‘Nike has a big decision to make’ – how sponsors are handling Ronaldo allegations

Ronaldo's sponsors

Cristiano Ronaldo’s sponsors Nike, EA Sports and DAZN have expressed concern over the rape allegation facing the footballer. The many brands affiliated with the Juventus star will now be weighing up whether they should stick by this commercial powerhouse or cut ties from a figure under enormous scrutiny.

One week ago, German newspaper Der Speigel outlined claims from 34-year-old American woman Kathryn Mayorga that Ronaldo raped her in Las Vegas in 2009. Mayorga signed a settlement deal ($375,000 or a week’s wages) at the time which gagged the accusations. Years later and with a new lawyer, Mayorga’s representation said she has been emboldened to speak out by the #MeToo movement and the belief that the agreement was not legally binding. Las Vegas police have reopened the case.

Ronaldo denies any wrongdoing and has issued several responses. First, he branded the Der Speigel as “fake news” then on 3 October he posted a statement on Twitter.

“I firmly deny the accusations being issued against me. Rape is an abominable crime that goes against everything that I am and believe in. Keen as I may be to clear my name, I refuse to feed the media spectacle created by people seeking to promote themselves at my expense.

“My clear conscious will thereby allow me to await with tranquillity the results of any and all investigations.”

Italian giants Juventus, who signed Ronaldo from Real Madrid in the summer for £99.2m, issued a widely criticised statement defending the player. It said: “Cristiano Ronaldo has shown in recent months his great professionalism and dedication, which is appreciated by everyone at Juventus.

“The events allegedly dating back to almost 10 years ago do not change this opinion, which is shared by anyone who has come into contact with this great champion.”

How his sponsors are reacting

Ronaldo is a big draw to brands. Between June 2016, and June 2017, sponsorship intelligence tool Hookit valued Ronaldo’s social media presence at more than $936m. In this period 580 posts either mentioned a sponsor or included a logo, and he is unlikely to have slowed down in the following year.

These posts accumulated 927m interactions and video views, worth an average of $1.6m a post. Proving how commercially saturated his online profile is, he more than doubled the mentions of the next highest player on the list, Neymar (255).

There is a reason for this. In 2016, Ronaldo became the world’s first athlete to reach 200m followers across social media (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram). He was also the first to cross 100m in 2014. Data from SportCal released earlier this year outlined that Ronaldo, in the 15 years since signing for Manchester United in 2003, has picked up 31 major sponsorship deals across 24 industries.

Furthermore, his personal CR7 brand is priced at £70m.

This may all change depending on how his lucrative sponsors react to the legal case and the accusations outlined by Mayorga.

So far, his brand partners have remained fairly tight-lipped on the situation. Those that have spoken out have released similarly-worded statements.

They include Nike, which signed Ronaldo on a lifetime deal worth £760m, and said: "We are deeply concerned by the disturbing allegations and will continue to closely monitor the situation."

EA Sports, the makers of the new Fifa 19 videogame which boasts Ronaldo as its cover star: "We have seen the concerning report that details allegations against Cristiano Ronaldo.

"We are closely monitoring the situation, as we expect cover athletes and ambassadors to conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with EA's values."

And Save the Children: “We are disheartened by the news report we’ve seen in the last 24 hours and are working to get more information.”

Another brand to have issued a statement is DAZN, the 'Netflix for sports' streaming service which signed Ronaldo as a global ambassador when it launched in Italy in August. At the time, its chief marketing officer Johnny Devitt told The Drum: “He’s fucking amazing so it was a no-brainer to sign him.” Today a spokesperson said: "We take allegations of this nature extremely seriously and continue to monitor the situation closely.”

Ronaldo still has his supporters, mostly male. On social media, intelligence company Entsight noted a substantial spike from the female audience in particular against Ronaldo. But it noted that negativity towards his brand is on the increase in men too.

The Drum has reached out to the rest of Ronaldo’s sponsors to monitor the brand reaction and will update this piece accordingly.

What are the sponsors thinking?

Simon Dent, founder and managing director of sports marketing agency Dark Horses, former lawyer and football agent, shared his views on the sponsors’ conundrum in this instance. He also gave an insight into how sponsors size up the risks and reward of partnering with a sports personality.

“When talent is signed a risk audit usually takes place. The agent will usually be asked to disclose anything that isn't in the public domain that is likely to damage the brand if it surfaces.

“If something surfaces that has a negative impact on the brand then it will usually sit with the PR team to implement a pre-agreed crisis management strategy. Obviously, not knowing what the crisis is in advance means that things are reactive and move quickly.

“If Ronaldo is charged then Nike has a big decision to make. This won't be an easy decision and will be made after a face-to-face meeting with Ronaldo. If found guilty then it is an easy decision for the brand to make.”

If not, the brand will have a difficult time choosing a side. As Dent put it: “Ronaldo is one the greatest athletes that has ever lived. He's extremely hard working and dedicated to his craft. He's one of the most recognisable people on the planet. The size of his following, the fact that its global and also that he has a clean-cut image means that he's considered a brilliant ambassador to work with… until now he's been considered the low risk of stepping out of line.”

Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Mike Tyson... the list goes of athletes who have presented challenges for their sponsors goes on. Wouldn't brands be better off without the hassle?

In Dent’s opinion, the answer is not to play it safe with league and team partnerships instead. “I don't think this is the case. We can all relate to individuals more than teams. That's just human nature. Recent events at Fifa, Russian Olympic committee, Australian cricket team to name just a few. Its also important to emphasise that people make mistakes, especially young sportsmen and women.

"I'm not talking about Ronaldo – but more generally - we should be open-minded to giving young people a second chance. I believe it’s harder to give a second chance to organisations that are run by experienced, 'educated' teams of people.”

Adam Mack, chief executive of W Communications, said: “It’s worth also noting Nike’s treatment of Tiger Woods - it stood by him - the first instinct was to remain loyal to its talent. Like Tiger, Ronaldo has a very broad (if male-skewed), far-reaching appeal (recently underlined and enhanced by his move to Juventus). Very few individuals have his level of appeal hence his value to sponsors. There’s been a seismic shift in scrutiny and tolerance of sexual misconduct.

“With this in mind, Ronaldo’s sponsors’ first instinct will be to stay loyal but will be thinking as much about potentially lurid details emerging as they will about him being found guilty of anything. They’ll need to tread the fine line between angering Ronaldo and his team and being intolerant of negative behaviour. I’d imagine that Nike will be particularly cautious given how much of the brand has been invested in backing talent values and beliefs (Kaepernick being the current poster child).”

He concluded: “Ronaldo is big talent, big business and big money but we’ve seen recently that this will count for nothing if Mayorga’s claims are true.”

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