Modern Marketing Brand

How brands can adapt to football’s new cultural shift of player power

July 26, 2022 | 7 min read

The shift in modern fan culture has led to more brands seeking partnerships with players beyond traditional boot deals. Amplify’s culture executive Yusuf Ntahilaja reviews the rise of player power.

Kylian Mbappé’s recent decision to stay at PSG and turn down his boyhood dream of playing for Real Madrid is the latest example of a growing trend toward player power, where individual players hold more influence than their football clubs. Though an age-old dynamic, societal, cultural, technological and economic shifts have tilted the balance of influence largely toward the players in the current era. As players become the driving force across all levels of football, it’s important to look at why this has changed and how brands working in football can adapt to the new landscape.

For PSG and France forward Mbappé, seen as both football’s present and future with over 300 goals and 15 trophies – including a World Cup – at the age of 19, it’s no surprise that he possesses ample amounts of bargaining power. There’s no doubt he is a player with the potential to go down as one of the greatest players of all time – especially if Nike’s 50th-anniversary ad is anything to go by.

Nike Football Presents: The Bet with Kylian Mbappé

Nike Football Presents: The Bet with Kylian Mbappé / Nike

Footballers becoming brands

European heavyweights have been making signing decisions partly based on their brand objectives for some time now. Take a look at Real Madrid’s Galactico era, a period where the club signed the world’s biggest stars in order to establish the club as the leading destination for the world’s greatest talents, expanding the club’s appeal beyond Spain by doing so. The star power of these players strengthened the club’s image and marketing prowess.

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But it is more evident in today’s game, as clubs seek to strengthen their brand image across multiple regions. The success of Sadio Mané and Mo Salah has played a key role in improving Liverpool’s brand image in Africa, while the signing of Son Heung-min has had a similar effect, if not bigger, in improving Tottenham Hotspur’s brand image in East Asia – proving the value of representation at the highest level of the beautiful game.

With awareness of these shifts in dynamics, players are building their own brands, not only to increase financial value but also as a means to give them more negotiating power when switching clubs. Kevin De Bruyne worked with an analytics company for the renegotiation of his salary at Man City, while Erling Haaland refused to sign for Dortmund without having a reasonable release clause – protecting himself from being priced out of a transfer by doing so.

Fandoms and the social media shift

Where previously it was common to support a club, it is now common to support a player, resulting in the rise of ‘Player FCs’ – online communities of fans devoted to one player.

While new in football, this is actually the norm in basketball, with fans often supporting the team their favorite player currently plays for and shifting accordingly. When these players get transferred, their fanbase goes with them too, as recently seen when Messi transferred to PSG, which gained the club millions of followers across a range of social media platforms.

The social media era, where followers are currency, has therefore allowed players to turn themselves into massive brands, with the biggest stars often having more followers than the clubs they play for – Cristiano Ronaldo is a case in point, having more Instagram followers than all Premier League clubs combined. From a marketing perspective for both brands and sponsors, players can deliver just as much – or in some cases more – value than a club.

Player brand partnerships

The shift in modern fan culture has led to more brands seeking partnerships with players beyond traditional boot deals and ‘masculine’ products. In recent times we’ve seen England’s poster boy Jack Grealish land a £1m deal with high-fashion brand Gucci, British household brand Burberry collaborating with the champion of social activism Marcus Rashford, and French luxury brand Dior appointing Mbappé as its global ambassador. Mbappé also donned the cover of both Fifa 21 and 22.

With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that as part of his contract negotiations Mbappé wanted more control over his image rights, forcing Real Madrid to venture beyond their traditional rate and develop a more considerable offer around image rights ownership. While it’s easy to assume this was a financially-motivated decision, it runs deeper, with Mbappé refusing to attach his name or image to betting companies, as well as junk food outlets – an indication of his moral values.

Ultimately, PSG offered the player more control over his image rights as well as a stronger financial package. His decision to stay sent waves across the footballing world because no one ever turns down Real Madrid. But no one else is Mbappé.

So how can brands work with footballers to connect with modern fans?

Play into the cultural crossover of football

Brands should take the lead of high fashion brands and tap into the world of football, especially brands that already speak to the gen Z audience. With the knowledge that this audience loves both gaming and sports, imagine the impact of a gaming brand collaborating with a popular player, for instance. Such crossovers resonate highly with this audience and only increase affinity for the respective brands.

Bridge the URL and IRL experience

Cultural crossovers happen more often in the football world, but often ignore the missed opportunities that experiences bring. The recent release of Adidas’s collaboration with Gucci grabbed the attention of football fans across the world. Imagine if these collaborations were accompanied by drops in key areas such as Paris – the Champions League final destination.

Exploring the shifting fandoms

With the shift in fandoms in modern football, brands should look to widen their audience as opposed to appealing solely to clubs, providing you with limitless opportunities to widen your audience reach.

Align brand and player values

From Rashford’s collaboration with Burberry to Mbappé’s negotiations over his image rights, players are looking to work with brands that align with their own values and beliefs.

So, while not every player has the negotiating power to make the demands that Mbappé did, they can all make requests relative to their level. Rising player power will ultimately influence brands’ relationships within the game too, opening up new opportunities for brands to tap into the exciting world of one of the most loyal consumers – football fans.

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