The dust raised by Christiano Ronaldo, Paul Pogba and Manuel Locatelli at the 2020 European Football Championships may have begun to settle, but that shouldn’t mean an overlook of the matters arising from the tarnishing impact of the actions of the three high-earning international football stars on the relationship between big sports and marketing, particularly as it relates to sponsorships.
It was Christiano Ronaldo (Portugal) that started what became repeated misdemeanor when he removed bottles of Coke placed in front of him at the start of a press conference at the start of the tournament, preferring instead to have water in their stead. Buoyed by this, French national team star, Paul Pogba also ceremoniously removed bottles of Heineken Beer during his own conference while Manuel Locatelli of Italy also made a second victim of Coke by grabbing bottles off the press conference table when it was his turn to speak with the press.
There was so much talk about how Ronaldo’s action depleted the share price of Coca-Cola, with the flourishing conspiracy theories section of the world press advancing all manner of dooms-day analyses. But it was Forbes’s intervention that punctured the raging rhetoric, referencing facts and coincidences that were responsible for the drop in the share prices of Coca-Cola around the period Ronaldo was on his public display of derision for the backers of the game that gave him fame and fortune. Forbes, in approaching the story, did point to the challenges of living and doing business in a “Post-Truth World.” It described the new concept, post-truth, as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Continuing, Forbes said of the Post-Truth World: “The phrase gained prominence during the Trump presidency and the UK’s Brexit referendum. But there is a deluge of unsupported claims made every day by people whose prominence helps shape public policy and opinion. Over the past year of the pandemic, for instance, we have all listened to people without any medical qualifications expound on the health crisis. Unfortunately, their comments frequently influenced decision-making.”
Whether it was general damage control that Forbes tried to do with that article or it was advancing the truth, what cannot be ignored is the adverse impact the action of Ronaldo has had on the Coca-Cola brand. The damage will certainly be not as bad as the initial diagnosis, but there is no way Coke would have left that table without serious perception bruises. It can also be said that subsequent actions by Paul Pogba and Manuel Locatelli would have not happened had Ronaldo not been allowed to get away with his own act, which, in any case, flagged off the avalanche.
In interrogating Forbes theory of a post-truth world, one cannot avoid extending it from the impact of the actions of Ronaldo, Pogba and Locatelli on brands, to the possible long-term effect on the relationship between big sports and brands, a factor likely to necessitate the reevaluation of the values, terms and conditions of future sponsorship agreements. I am one of those that strongly hold that those three payers should be severely punished for what they did to those brands and for fracturing the relationship between football and the brand world. I have six reasons for saying so and I discuss them below:
- What’s Big Sports without sponsorships? According to the BBC, Sponsorship is the financial support for a sport (whether this is an event, organisation or performer) by an outside body (be it a person or organisation) for the mutual benefit of both parties. This is saying it just simply. But it is a known fact that without the handshake with marketing, many of the exciting sporting events in the world would not possibly be taking place. What this means is that were there to be no sponsorships, players like Ronaldo, Pogba and Locatelli would never have grown so big they have come to pick and choose which brands are placed on a table they are to address the press. In fact, they are almost choosing sponsorships partners for UEFA.
The amount of money sponsors bring to sports is huge and it is from this pool that big salaries, bonuses and other earnings are paid to players, whether at club level or the national teams. For instance, the Euro 2020 championship is estimated to have generated more than N350 billion ($690 million) from sponsorships and licensing alone. With the COVID -19 pandemic that limited revenue from gate takings, it is clear that there wouldn’t have been any Euro 2020 in the first place. UEFA, as a matter of commitment, had to organize Euro 2020 in 2021 chiefly because of its legion of sponsors, same sponsors the players are taking off press conference tables.
… the Euro 2020 championship is estimated to have generated more than N350 billion million ($695 million) from sponsorships alone. With the COVID -19 pandemic that limited revenue from gate takings, it is clear that there wouldn’t have been any Euro 2020 in the first place. UEFA, as a matter of commitment, had to organize Euro 2020 in 2021 chiefly because of its legion of sponsors, same sponsors the players are taking off press conference tables.
2. There is big hypocrisy about personal and religious beliefs. There is huge hypocrisy about religion and those who thought it was mostly an African problem have seen its global influence at the 2020 Euros. Paul Pogba claimed he was a devout Muslim and wouldn’t want to have bottles of Alcoholic beverage, Heineken, on the table as he addressed a conference. The same hypocrisy also applies to Ronaldo and Locatelli, who removed Coke ostensibly for what was believed to be their aversion to the brands’ adverse implications on health and wellness.
This is almost the same thing we witness in Nigeria where some states in the north that adopted Sharia Islamic codes confiscate and destroy bottles of beer mopped from beer distributors, even when they also share in the value-added tax paid by the beer manufacturing companies to the coffers of the Federal Government of Nigeria. Heineken and Coke were the sponsors of Euro 2020; the reason these players were in Hungary in the first place. By joining their various national teams to compete, what these boys are pretending to be unaware of is that they have endorsed these brands. I am sure that if there has to be a photography audit of the tournament, the chances of capturing Pogba on the pitch with a Heineken advert showing on a pitch panel in the background will be very high. Same with Ronaldo, Locatelli and Coke! As a matter of fact, there were Heineken logos on the backdrop banner as Pogba was removing the bottles on the table in front of him!
3. You have a choice to decline the press conference rather than appear and remove brands paying for the space and time. If the whole thing was not a show, a disrespectful show for that matter, there was an option of declining to be a part of the press conference by these players rather than potentially damaging brands in the process. I am not sure UEFA has a penalty for someone who politely says he was not going to be a part of a press conference. There were at least 528 players and many of them are stars in their own rights. After each game, there are potentially 22 players to interview between the two teams. A player might make a request to be excluded from a pre- or post-match conference, presenting the reasons. What Ronaldo, Pogba and Locatelli did were premeditated assaults on brands. It is an attack on the sensibilities of millions of fans all around the world.
4. Even if you have an endorsement from competition. Some people have tried to rationalise the actions of these players by citing the difficulty for some who have subsisting endorsement contracts with competition. This is not a valid argument and can be likened to same players refusing to appear in a game sponsored by an opposing brand. The platform for that press conference is owned by UEFA and therefore has the opportunity to reward, through product and logo exposure, brands that are supporting its game. What you might do, and I honestly do not know if the organisers would object, is to arrive dressed in the liveries of your own sponsor or a personal message. That is proper ambush marketing. Anything is possible.
5. Routine demarketing of sponsors is being made to become cheaper than ever? I did say earlier that what these players did amounted to premeditated, calculated assaults on the brands they so shabbily treated. The fact that they were captured by the press, print and electronic, suggests premeditation. If the big sporting bodies in the world do not work at preventing a continued occurrence, a template for inflicting injuries on brands has thus been created. For instance, what prevents a brand from secretly paying athletes to mete out similar treatment on competition at major sporting events? Christiano Ronaldo has given the world the script already when he requested water in place of the bottles of Coke he so summarily removed. Any player can thus commercially be made to offer any excuse to tarnish brands in this way.
6. Your ego should be matched by the examples you give. Whether we like it or not, club football owners usually pay for both the skills and the ego of their players. This is because they know this does not only bring fans to the stadiums on matchdays, but it also helps sell club merchandise and gets sponsorships flooding in. For this reason, players invest in building implacable egos, which most likely influences their market valuation.
But there has to be a boundary. The lesson must be delivered and taken that no matter how big a player becomes, he cannot be bigger than the sport that brought him fame in the first place. To have become big also took the presence and financial backing of sponsors in clubs, tournaments and directly on the players. This brings upon the players, the burden of responsibility – to their clubs, to their teams, to their coaches and to the various businesses whose partnerships and value exchanges contributed to make them the stars they became.