Cristiano Ronaldo’s rejection of strategically placed Coca-Cola bottles at a press conference at the Euro 2020 football championships this week has left sponsors and tournament organisers scrambling to limit the damage on endorsement deals.
The gesture by the Portugal star, who on Monday picked up a bottle of water saying “Agua . . . no Coca-Cola”, was mimicked by other players including Italian midfielder Manuel Locatelli, while France’s Paul Pogba removed a Heineken bottle during media commitments later in the week.
Uefa, European football’s governing body, has contacted national federations to tell teams to avoid actions that could affect tournament sponsors, each of which have paid about $30m to endorse the competition.
But there are no specific rules to police how players must discuss the corporate partners for the Euros. And there has been no reprimand of Ronaldo who, according to one senior European football executive “is so powerful, no one can tell him what to do”.
That admission is a reflection of the changing power balance at the top of the world’s biggest sports. Highly paid athletes appear more willing to challenge the media and marketing deals struck by the leagues and competitions they play in, if those financial imperatives clash with their own carefully tailored corporate image or sincerely-held beliefs.
Ronaldo’s viral moment led some media outlets to claim that the incident wiped billions from the market value of the US drinks company. But Coca-Cola’s shares slipped about 1 per cent in morning trade before the press conference even began, a drop that accounts for most of the day’s losses.
The stock has fallen steadily over the days since, though it managed to recover some ground on Thursday, closing higher for the day at $54.95 .
While Locatelli appeared to be joking by following Ronaldo’s lead, Pogba is a practising Muslim who on Tuesday removed a Heineken bottle placed in front of him at a post-match press conference, though the item was from the Dutch brewers’ line of alcohol-free beers.
Muslim athletes have cited their religious beliefs for declining to take part in marketing activities with alcoholic drinks brands and gambling groups. “We fully respect everyone’s decision when it comes to their beverage of choice,” said Heineken.
Last month, Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open tournament rather than take part in compulsory press conferences, suggesting they were damaging to her mental health. Post-match media access to players is considered key to the value of television deals for tournaments.
Ronaldo is known for sharing pictures of his intense training regime on Instagram, where he has roughly 300m followers, and has expressed disapproval at his children imbibing fizzy drinks.
Many of his sponsorship deals fit this image of healthy living, such as with sportswear group Nike and nutrition company Herballife — endorsements that have helped him become the first footballer to earn $1bn over his career, according to Forbes.
However, the player has also previously appeared in adverts for Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“I have to say there was a collective raise of eyebrows in the industry about Ronaldo, who has a long record of brand endorsements, some of which don’t fit with his apparent approach to life,” said Tim Crow, a sports marketing expert. “There was a lot of cynicism.”
Ricardo Fort, a former Coca-Cola executive who previously spent nearly two decades managing the company’s sports partnerships, said the incident was an example of rights infringement, with the sponsor potentially entitled to damages.
“Sometimes [rights infringement] can come from a competitor ambushing the event, sometimes it can come from the organisers, sometimes it’s a player,” he said. “In general this is a big distraction for the event and the companies which invested a lot.”
Though using bottles as product placement is a contractual obligation of the deals that Uefa has struck with Coca-Cola and Heineken, neither brand has demanded compensation, according to a person close to the discussions.
Uefa said players “can choose their preferred beverage” at the tournament. Coca-Cola did not respond to a request for comment.
England manager Gareth Southgate defended corporate sponsorships on Thursday, saying “their money at all levels helps sport to function”. That stance was supported by his team’s captain, Harry Kane, who added: “Obviously the sponsors are entitled to do what they want if they’ve paid the money to do so.”
There have long been precedents for athletes favouring their own marketing deals over the groups they play for. At the 1992 Olympics, US basketball player Michael Jordan opted 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 more recently athletes have gained greater control over which brands they are associated with, thanks in large part to their direct link to fans through social media.
Osaka, the world’s highest-paid female athlete, has accrued a suite of her own sponsors and a large social media following thanks to her brilliant playing record, but also frank advocacy for racial injustice and mental health.
This breed of independent-minded athletes at the top of sport is forcing a rethink of the longstanding marketing strategies adopted by competition organisers and their sponsors.
“There’s still going to be a billion servings of Coke poured today, tomorrow and the next day,” said Crow. “But the question is: is there a better way of doing it? I suspect there is a better way to get its message across than plonking bottles in front of athletes.”