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The Knockouts before the Knockout

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in Louis Vuitton’s “Victory is a state of mind," photographed by Annie Leibovitz

Two unimaginable events occurred before the 2022 World Cup Knockout Stage that involved two of the top 5 athletes on this year’s list of SportsPro Media’s 50 Most Marketable Athletes.

Cristiano Ronaldo, our #1 ranked Most Marketable athlete from Portugal, contractually agreed to sever his relationship with one of the biggest sports properties in the world, Manchester United. Totally unprecedented, not only did neither ask for a payout but also, for a small window of time, the world’s Most Marketable athlete is a free agent with indications that his next move will be to either play in Saudi Arabia or once again play in the Champions League.

Also totally unprecedented, Lionel Messi, our #5 ranked Most Marketable athlete from Argentina and like Ronaldo one of soccer’s greatest players of all time, is rumored to be moving to Miami to play for David Beckham’s co-owned MLS team, Inter Miami, when his contract with Paris Saint-Germain expires in June 2023.

So two big questions are: (1) How will their potential career moves affect their 50 Most Marketable score in 2023? And (2) Which athlete will sell more merchandise when their next potential career move is complete?

Regarding the first question as to how their potential career moves will affect their 50 Most Marketable score in 2023, there are three observations relating to (1) The Lasting Marketability of Ronaldo and Messi, (2) Age is Just a Number, and (3) Risk vs Reward.

The Lasting Marketability of Ronaldo & Messi

The growing trend of athletes connecting with ever expansive audiences in social media, also known as an athlete’s social influence, has placed a new interpretation on an athlete’s retirement. Before the advent of social media channels such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, retired athletes would for the most part resurface to larger audiences typically in the form of interviews or broadcast game coverage specific to their sport. It wasn’t that they weren’t engaged in their communities or supporting their various causes – it’s just that a social media audience didn’t exist to provide the ongoing exposure for their off-court activity or advocacy so that they could continue to strengthen connections among diverse people anywhere in the world.

As of the writing of this article, Ronaldo and Messi have 508 million and 384 million followers respectively on Instagram alone! Any number of followers that any professional athlete let alone regular people can garner is considered a marketing asset that can only grow and be leveraged. But an asset of hundreds of millions of Instagram followers places Ronaldo and Messi in another top 5 ranking status beyond that of 50MM, this time as having the top 5 most followed Instagram accounts in the world.

To further put their top 5 Instagram rankings in perspective, according to Wikipedia as of November 26th, 2022, the top 5 most followed Instagram accounts consist of the following: Instagram itself (572 million), Cristiano Ronaldo (508 million), Lionel Messi (383 million, which has apparently grown 1 million between November 26th and the writing of this article), Kylie Jenner (373 million), and Selena Gomez (360 million). Ronaldo and Messi’s Instagram follower numbers were likely influenced by the Louis Vuitton ad launched right before World Cup 2022 (and shown at the beginning of this article) that has become the second most liked photo on Instagram of all time with more than 38.8 million users (for context, the most-liked post on Instagram is still the ‘World record egg’ with over 56 million likes).

This means that when either Messi or Ronaldo ultimately retire from soccer, and yes even fall off the annual 50 Most Marketable list by virtue of no longer being an active athlete, these superstar individuals can continue to inspire hundreds of millions of people of all types and generations by literally and figuratively having one of many platforms across various social media channels.

Both athletes already are involved with a multitude of social and charity causes that no doubt they will continue to advocate as they can use their social platform assets to help so many people in need for the rest of their lives. And people of all types and ages even if they haven’t been involved with soccer will want to soak up the wisdom from both athletes as to how they have been so resilient and such winners not just on the pitch but in the game of life. In short, their social media platforms will allow them to easily communicate with individuals anywhere in the world on a day-to-day basis unlike any other media format.

Age is Just a Number

In Ronaldo’s most recent interview with Piers Morgan, Cristiano says that at 37, he believes he’s as fit physically and mentally as he’s ever been. Though he told Piers he wants to play 2-3 years more maximum, Ronaldo also gave us a Tom Brady-like hope that with “good energy” around him “you never know what’s going to happen.”

Regardless of when the retirement of Ronaldo or Messi occurs, SportsPro Media writer, Ed Dixon, is spot on in his article, From Ronaldo to Raducanu: Breaking down the world’s 50 Most Marketable athletes, that even if the end of their on-field prowess is in sight, the aging stars remain vital to their commercial partners, providing a reliability and authority their fresher contemporaries cannot compete with.

So for the foreseeable future, the marketability of 35-year old Messi and 37 year-old Ronaldo will be expected to increase thus likely sustaining their eminent 50 Most Marketable scores.

Risk vs Reward

As Ed Dixon also conveys in his From Ronaldo to Raducanu article, whether it’s reach or influence, commercial partners would like to think they know what they are getting when linking up with any well-known athlete. Negative press, though, would not be one of them.

We’ve already seen media fallout from Ronaldo’s uncordial departure from Manchester United that has arguably tarnished his reputation among many Manchester United fans. And it wouldn’t be surprising if there isn’t some resentment among Paris Saint-Germain fans or Messi’s fellow Argentinians who may feel betrayed if he were to leave for another league in the United States let alone ponder to do so.

Ultimately, the relationship Ronaldo and Messi have with their fans rules the day and overcomes any unpopular decisions or mistakes that are an inevitable part of their journey on the pitch or in life in general as human beings. To paraphrase what Ronaldo shared with Morgan, “the fans will always say I love Manchester United and the fans will always be in my heart and on my side no matter what happens even if I’m back or not.“

In short, whatever negative media or fan sentiment there may be from Ronaldo and Messi’s seismic decisions will in due time fade away and the loving emotional connection between them and their fans will endure. Thus, it is likely their top 5 scores in next year’s list of SportsPro Media’s 50 Most Marketable Athletes will not be affected by any blemishes arising from their history-making professional pursuits.

Regarding the second question as to which athlete will sell more merchandise when their next potential career move is complete, the article from SportsPro Media writer, Rory Jones, Cristiano Ronaldo’s new Manchester United shirt shatters sales record, gives us insight into what may happen in the future regarding their merchandise sales.

Ronaldo and Messi’s Next Merchandise Sales Battle

As we all know, when either one of these two moves clubs, the merchandise that is sold is phenomenal.

As Rory Jones points out, in the summer of 2021 when it was confirmed that Ronaldo would be returning to Manchester United, across the Fanatics network, Ronaldo became the highest merchandise-selling player ever in the 24 hours following a transfer to a new team, surpassing Lionel Messi’s move to Paris Saint-Germain as well as the moves of Tom Brady to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and LeBron James to the Los Angeles Lakers.

But Ronaldo and Messi’s upcoming career moves are far greater than a team transfer for they represent their likely last hurrah before retirement. Merchandise sales will thus be expected to skyrocket for both athletes in the foreseeable future as current and new fans to the game buy anything associated with their legendary names on it to be as close to their inspirational greatness as possible.

This time, Messi may win the next merch battle over Ronaldo as he will arguably have a media edge. Just as global superstars Pele in the 1970s and Beckham in the 2000s took soccer awareness to new heights throughout the world while also advancing the sport in the US, Messi will benefit from the States’ vast media empire to further supercharge soccer’s global growth as well as his icon status.

About the Author: Tom Malkin is the Practice Lead of Business Intelligence, Analytics & Insights Solutions for NorthStar Solutions Group. In 2022, SportsPro Media and NorthStar Solutions Group entered into a long-term agreement to reimagine and build a comprehensive, holistic data driven model that paints the most complete picture of athlete marketability in the sports industry. In addition to an athlete’s on and off-court relatability and social influence, the model has taken into account an athlete’s citizenship, risk profile, demographic reach, consumer perception and sentiment, market demand, proactive engagement with social or environmental issues, and growth potential.

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