Ian Herbert: Manchester United left with quandary over how to market 'bad guy' Wayne Rooney
It is in Asia, where stars with rough spots are an easier sell, that United will be looking to push the Rooney image and make good on their rights
You don’t need a colourful imagination to know how Sir Alex Ferguson would feel about Mario Balotelli being the template from which Manchester United can set about making some serious money out of Wayne Rooney, to offset the many millions more they are paying out on his new salary.
Ferguson never gave full vent to his feelings about Balotelli – perhaps it was the risk of hubris which deterred him as Manchester City came like fury at United in the last years of his era – but the look on his face the day he discussed Roberto Mancini and his protégé grappling with each other on a Carrington training pitch told the story. What few appreciated at that time, a year or so back, was that as Balotelli’s notoriety reached its peak – or trough, according to your perspective – provoking one controversy after another, he was proving an incredible commercial hit in Asia. Sergio Aguero, Yaya Touré and Joe Hart were the predictable City players who would do as asked but none could hold a candle to the deals raked in by the Italian.
“The best example of bad guy perception,” is how one specialist in this field describes Balotelli to me and you only have to look at some of his promotional videos with Puma, for whom he is now a leading symbol, to see how controversy pays. One of the first boots made for him, a few months ago, was emblazoned with news headlines from his career to date, with “Why always Puma?” inked in big pink letters the predominant one.
This example suddenly matters a great deal to United, because sweating their prime asset commercially is their way of getting some payback for accepting the Rooney pay demands put before them by the player’s agent, Paul Stretford – who pockets a fifth of off-field earnings, if the percentages revealed in a Manchester Mercantile Court case four years ago still apply.
In return for making Rooney Britain’s best-paid footballer by a distance, United will have ensured that a more significant proportion of his image rights revenue now comes directly to them, rather than him. It means that self-interest, not affection, is driving the new search for Rooney endorsements which the United sales staff in London and New York will be embarking upon. And finding sponsors who are willing to deliver that payback is more complicated than signing up Japanese paint firms, Indonesian tyre exporters or Mister Potato – United’s official snack partner, in case you missed it. Securing image rights deals for an individual, rather than a team, is always trickier, because of the unpredictability attached, but it is doubly so with Rooney.
Experts experienced in selling Premier League player image rights will tell you that when there is a controversy or marital indiscretion in a star’s past there can be problems in this country. “After what’s happened in the past it’s difficult with Rooney in England,” one tells me. Before the conflagration in his personal life created by allegations of assignations with call girl Jennifer Thompson in 2010, Rooney’s endorsements included EA Sports and Coca-Cola. Both contracts were subsequently not renewed.
It is in Asia, where stars with rough spots are an easier sell, that United will be looking to push the Rooney image most profitably, perhaps observing in the course of doing so that Chelsea’s John Terry has a following over there which is outstripping his commercial worth here.
We are talking about how Rooney will be positioned in a sales dossier, when it all comes down to it – however unedifying that might be to those for whom endorsements were once no more complicated than Kevin Keegan splashing on Brut and Pat Jennings eating Kelloggs’ Frosties. And since the new football money game is what it is, there is no point pretending that Rooney being promoted here is entirely positive.
David Beckham has the photogenic qualities which allowed him to take home around £40,000 a day for endorsing brands including Armani, Adidas, Samsung and Diet Coke during 2011. The Messi brand, which is about homespun innocence, results in him benefiting from a staggering €25m (£20.6m) a year because of Barcelona’s policy of claiming no image rights money as their own. (At Real Madrid, it is split 50:50 between player and club. Manchester City’s contracts are structured in such a way that the club takes it all.)
Building on Rooney’s current Samsung deal means a sales pitch which draws on his fundamental appeal: raw, rough-edged unpredictability, even if that does entail promoting traits in their star player that the manager would like to see in the background. (Boot deals are generally excluded from image rights work.)
The other question for United is how many new endorsements are practical. One worry has been the sheer lack of available dates in the football calendar for Rooney to appear clutching the energy drink or computer console which he will be promoting.
Ferguson would certainly have had an answer to this quandary, given what Rooney said in court when the player’s former agency, Proactive, was pursuing £4.3m lost to it after Stretford left the company and took Rooney with him. Citing Nike, Coca-Cola, EA Sports and Tiger beer as his four affiliates, Rooney said Ferguson had imposed a limit of five endorsements on him. “And to be honest, I’m probably doing the max,” Rooney told the court. Stretford told the court that Ferguson was known “for his attention to detail”. That didn’t just mean training pitch detail, the agent explained. “He believes the priority of any player should be his football. I’m not naming any names but I think he has experience where commercial opportunities have got out of control…”
If Ferguson was still in control at Old Trafford, Rooney would be long gone and these commercial calculations would be academic. But how, from that place where he now resides, does Ferguson feel about all of these calculations? You don’t need a colourful imagination to know.
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