Superstars vs Sponsors

18/06/2021 Steven Caetano, The Hon Giovanni Origo MP

First Cristiano Ronaldo and then Paul Pogba. Where and when will the buck stop and what could sponsorship giants like Coca Cola or Heineken do?

Earlier this week, footballing icons, which included the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba, made the headlines during their respective press conferences, whereby they removed the UEFA paid sponsorship products from view of the cameras.

In the case of Ronaldo, the Portuguese national is seen to retract two glass bottles of Coca-Cola from the table, as he then picks up an unbranded bottle of water, stating the words “agua”, seemingly encouraging others to drink water instead.

On the other hand, Pogba, a French national and devout practising Muslim, similarly, is seen removing a bottle of Heineken from the table, before he began addressing the journalists for his post-match press conference following his win with France.

Meanwhile the Ronaldo gesture was going viral on social media, and perhaps coincidentally, the Coca-Cola’s share price had dropped by staggering 1.6% as a result, according to stock market analysts. Such a figure represents a total valuation loss of around $4bn for the global giant. Despite this, the Coca-Cola share price seemed to have recovered according to other financial experts.

The reality is that for large brands like Coca-Cola and Heineken, gestures such as these might not impact the success of their brands, but rather on the contrary, all the talk and attention generated as a result of their actions are generally viewed as more positive than if the athletes had not interacted with the products at all.

The question still arises however, should UEFA in these circumstances be protecting the rights of its sponsors, and if so, how? But what legal issues are even at play here? To answer this, firstly, we note that there are contractual rights and obligations between the players, teams and footballing governing body (UEFA). Secondly, consideration must be given to the marketing and sponsorship rights of large brands like Coca-Cola and Heineken. Finally, the individual professional player’s image rights themselves, must also be given some thought, which includes for instance in this case the CR7 brand.

Potential legal consequences:
In the either of the above cases, the situation involves a legal nexus formed by three parties, which includes the athlete, the regulating body (in this case UEFA), and the sponsors, in each case being Heineken and Coca-Cola respectively.

From the point of view of the athlete, these professionals often have their own private sponsorship agreements whereby they receive payment and/or bonuses for appearing to endorse certain products in exchange. As previously mentioned, in Cristiano Ronaldo’s particular case, he also represents his own health, fitness and lifestyle image; that is, the CR7 brand.

Could it be argued that Cristiano’s own health and fitness image rights were being jeopardised by having himself associated with the fizzy drink? Would such an argument hold up in a legal dispute? Are Cristiano’s own image right’s protected within the sponsorship agreements made between UEFA and these sponsors? On the other hand, is Cristiano Ronaldo bound by the sponsorship agreement made between UEFA and its Sponsors? Or is he automatically bound by them through his participation in UEFA competition?

What we do know, is that with respect to UEFA and its sponsors, these parties would have likely entered into a commercial agreement whereby in exchange for financial premium the sponsors would have the rights to market their own brands and products throughout the competition coverage under the terms of the agreement. On this note, sponsorship agreements should generally make provisions that extend certain obligations to the athletes and/or officials who are participating in that competition, that would otherwise protect the rights of these sponsors. Entering into a sponsorship agreement of this kind, provides its own risks, and such risks should be mitigated against insofar as possible.

Irrespective of whether or not the gestures have had a positive impact in promoting the drinking of water, or of drinking less alcohol or even that of a leading a healthy lifestyle, allowing these athletes to make gestures like these, without consequences, runs the risk of damaging future sponsorship deals for these types of tournaments. For example, what will the commercial value of these sponsorship agreements be, when professional athletes are being permitted to remove from sight any sponsored product that they personally do not wish to be affiliated to?

From a public standpoint, it does not appear that there have been any consequences for these athletes on the part of UEFA, or any further action being taken by those sponsorship brands against UEFA as a result of these two players. Despite this, and although we have yet to see a response to Paul Pogba’s gesture from Heineken, the Coca-Cola brand has barely chosen to make a statement against Cristiano Ronaldo’s actions, asserting that: “Players are offered water, alongside Coca-Cola and Coca-Cola Zero Sugar, on arrival at our press conferences.”

It remains to be seen whether any action will be taken to discipline them, which arguably poses a great concern for potential sponsors. If there is no control in place for a sponsors’ sponsorship right being violated, it beckons the question, why would such a sponsor enter into a sponsorship agreement where there is no assurance or guarantee that their marketing rights will be protected?

To date, there has been no precedent for this of its kind. Whether there are any sanctioning powers available to UEFA in order to protect the rights and interests of its sponsors is unknown, but likely to be available. Whether or not UEFA will now choose to impose such a penalty on the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and/or Paul Pogba, is a decision that should be taken with adequate consideration, as this may well set a dangerous precedent for other sporting professionals going forwards.

ISOLAS LLP is a full-service law firm in Gibraltar covering areas such as Image Rights, Copyright, Commercial Sponsorship Arrangements, TMT, Employment and Sports Law, and can assist in matters raised by the article from a Gibraltar legal standpoint. For further information please contact Steven Caetano or Giovanni Origo

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