Ed Warner: Manchester United should have refused to tear up Cristiano Ronaldo contract
Watching Cristiano Ronaldo’s conversation with Piers Morgan I was instantly reminded of Princess Di’s (in)famous interview with Martin Bashir, so much in the news in recent months.
No sense here though that the footballer was duped into his doe-eyed criticisms of Manchester United – certainly not if we accept Morgan’s subsequent justifications for the guest he describes as his “unlikely friend”. It worked. CR7 has now won his battle of the brands.
Ronaldo has 497m Instagram followers. His account is topped only by Instagram’s own. The player’s employers rank 73rd with 61m. Forbes estimates the Portuguese star’s annual earnings at $115m and a career total of more than $1bn.
If he were a public company, Ronaldo’s market capitalisation would likely top United’s current $2.5bn. But only if you assume earnings durability beyond his eventual retirement from the game.
SportsPro recently assessed Ronaldo to be the most marketable star in the sporting firmament, with a score of 91.21 out of a possible 100. So prospects would be good for any shares in a putative CR7 inc.
Few athletes transcend their sports; far more mistakenly believe they do. Usain Bolt certainly outshone athletics for a decade. Indeed the sport gave itself a collective ulcer worrying how it would survive without him.
Think back to the pre-social media era and the profile of Muhammad Ali or Ayrton Senna. How many Instagram followers might they have had? Or even WG Grace, the 19th century cricketer with the trademark beard and legendary attitude towards decisions that went against him.
Just imagine how many crates of WG fragrance Grace could have shifted at the height of his career. As it happens, I shelled out for a bottle of CR7 cologne for a nephew last Christmas, so adding 20 quid to Ronaldo’s revenues. I might have plumped for one of David Beckham’s instead but considered the English icon too much yesterday’s man for a youngster of today.
Beckham is currently in the spotlight for his lucrative ambassador role at the Qatar World Cup. Some have warned of damage to his personal brand. I suspect it will be trivial, though. The greatest reputations may not be bomb-proof, but it takes a nuclear-grade gaffe to cause them material damage.
Beckham didn’t transcend football. No Ballon d’Or for him (Ronaldo has five). But he operated smartly within the indentured structure of the sport in such a way that his value became far greater than his contribution as a player.
And only a small proportion of that value accrued directly to his employers. Additional sales of replica shirts are nowhere near sufficient to justify high transfer fees and bloated wages. And therein lies the tension in the contractual arrangements between star players and clubs.
In football parlance, Ronaldo decided he “wanted away” from United, just as the club’s owners the Glazer family are also now looking for the exit. Lawyers aside, it’s hard to determine the winner in this dispute between striker and club that ended with an agreement to tear up his contract. That is, if money is the arbiter.
If the player trots onto a pitch anywhere in the world in the colours of any other club in January he will have succeeded, whatever the cost – especially if it is in the Champions League.
United owed it to the collective of club owners to prevent that happening. Again, whatever the cost. The £15m they are said to have saved in Ronaldo’s wages would have been a small price to pay to defend a principle for the good of the game.
Football’s contractual structures exist to protect clubs and players, the vast majority of whom will not generate meaningful income beyond the sport while playing it, or much of a living from it after hanging up their boots – certainly not at an annual rate equivalent to their playing days. Hence long contracts that provide secure income for players and a transfer market that allows clubs to cash in on their playing “assets”.
The rift between Ronaldo and United highlights the inherent weakness in the system when applied to genuine superstars.The player’s contract has little value in itself in the context of his own enormous balance sheet. He was anyway due to become a free agent next summer.
Expect the greatest players to operate under ever shortening contracts as their confidence in their wider earning potential grows. Maybe even match-to-match deals in which the greatest decide when the mood to play is upon them.
Loyalties will be tested – fans’, clubs’ and players’ – but better perhaps an open acceptance of roving free agents than the rancour and bitterness that was flushed out by Piers Morgan.
Zippin’ up my boots
I hated myself for it, shouting “fix!” at the TV when VAR (correctly) ruled out Ecuador’s opening “goal” after only three minutes against World Cup hosts Qatar.
Tuesday night’s outing to see Crawley Town v Gillingham was just the antidote I hoped it would be. No Budweiser, but a fine Punk IPA on tap and the best matchday pie I’ve had for ages.
Live football was certainly the winner last weekend: 40,000 tickets sold for Arsenal v Manchester United in the Women’s Super League (although fewer in the ground, as is so often the way at the Emirates, for both men’s and women’s teams).
A record 16,511 crowd in the Vanarama National League at Notts County’s Meadow Lane for the club’s annual Football for a Fiver game.
And 144 braved the cold to watch Badshot Lea beat AFC Croydon Athletic 6-1 in the Cherry Red Records Combined Counties Football League Premier Division South.
It was a community day where fans were encouraged to bring new toys to be donated to a children’s hospital ward. My man in the stand writes “the boardroom was overflowing with toys!”.
Pushing the limits
Congratulations to England’s Wheelchair Rugby League World Cup winners. As in able bodied rugby, there are two codes of the game and the Paralympic one – aligned with rugby union – will arrive with a percussive force in the Principality Stadium, Cardiff in May. You can see all the details here. Tickets are on sale next month.
Right now, we are looking for business partners to help the event. If you think you might be interested in supporting the most exhilarating disability sport – and the GB team who are reigning Paralympic champions – please do email me at email@example.com