Ronaldo’s Coke moment signals shifting balance of power in sport

Cristiano Ronaldo’s rejection of strategic Coca-Cola bottles during a press conference during this week’s Euro 2020 football championship has caused sponsors and organizers of the tournament to scramble to limit the damage to endorsement transactions.

The gesture by the Portugal star, who picked up a bottle of water on Monday with the words “Agua … no Coca-Cola”, was imitated by other players, including Italian midfielder Manuel Locatelli, while Frenchman Paul Pogba had a Heineken bottle removed during media commitments later in the week.

Uefa, the European football governing body, has contacted national federations to urge teams to avoid actions that could affect tournament sponsors, who each paid about $ 30 million to endorse the competition.

However, there are no specific rules to discuss with the police how players should discuss the partners for the Euros. And there was no reprimand from Ronaldo who, according to one senior European football manager, is ‘so powerful, no one can tell him what to do’.

The recognition is a reflection of the change stomach balance at the top of the world’s greatest sports. High-paying athletes seem more willing to challenge the media and marketing agreements through the leagues and competitions in which they play, when the financial necessity clashes with their own carefully adjusted corporate image or sincere views.

Ronaldo’s viral moment has led some media to claim that the incident wiped out billions from the American liquor company’s market value. But Coca-Cola’s shares declined about 1 percent in morning trading before the press conference even began, a decline that accounts for most of the day’s losses.

The stock has been declining steadily since then, although it managed to recover a good point on Thursday, closing $ 54.95 for the day higher.

While Locatelli looked jokingly following Ronaldo’s lead, Pogba is a practicing Muslim who removed a Heineken bottle in front of him at a press conference after the match on Tuesday, although the article was from the Dutch brewers’ non-alcoholic series. beer.

Muslim athletes cited their beliefs because they did not want to participate in marketing activities with brands for alcoholic beverages and gambling groups. “We fully respect everyone’s decision regarding their drink,” Heineken said.

Last month, Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open rather than participating in compulsory press conferences, suggesting that it harms her mental health. Access to the media after the match to players is considered the key to the value of television transactions for tournaments.

Ronaldo is known for sharing photos of his intense exercise regimen on Instagram, where he has about 300 million followers, and has expressed his displeasure over his children containing fizzy drinks.

Many of his sponsorship contracts fit this image of a healthy lifestyle, such as with the sportswear group Nike and the nutrition company Herballife – underwriting that helped him become the first footballer to earn $ 1 billion during his career, according to Forbes.

However, the player has also previously appeared in ads for Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

“I have to say that there has been a collective eyebrow in the industry about Ronaldo, who has a long track record of brands, some of which do not fit his apparent life approach,” said Tim Crow, a sports marketing expert. . “There was a lot of cynicism.”

Ricardo Fort, a former CEO of Coca-Cola, who previously spent nearly two decades managing the company’s sports partnerships, said the incident was an example of a violation of rights, and the sponsor may be entitled to damages. .

Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka has withdrawn from the French Open rather than taking part in compulsory press conferences © Martin Bureau / AFP via Getty

‘Sometimes [rights infringement] it can come from a participant who attracts the event, sometimes from the organizers, sometimes it is a player, ”he said. “This is generally a big distraction for the event and the companies that have invested a lot.”

Although the use of bottles as product placement is a contractual obligation for the transactions that Uefa entered into with Coca-Cola and Heineken, neither of the two brands claimed compensation, according to someone close to the discussion.

Uefa said players ‘can choose their preferred drink’ during the tournament. Coca-Cola did not respond to a request for comment.

English manager Gareth Southgate on Thursday defended corporate sponsorships, saying ‘their money at all levels helps sport to function’. The attitude was supported by captain of his team, Harry Kane, who added: “Obviously the sponsors are entitled to do what they want if they have paid the money for it.”

There have long been precedents for athletes favoring their own marketing transactions over the groups they play for. At the 1992 Olympics, American basketball player Michael Jordan chose to cover the Reebok logo on his official uniform with a strategically draped American flag, a gesture of loyalty to Jordan’s personal sponsor, Nike.

But recently, athletes have gained greater control over which brands they connect to, largely thanks to their direct link to fans via social media.

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Osaka, the world’s highest paid female athlete, has compiled a series of her own sponsors and a great social media following her brilliant playing record, but also honest advocacy for racial injustice and mental health.

This race of independent athletes at the top of sports is forcing a rethinking of the years-long marketing strategies adopted by competition organizers and their sponsors.

“Another billion servings of Coke are going to be poured out today, tomorrow and the next way,” Crow said. ‘But the question is: is there a better way to do it? I suspect there is a better way to convey his message than to splash bottles in front of athletes. ‘

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