Tuesday 15th June 2021 was a career-defining day for Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese striker became the top goal scorer in European Championship history with his brace against Hungary. For many though, it was his 10 seconds of action in the pre-event press conference that might well leave the longer-lasting legacy.
Sternly eyeing up the fizzy drink bottles placed in front him, Ronaldo swiftly move them to one side, replaced them with his own water bottle, and simply uttered the word “water.” On the face of it, a simple non-newsworthy action; the reality – a global news story that contributed to a supposed $1bn fall in the share price of the drinks giant.
Undoubtedly spurred on by Ronaldo’s actions, just hours later during the France v Germany post-event press conference, Man of the Match, Paul Pogba, removed the Heineken bottle strategically placed in front of him. A day of massive blows to the two official drinks partners of the Euro 2020 tournament.
Ronaldo has long been public on his fitness beliefs, regimes and structure, of which carbonated fizzy drinks don’t feature, while Pogba’s actions were driven by his religious beliefs, with the beer bottle compromising his devotions as a Muslim. Both actions have received a positive reaction from around the world, with praise heaped on both sports stars as role models for children to look up to.
As for Coca-Cola, a rather cold, blunt response to the whole situation stating that “everyone is entitled to their drink preferences” and each individual has different “tastes and needs”. Don’t be fooled by the relative calmness in the response, they’ll be well aware of the impact one of the world’s biggest sporting stars rejecting its product will have.
The whole scenario raises some interesting sponsorship questions and reflects growing industry trends. Firstly, as partners that pay millions to have their products positioned in front of the biggest stars while beamed to the world’s watching eyes, what actions will occur as a result of this scenario? Will Ronaldo and Pogba be fined for their gestures? Will the brands be looking for compensation from UEFA on the result of the negative financial and marketing hit? Needless to say, both will be in discussion to ensure this embarrassing situation doesn’t escalate further or raise its head again during the tournament.
What it also does is firmly bring up the contentious talking point of misaligned sponsors and rightsholders. Some of the world’s largest junk food and alcoholic brands are also some of the world’s largest sponsorship spenders. It has been well citied that the promotion of fatty and sugary foods & drinks brands are harming the efforts to combat the global obesity crisis.
As much as money talks, rightsholders working with partners that fundamentally misalign with the values and ethos of their sport can ultimately result in a detrimental impact to both parties. In our ever-increasingly purpose-led society, fans want their clubs, teams and athletes to be associated with brands that do good, or at a minimum don’t do harm or portray a negative image on the thing they love. Brand fit has never been more important for rightsholders, while for brands, a detailed understanding of any potential sponsorship impact and analysis of the intended audience is essential to the success of a partnership.
Ronaldo’s actions also highlight a wider trend that has particularly come to light over the past year, and one that will only continue to raise its head in the sponsorship sector – that of athlete empowerment. When one of the world’s biggest stars does what Ronaldo did, not only does the world’s audience take note, but so do other sporting stars. Would Pogba have done what he did without Ronaldo doing it first? Probably not. So how many more athletes are going to follow suit, not just in football, but in all sport?
Given the global situation over the past year, sports stars, like the inspiring Marcus Rashford, have taken matters into their own hands to pursue concerns that are close to their hearts. With huge global followings, the world’s biggest stars have an arguably larger impact on society than some of the world’s biggest brands. These stars are brands in their own right, so why should they do what other companies want them to do particularly when they don’t align with their personal values?
This all sounds well and good, but athletes also risk making a mockery of themselves. It wasn’t long before the word ‘hypocrite’ was being thrown about following Ronaldo’s actions; the term used in response to old adverts that suddenly started appearing of Ronaldo promoting Coca-Cola 15 years ago. Of course, people’s views can change, and the Portuguese star will be respected for his comments, but these stars aren’t immune from past activities, opinions and social posts!
It’s a fascinating time for the sponsorship industry, with the issues raised by Ronaldo and Pogba’s actions being ones that aren’t just going to disappear overnight. All three parties (rightsholders, brands & athletes) have a role to play, and ultimately the best outcome and solution will only occur when all three work together as opposed to operating as separate entities.
In the meantime, we’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on any further Euro 2020 sponsorship stories. Will other athletes follow Ronaldo and Pogba’s lead? Will Coca-Cola manage to keep a lid on any further negative press or will things continue to go pop? Whatever happens, there has already been plenty of on-pitch and off-pitch talking points to discuss over a drink. Pint of coke anyone?