of obesity in our societies?
Therefore, as sport embraces the digital transformation and takes content direct to the consumer, an opportunity presents itself for rights owners to build greater advocacy in their own organisations by aligning with more purpose-driven companies. This is not only beneficial to the prosperity of our sports, but also for the health and well-being of the fans who invest time and money in watching us – the athletes – do what we do best.