Brand It Like Beckham

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We are entering a bold new world of footballing economics for star players both on and off the field, as David Beckham’s latest payday shows, finds ITW Core’s Devanshu Bhatt. 

Unfinished Business

David Beckham may have been retired for seven years now, but he still remains a footballing crowd puller. He recently found himself on the cover of EA Sports’ annual release FIFA 21 (he has previously been associated exclusively with Pro Evolution Soccer 2018), a deal that is worth a reported a whopping £40 million for EA to use his image rights over the next three years. That amount translates to roughly £256k a week for Beckham, more than most footballers make, without kicking a single ball. According to the Mirror, a source close to Beckham quoted, “It is a great addition to the Beckham brand, and the easiest money he has ever earned”. 

The question is, has it? Not really. 

We have previously written about how Beckham built his brand. The process of brand building takes years of work and commitment. The fact is that despite being a legend of the game, Beckham was not the most skilful nor considered the best player of his generation. Yet he can command a fee that many of his peers cannot. Beckham is merely enjoying the returns on the investment he made in his brand.

Rights of Way

Though this is not all. Brand value is only a part of the reason this is possible. Even 10 years ago, such a development would have been close to impossible, no matter who the player was. Video games have come leaps and bounds in the last decade, both in terms of popularity, quality and more importantly to the companies that make them, revenue. The Ultimate Team feature offered by EA Sports in their titles have gone up from $587m in 2015 to $1.49 bn in 2020. This figure represented 28% of EA’s total revenue in the 2020 financial year. While this feature has been met with its fair share of controversy, one cannot deny that the growth of the game has been astronomical. And this is representative of the gaming industry as a whole. This has been accompanied by the rise of Esports as we have explored earlier.

Alongside the gaming industry, another major trend that has made this possible is the shift in power towards players. This has been driven in part by the rise of football agents. They have been able to build their players’ brands while also getting the best possible deal for them. In a market where football has been bringing in increasingly higher amounts of money year after year, agents have been enabled players to be able to command their fair share and increase their bargaining power. One of the reasons that players have been able to command higher salaries is the issue of image rights. Even if Ronaldo or Messi don’t play a single game for their clubs, the fact that the clubs can market them and their image around the world means that they have value beyond just their utility on the pitch. 

Star Power

This is the issue that Zlatan Ibrahimovic brought up in his latest spat with EA Sports. The way EA Sports acquires its rights is via clubs, leagues and FIFpro, the players association. AC Milan signed an exclusive deal with EA Sports that has enabled them to feature their jerseys and players on the game. Ibrahimovic’s objection to this was that he hasn’t personally sold his rights to the game and hence, Mino Raoila, his agent, has also started looking into how Ibrahimovic can get paid. This is perfectly natural as you would expect an agent to look after their players. But the debate is not so simple. While certain footballers have a bigger pull to attract gamers and they can definitely command a bigger fee, it is impossible for EA Sports to individually have deals with each football player and so their current model makes sense. This brings us to an impasse. Or does it? 

If a player gets paid by a certain club, the assumption is that his image rights can be used to sell jerseys or promote the club’s matches for example. And so, if a club looks to profit from a player’s image rights, FIFA should be no different. It is a source of income for them. The question then should be, is this considered? It is hard to imagine that the agents of players don’t expect their players to appear in the FIFA game every year. If that is the case, then any contract negotiate with the club should take that into account. It is hard to know if this already happens but we can speculate. 

The highest paid players in the world, which include Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar and Mbappe also happen to be the biggest brands in football. And the difference is astronomical. Messi earns 4 times the salary that Mohamed Salah, one of the Premier League’s highest paid players earns. Zlatan Ibrahimovic himself earns €7 million a year at AC Milan, the highest at his club despite being in the twilight years of his career at 39. And with good reason. His performances have justified that figure. And so has his brand. Is that enough though? Zlatan thinks not. Remember that Beckham will earn £13.33 million a year without even playing. 

This makes one wonder though — how much could Ronaldo and Messi command after their retirements? The trend is of players being able to unbundle their image and related rights from the yoke of the club, which is transforming the economics of the game – online and offline. 

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