With professional sports comes advertising.

That seems to be the written rule – though to be fair to today’s advertisers it’s an innovation that’s anything but recent.

UEFA Euro 2020 is no exception and two major commercial partners – Coca-Cola and Heineken – have found themselves under particular focus, and probably not for the reasons they’d hoped.

Last Monday saw Cristiano Ronaldo, likely the most recognisable footballer in the world, move two Coca-Cola bottles out of shot at a press conference, urging fans to instead drink water. Only a day later Paul Pogba, France’s midfielder and practising Muslim, removed a non-alcoholic bottle of Heineken during an interview.

The two events have highlighted a growing tension in the world of professional sport – between the superstars at the heart of the game and the corporations who sponsor it.

The relationship between sports and advertising is changing. Brands will have to adapt.

The main driver of that tension is the influence that superstars are gaining their social media presence and their own personal brands – which has combined with, and at least partially caused, a growing push by players towards self-determination in how they’re represented and what they advertise.

Ronaldo has over half a million followers on his combined social media accounts and hMusicas built a personal brand around his food and exercise regime. Pogba’s following stands at a more meagre (by comparison) 45 million but as a prominent Black Muslim player he’s been outspoken about his religion and in support of causes close to his heart – even when they sometimes rankle with advertisers.

Footballers, alongside other sportspeople, are finding themselves in positions of influence and are leveraging that power to better control their own careers and protect their personal brand identities – preferring brands and advertisements they have personal control over above those mandated on them from elsewhere.

It’s not just in sport that influential individuals have begun to flex their ability for self-determination – the music industry has seen high profile acts move away from music label control and into producing and managing their own music and brand.

The furore over the players’ actions has continued to rumble on. Ronaldo’s snub of Coca-Cola was followed by a 1.6% drop in share price, wiping $4 billion off the company’s value, though it’s worth noting that industry experts have questioned what degree his actions influenced this. Meanwhile UEFA, Europe’s footballing body, has warned that players and teams could face fines at the tournament if branded items continue to be removed.

It’s not the first time advertising has been a point of controversy at a tournament: FIFA officials asked Dutch fans to remove their trousers, which sported the logo of the non-approved Bavaria beer brand, at the 2006 Football World Cup.

Things may be different this time though.

The influence of sporting superstars looks set to continue rising as social media allows them to collate a global audience of fans and circumvent traditional management – building their own self-controlled personal brands.

Meanwhile growing consumer awareness over the health and training required in professional sports, driven by consumers’ new seriousness and buoyed by Instagram clips of celebrity training programmes and YouTube videos on sporting superstars’ diets, makes the advertising of unhealthy brands during sports look increasingly incongruous. Damaging consumption no longer plays as well with consumers.

All’s not lost for the brands involved.

Coca-Cola owns a vast variety of sports drinks and water brands – whilst Heineken’s decision to advertise non-alcoholic beer shows at least some awareness of growing consumer awareness around health and fitness. These and other, healthier, brands seem an obvious fit for sport. Focusing on brands and sub-categories more closely aligned to sport itself would benefit companies – bringing brand-aware superstars back onside and reducing consumer criticisms.

Otherwise brands risk continuing to learn that, when it comes to the hundreds of millions of followers players like Ronaldo have amassed, there really can be such a thing as bad publicity.

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