Even those who don’t follow football know of Cristiano Ronaldo. Sure they may know him as a football player, but that is likely where their football knowledge stops. What these people recognize is a walking brand and a fashion icon. He is currently the single most followed person on instagram with a whopping 209 million followers and when you factor in his twitter and facebook followers the tally comes to around 415 million followers in total. Without even considering his staggering presence on social media, Ronaldo still has arguably the best personal branding of any football player in the history of the sport: only about 60% of his annual income in 2019 came from actually playing soccer. That’s right, $44 million of what Cristiano made in 2019 came from off-field endorsement deals and personal business ventures of his. (Forbes) The only other name that comes to mind for coming close to this level of branding is David Beckham who has been able to steadily grow his net worth in his years after playing through similar ventures. Cristiano is already following a similar trajectory as Beckham, so how do these guys pull it off?
The answer is not as cut and dry as you might hope. What is important to know here is that being an athlete at the top of your sport affords you many luxuries, one being marketability. Yes, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo both take advantage of this to promote non-football businesses, but what many don’t see is the people pulling many of the strings to put these deals in place for them. In comes the role of the agent.
There is no clear cut pathway to becoming a football agent like there is for becoming a doctor or a lawyer. No school you have to go to, and only a few certifications to be had to operate at the highest level. Rather, becoming a football agent seems to be about knowing the game, and knowing the right people. In fact, almost anyone can act as a player’s agent. For example, despite having no business degree or extensive connections for that matter, Neymar’s father, Neymar Sr., acts as his agent. He helped negotiate the bank-breaking move from Barcelona to Paris Saint Germain, and as a result has made himself and his family rich beyond belief. All Neymar Sr. had going for him was a very talented son, and some minimal professional playing experience in Brazil. It is due to this lack of structure in curating agents and the aspect of luck with a player’s success that directly dictates the complete shot in the dark that being a successful agent is.
Besides having a talented friend or family member to represent as their agent, people can become agents by signing on with firms that act to supply players with agents. This is what “super agent” Mino Raiola did to get his foot in the door. (For more info on Mino check out the Super Agents tab on the left hand side) As far as what a good resume looks like when applying to an agency like that, few will say.
Aside from the primary role of the agent in negotiating transfers and contracts, the football agent has a massive part in developing the personal brand of the athletes they represent. This can be accomplished in many ways. Many players opt to build their public reputation by donating money to good causes or by providing resources to certain organizations. These sorts of mass donations are often organized by the agent and as a result they can bring in the media for optimizing exposure. For instance, on March 25, 2020, Cristiano Ronaldo and his agent Jorge Mendes teamed up and donated a combined $1.8 million to hospitals in their native Portugal to support the fight against COVID-19. The money went to two hospitals: one in Porto and one in Lisbon, and is being used to provide more beds, monitors, ventilators, infusion pumps, masks, and syringes. (May) Not only does this type of PR move look good to the people, but it grabs the attention of corporations as well. Major companies want to be represented by not only top athletes, but good people (see Gatorade dropping their deal with Tiger woods). Thus, a public donation of considerable magnitude is as much a business move as it is a “good citizen” move. Who can be to thank for all these genius marketing ploys? None other than the players’ representation.
However, brands that get to the scale of Ronaldo and Beckham sort of become anomalies. That is to say that at this moment, you can go to www.cristianoronaldo.com and shop for footwear, underwear, denim, and fragrances all in one place. At some point that is hard to clearly define, the agent becomes less involved in the business ventures of a player, and the player basically creates their own team of business consultants that take over and lead the charge. Yet it is important to not underestimate the role the agent plays early on in this brand building journey for a player, and that is all about proper exposure. Equivalent to an NBA player’s shoe deal, signing with a football equipment corporation does a lot for a player’s career as well as brand. Ronaldo signed his first deal with Nike Football in 2003 and 13 years later in 2016 he became the third athlete ever to sign a lifetime deal with the company, joining the likes of Michael Jordan and LeBron James. The lifetime deal will earn him around $1 billion. (Winters)
On the other side of the coin, these large corporations that approach players for endorsement deals come in well versed in knowing the value of a player to their company. Before engaging in contract negotiations with players or their representation, companies such as Nike do their homework on their potential business partners. While much of the details surrounding these specific endeavours remain relatively private, what I can tell you is the marketing departments at major equipment manufacturers are not lacking in financial backing or relevant expertise. Nike Global Sports Marketing is the division in charge of managing athlete relationships as well as relationships with federations and teams across the world. As such, they are not afraid to splash the cash in this department to get the big name athletes, teams and leagues to sponsor. In 2019, Nike spent a total of $3,750,000,000 (3.75 billion US dollars) on marketing all together. (Statista) This is a figure that has seen consistent increase over the last 5 years, a trend that I am sure will continue as Nike fights to keep its name at the top of the list for the world’s preeminent athletic equipment manufacturer. The thinking behind spending this ridiculous amount of money is that if they can partner with the world’s best athletes, Nike believes that will be one of the biggest factors in their dominance.
Do lesser known players get similar treatments? To put it simply, no they do not. Not from corporations or agents or any other sort of business looking to get into marketing deals. From a purely business perspective, investing in a lesser known player is a bigger marketing risk to take, so many companies won’t take it. What you do tend to see in the smaller markets however, is a stronger local endorsement scheme. Take for example a small club in rural england. A player in said club will often have opportunities appearing in ads for local businesses, places where the clients would instantly recognize the athlete. In this way, the endorsement deals are proportional to success on the pitch.
So why do the agents work so hard to build a player’s brand? A few reasons come to mind. First and foremost, they get a cut when the contract is all said and done. Therefore, the better work an agent does by not screwing over an endorser or a player, the more deals they will get to be a part of in the future. The same mindset applies to any work that an agent does for a footballer to be fair. The nature of their relationship is very much symbiotic, and that, in a nutshell, is where the motivation to do good work for someone’s personal branding comes from.
Another important reason for the agent striving to build a player’s image is to simply foster that relationship between player and agent. In the business, agents are realistically quite dispensable to the players. If one agent doesn’t listen to a player’s desires or injects too much of their own opinions, the player can pretty simply move on to other representatives. Thus, having a deeper personal relationship to the player minimizes the risk of this happening. If you were a player, aren’t you more likely to listen to the advice of a close friend than the advice of a coworker who you don’t really have all that much of a relationship with? Didier Demaziere and Morgan Jouvenet boil it down perfectly: “The interpersonal dimension and commercial calculations are inextricably linked; for an agent, a player can be all at once a friend and a profitable commodity. All the more as agents’ careers rest not only on the publicity given their competence as negotiators but also on the quality of their relationships with their players.” (Demaziere) Basically, the agents’ careers ride on their ability to be as good a friend as they are a business representative.
Written by Sebastian Hoyt