England’s footballers have not only shown their talent on the field, but also their principles, in their march to the final of Euro 2020. As part of The Drum’s Sports Marketing Deep Dive, Budweiser’s head of football Amar Singh asks if sports sponsors are ready to show their togetherness with athletes increasingly determined to take a stand – and a knee – for what they believe in.
England’s impressive run to the final of Euro 2020 has rightly led to praise for Gareth Southgate and his leadership style.
His calm authority, ability to tease mature performances from young players and his knack of ignoring the clamour in order to select the right eleven for each game, all suggest that Southgate is developing into an exceptional manager.
But it’s his unwavering support for his players and in particular their wish to take a knee to demonstrate their opposition to racial inequality which has really impressed me.
By doing so, he has shielded his team from accusations of ‘gesture politics’ amid boos from sections of the Three Lions fanbase and shown that he is in tune with a modern, diverse Britain.
People often talk about ‘Player Power’ in terms of obtaining lucrative new contracts and forcing their way out of clubs, but this new generation of footballers are using their platform to make an impact on issues that matter to them.
It’s why Marcus Rashford campaigned for free school meals, leading to actual policy changes.
It’s also why Harry Kane and Manuel Neuer wore rainbow armbands to mark LGBTQ Pride month and why England’s star of this tournament, Raheem Sterling, has highlighted how media coverage can fuel racist attitudes – something that certainly triggered plenty of introspection in the media industry.
Southgate understands that these purpose-driven acts are here to stay on the back of a historic year for football.
Following the horrific death of George Floyd, which sparked unrest exacerbated by a pandemic that has had a disproportionate effect on ethnic minorities, players took the knee for the restart of the Premier League and have continued to do so since.
They were not asked to by their clubs or by any of football’s governing bodies.
This is the talent that powers the game coming together to make a decision to protest against racial inequality – something which matters to them. You can debate the effectiveness of the gesture all day, but the fact is, the players themselves feel like this is an issue that they want to shine a light on and few can claim they haven’t succeeded in doing so.
To be a footballer means you have been playing in multiracial squads since a very young age. You fight for your teammates and stand shoulder to shoulder with them - or in this case take the knee beside them.
Is it any wonder that these young men and women find the concept of racial inequality and discrimination so abhorrent?
But the response from some fans and sections of the media shows this is uncomfortable territory.
This presents an interesting challenge for brands looking to activate in football.
To be a sponsor in this arena now means having a clear position on these issues – or you can take your ball and play somewhere else.
As we’ve seen with Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba, if a player feels a product doesn’t align with their principles and beliefs, they might not ‘play the game’.
A one-size fits all approach to brand partnerships in sport is no longer viable.
As a sponsor of the Premier League and England senior men’s team, we work closely with our partners to ensure that the players used in our output are comfortable with any branded content they are associated with.
It’s why, when we were looking for an ambassador for Budweiser Zero, our non-alcoholic beer, Jordan Henderson was a natural choice.
As an ambassador for NHS Charities Together and someone who doesn’t drink alcohol, he felt more than comfortable supporting our Dry January campaign and championing a message of moderation.
While earlier this year, we joined footballers and our partners including the Premier League and the Football Association in a four day boycott of social media, amid growing concerns that more needs to be done to protect public figures from online racist abuse.
Which brings me back to the act of taking a knee. A simple, powerful gesture that achieved prominence when NFL star Colin Kaepernick did just that in 2016 as the ‘Star Spangled banner’ played before each game.
It was Nike, a brand that has always understood the cultural impact of athletes, that took Kaepernick’s story into the stratosphere with the multiple award-winning Dream Crazy campaign, thus inspiring our current generation of footballers on the other side of the Pond.
The brands that get the most out of football partnerships in the coming years will need to harness the cultural power of its stars and embrace the new era of Player Purpose.
Gareth Southgate is on board with it. Are you?
Amar Singh is senior brand manager for Budweiser and Bud Light, UK.