Did Adidas want Paul Pogba to join Manchester United?

Pogba returns to Manchester United

As one of this summer’s most protracted transfers comes to an end, Paul Pogba’s lucrative £92.3m switch from Juventus to Manchester United could be a boon to Adidas, which sponsors both player and club.

Football’s worst kept secret is out and the timing couldn’t have been better for Adidas, with Pogba’s arrival at Manchester coming just days after it posted strong sales for the quarter. It caps an 18-month turnaround for the business, which is now looking to Pogba to kick it on to new heights.

Pogba to United is a perfect union for Adidas. More so than if he were to go Real Madrid, the other team that had made enquires. The German outfit is pumping marketing monies into six cities – London, Paris, LA, New York, Shanghai and Tokyo – where United has a strong fan base in each, with the US and Asia key destinations on its pre-season tour in recent years. Then there’s the fact that the sports behemoth is sweating its partnerships harder, meaning there’s more at stake now when its top players switch clubs, pressure compounded by the Premier League’s global dominance over La Liga.

Can sponsors influence football transfers?

While sponsors like Adidas aren’t driving transfers, they do exert a light touch. Of course they want their talent to play at clubs they provide kit for, and yes Adidas has a massive deal with United so it stands to reason it could play a role but it’s not going to be the deal maker or breaker.

The athlete and club both have their networks which overlap that help facilitate conversations, and those increasingly will extend to sponsors. Sponsors have very strong and lucrative relationships and are often used as a good go between, says John Scurfield, head of MediaCom Sport and Entertainment. "For example, if Adidas wanted to work with a Nike player for Manchester United, they would use that and vice versa. I’ve experienced clubs doing that but beyond that initial interaction, I don’t think it is the case that they yield that much influence - an apparel brand or any brand for that matter wouldn’t have influence on a club’s ultimate decisions. Adidas might say, 'We’re spending millions, we’d like X percentage of the squad to be Adidas players' but they wouldn’t actually have any bearing on the decision. That’s where their influence ends."

A transfer now isn’t just one club talking to another; it’s a club talking to an agent, talking to another agent, talking to a third party, talking to the club, which then talks to the people who are funding the deal. The more people that get involved then the less direct reasons for signing that player. For example, shirt sales could be a key reason for sponsors to take an interest in the transfer of a high profile player. Indeed, Adidas make a profit on United’s shirt sales not the club, which instead has a guaranteed fee.

It means that the German business has a lot riding on who signs for the club, particularly in some emerging markets such as China where players are more popular than the actual teams. Pogba’s 13.2 million followers across social media will serve as a huge boost in this regard. The Frenchman is currently the most talked about player in the UK across social media with 30 per cent of all conversations pertaining to him.

Looking ahead, Brandtix chief executive Jon Rosenblatt, says the popular midfielder is “fast becoming a brand of his own, in the same way Neymar has done so successfully. Moving to United, and becoming Adidas’ top Premier League player will elevate him quicker than any other player that’s transferred of late," he adds.

The Brandtix sports index, which provides real-time picture of elite athletes’ brand values based on their sporting prowess and social media appeal, has shown that Pogba's brand value has surged 13 per cent in the last week alone. On top of that there are already signs of his contribution to the brand value of Manchester United, with the club's Brandtix value increasing by 9 per cent.

This plays into Adidas’ social strategy which regards shares as the most important metric and defines success on this front as being the most talked about sports brand by young football fans.

With reputations and budgets at stake it’s no wonder why there are rumours aplenty as to the role sponsors play in transfers today. Some newspapers claimed that Adidas would help bring its flagship athlete Messi from Barcelona to United last year, while there are others who believe the Premier League giant’s public courtship of Ronaldo two years ago was (in part) spurned once it became clear his sponsor Nike would not be making the club’s kit anymore

Conspiracies aside, chief executive of sports marketing consultants Primetime Sport and former marketing and commercial director at Barcelona Esteve Calzada argues Adidas’ role in Pogba’s transfer should not be overemphasised. “In my opinion the influence of the technical sponsor in the big signings is a myth rather than anything else,” he continued.

“Sponsors don't have a say in signings normally (except when close tie like Adidas being shareholder at Bayern). In cases like Pogba there are different opinions. Some people think that for the brand it's better to have a top player in a team of the same brand (Pogba-Adidas-United), while others (incl. myself) believe it's better that the big player gives brand visibility in a team of a competitor brand (like Ronaldo wears Nike at Adidas club Real Madrid and Messi wears Adidas at Nike club Barça).”

However, it’s not unusual for clubs and sponsors to employ econometric modelling for a potential signing in order to understand how they can recoup what are increasingly inflated transfer fees and maximise a player’s marketability, as Dr Anna Semens, head of analytics at HSE Cake explains: "It's becoming more popular for clubs to take an analytical approach to transfers, With more data than ever before available, econometric models can demonstrate where the value will come from should a particular club sign a specific player - both on the pitch and commercially, in order to reach a fair deal. However, it's still a mix of stats alongside the instinct and insight of the club and a network of stakeholders which drives where that player ends up.”

Adidas, Pogba and United - 'a powerful sponsorship trifecta'

If there was any doubt about Adidas’ approval of Pogba’s move then look no further than Twitter. The sportswear giant playfully teased fans last month when it with a movie littered with unsubtle references to the Manchester club, coming just hours after it was reported player and club had agreed terms. A video shows the hooded Frenchman advising viewers not to “believe everything you read in the papers” before it cuts to a to a billboard showing the United crest and the word “blah” – a reference to a tweet used by Pogba’s agent in a tweet sent last week. The camera then pans to rapper and United fan Stormzy – another Adidas alumnae – wearing the team tracksuit. He then says “shut up” after reading a billboard with the United badge ripped up with the word ‘blah’, a playful homage to his 2015 hit ‘Shut Up’.

The video (below) via @adidasuk had a potential audience reach of 73k this morning (29 July), based on 2662 retweets and 2298 likes, according to Burst Insights. Pogba's growing popularity coupled with United having the highest Twitter Burst Engagement Score of any Premier League club (77 out of 100) is a "powerful sports-sponsorship trifecta," claims Michael Litman, chief executive of Burst Insights.

"Pogba will be a phenomenal brand asset now for Adidas UK rather than just Adidas Global and we predict the volume of video content by both Adidas UK and Man United to exponentially increase as a result of Pogba's transfer," he explains.

"More content equals more eyeballs on their owned social properties resulting in more followers while shirt sales are going to absolutely go through the roof. I even want a Man Utd shirt with Pogba on the back and i’m not a Man Utd fan! As an interesting byproduct of the expected increase in content, this will result in more money for the social networks through promoting the content and Twitter has emerged the huge winner here with the 20 second short social video not being posted anywhere else."

The emergence of new challenger brands such as Under Armour and New Balance has understandably impacted on the strategies of the more established brands, who have used their financial clout to responded with more endorsement deals in order to get closer to leading figures in sport. Nike’s spending on such tie-ups in recent years illustrates as much. In 2007, the US company invested around $2.79bn in endorsing top athletes and in 2016 that figure now sits at around $9.4bn.

Nigel Currie, sponsorship and PR consultant at NC Partnership, attributes the perception of brands having a greater influence on transfers to this shift in mentality.

“Emergence of major new brands in the sports sector such as New Balance and Under Armour has probably led to a rethink among the more established brands in this sector as to what strategy to adopt in terms of player ambassadors,” says Currie. “There is certainly a chance that the kit manufacturers would want to make sure their major assets maintained a strong link with the brand through the teams that they represent,” says Currie.

The evidence is clear, Pogba’s arrival at United stands to benefit Adidas which now has one of their most exciting stars, and who many regard to be the epitome of the next generation of footballers, in the world’s most popular league. The player's personality chimes well with Adidas’ own too. His creativity off the field will give Adidas’ football marketing that little bit more swagger in its ongoing efforts to be more provocative and in-tune with the new generation of football fans who are changing the culture around the game.

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Tony Connelly

I cover media, marketing and sponsorship news within the sports industry. This includes breaking news as well as writing feature pieces with insights from experts in the sports marketing world.

All by Tony