In the wake of the European Super League collapsing around him in the final weeks of last season, Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli was asked if he had cause to regret bringing Cristiano Ronaldo to the club in the summer of 2018.
“Wrong to take Ronaldo? Never,” Agnelli told Italian newspaper La Repubblica. “I would do it again tomorrow.”
It was a curious statement to deliver with such conviction. Ronaldo was supposed to elevate Juventus to new heights when completing a €100 million (£86 million) move from Real Madrid but at no stage in his three years in Turin was there an advance beyond the Champions League’s last eight. And they only got that far once.
Even Juventus’s domestic dominance had been allowed to slip. Two Serie A titles, the eighth and ninth of a fabled run, in the first two years gave way to a fortuitous fourth-place finish last season. Ronaldo delivered his customary goals — 101 in 134 appearances — but not quite the inspiration Agnelli would have envisaged.
A failed experiment? Perhaps. But there are other reasons for Agnelli sticking so vehemently to his guns.
The phenomenon of Ronaldo spread far beyond the Allianz Stadium during his time in the north of Italy. Juventus’s corporate revenue climbed significantly, as did just about every other measure of his worth to the club. Shirt sales? Up. Social media followings? Up. Sponsorship deals? Up. Ronaldo, it is clear, was a guarantee of more than goals.
Manchester United, already the Premier League’s scariest corporate monster, can now look forward to drinking from the same well.
The CR7 bandwagon rolled back into town last week, and the club’s marketing department will be tasked with making it count.
Not that it will be difficult. Ed Woodward, United’s outgoing executive vice-chairman, is understood to have outlined the benefits of signing Ronaldo to the club’s American owners, the Glazer family, ahead of a deal being struck with Juventus last Friday.
Joel Glazer, the most involved of the siblings, likes to be convinced of the merit of all spending by United. Woodward placed calls to his superior to lobby over the sponsorship upsides, having quickly modelled with the club’s finance team the potential impact on future deals of Ronaldo’s return.
United see the opportunity to recoup much — if not all — of their outlay on Ronaldo.
Signed for £12.9 million (€15 million) and commanding wages in the region of £450,000 a week, a £60 million commitment has been made to the Portugal international through an initial two-year contract. A third year, an option within the existing deal, plus add-ons with Juventus could see that climb to £90 million.
United, though, are already plumping up their commercial cushions to soften the blow. They have already handed the Portuguese the iconic No 7 shirt, which he wore during his first stint at the club, with Edinson Cavani switching to No 21.
Future sponsorship deals are set to rise, with the pursuit of a new training-ground sponsor high on their priority list.
Professional services firm AON spent £180 million to have its name on the club’s Carrington complex in an eight-year association that ended this summer. Ronaldo’s sudden presence will only help, not hinder, talks about taking over the naming rights with interested parties who, as recently as the spring, were being spooked by United’s proposed involvement in the Super League.
United do not need advice on how to maximise such opportunities but Ronaldo’s three years at Juventus are a window into what they can expect from the five-time Ballon d’Or winner and, after Wednesday night, the leading goalscorer ever in men’s international football.
“The impact was significant, especially on commercial and stadium revenue, and it would have been much more prominent if the global pandemic would have not burst,” says Andrea Sartori, the global head of sports at KPMG and founder of Football Benchmark, the group who wrote the study From Madrid To Turin: Ronaldo Economics.
“If you take the commercial revenue, Juve moved from €143m (£123m) in the season of 2017-18 (the year before Ronaldo’s arrival) to €175m (£150m) in the 2019-20 season. If you look at the jersey sponsorship, they moved from €17m (£14.5m) to €45m (£39m) with Jeep. The kit sponsor went from €23m (£19.8m) to €51m (£43.8m)with Adidas.
“With their social media, Juve more than doubled their followers. Juve had just a little bit more than 50 million followers before Ronaldo signed but the number is now 110 million-plus. It’s more than doubled.
“Those numbers show the benefits Ronaldo brought from a commercial and visibility perspective on the international scene. The number of jerseys sold by Juventus since the arrival of Ronaldo also doubled. All of that, despite the pandemic.”
United’s reunion with Ronaldo, though, sees them begin at a very different starting point.
Unlike Juventus, United are already masters of the international marketing game.
The latest Deloitte Football Money League report, published in January, said United’s £282 million of commercial income accounted for 55 per cent of revenue in 2019-20. That put them top of the charts in the Premier League, with only Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich extracting more from a competitive market.
Juventus, even with Ronaldo’s help, were only marginally ahead of the £162 million Tottenham Hotspur brought in.
“It’s a very, very different situation,” adds Sartori. “When Juve bought Ronaldo, the revenue of Juve was €400 million (£343 million). In comparison to Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United, Juventus were approximately €350 million (£300 million) behind. A major, major gap.
“Juve were especially behind on the commercial revenue side. Ronaldo gave Juve the chance to increase the club’s international appeal, establish new partnerships and grow commercial revenue. Serie A had also missed, for quite some time, having such a major international star.
“The English Premier League, and more specifically Manchester United, are already globally recognised brands with a high level of commercial revenue.
“I don’t think the upside that United would be able to obtain can be compared to Juventus, simply because the starting point is so different and also because the macroeconomic situation is different because of COVID-19.”
The rest of Serie A benefitted from Ronaldo, too. Juventus chief Agnelli said in April that the competition’s other clubs made an additional €4 million (£3.4m) in gate receipts owing to casual supporters in their cities boosting attendances when Ronaldo was in town. Juventus’s away supporters also discovered ticket prices tended to be inflated by host teams.
United – and the Premier League – move in different circles. The Old Trafford club began building at the turn of the century through Peter Kenyon and Peter Draper, then chief executive and marketing director, and have never stopped tapping into a fanbase they estimate to total 1.1 billion people worldwide.
With Woodward and Richard Arnold, United’s managing director, to the fore in recent years, they currently boast 24 global partners paying at least seven-figure sums to be associated with the United brand.
Software company Teamviewer, who became the club’s new primary shirt sponsor this season, agreed a five-year deal worth £47 million a year in March, while Adidas also bring in close to £80 million per season as kit manufacturers.
It was reported over the summer that Adidas had grown frustrated with United kit sales in recent times but any slump will almost certainly be arrested by the return of Ronaldo, who is personally sponsored by Nike. Not that the club will see too much of that money.
“How much is a club making off each shirt? Maybe 10 per cent (of the sale price), if they’re lucky,” says Ehsen Shah, chief executive of B-Engaged, specialists in sports marketing. “The rest of the money goes to Adidas. Who’s the biggest winner here? Probably Adidas.
Shah adds: “Manchester United are one of the most commercially built-out, savviest clubs on the planet. They’re already a huge machine. How much more can they take on? They’ve got partners for everything and they’re already so smart in how they do it.
“They’ve done things that no other football club has managed to do commercially, so how much more can they benefit? Marginal gains, in my opinion.”
The question of Ronaldo’s value to United is far more nuanced than just pounds and pence.
An executive at another leading European club told The Athletic that long-term commercial consequences can be overlooked when signing a player of Ronaldo’s standing. His return to Old Trafford entrenches United’s position at the top of football’s tree.
“This is what’s been missing from United for a while,” says Shah. “I think this does more for perception than it does for bank balances. They’ve reaffirmed the perception that they can still sign the big players.
“Yes, Jadon Sancho is a fantastic player, but not with the same profile. Paul Pogba is the only one that would come close on a global scale. Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are the two that go far beyond football and having one of them helps you remain as this commercial powerhouse.”
Ronaldo’s recent success has come against a backdrop of very serious allegations but a reminder of his global appeal came with the sudden spike of followers to United’s social media channels on Friday and over the weekend after news of his signing broke.
The club’s Instagram account will typically attract in the region of 30,000 new followers on any given day. Confirmation of Ronaldo’s imminent arrival on Friday evening, however, added 800,000 inside an hour. By Tuesday, when the contracts were signed, another 3.1 million had come on board. Or, roughly speaking, an eight per cent uplift. United’s Twitter and their Facebook page also saw marked, albeit less dramatic, surges.
This return to United is thought to be the most talked-about transfer of all time on Twitter, eclipsing Messi’s recent move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain by 700,000 mentions.
Woodward has been derided for trotting out social media numbers at United’s quarterly addresses to shareholders during barren seasons but, for every pair of eyes on the club — a number increased by Ronaldo — there is scope to turn that into income.
Ronaldo, even at 36, remains a social media behemoth — comfortably bigger than the club he has returned to.
Not only does he boast the highest number of followers for any individual on Instagram (337 million and counting), he has the biggest following of any athlete on Twitter (94 million). Only Barack Obama, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and Rihanna are ahead of him but throw in his Facebook army of 150 million and that brings his social media following to almost 600 million.
Or close to twice the population of the United States.
United themselves cannot come close to those numbers. Their following, even when you include extra social media channels such as TikTok, is more like 190 million.
Ronaldo, as odd as it might seem, brings a new and devoted support to United in this age of the individual.
“There was a study recently that said, in the Far East and China, people followed players more than they did clubs,” says Shah. “That’s very much an NBA model, where you’d have people switching clubs because of LeBron James moving from Miami Heat to Cleveland Cavaliers and then to the LA Lakers.
“We’re seeing that more in young fans now. They buy more into the individual than the club.”
For all there is the opportunity to increase commercial revenues by signing Ronaldo, his contributions to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, beginning with a second coming against Newcastle United next weekend, can bring the greatest windfalls.
United have now gone eight seasons without lifting the Premier League title and not since 2010-11, when they were beaten finalists, have they advanced beyond the Champions League quarter-finals.
The difference between going out of the Champions League after the group stage and winning it is thought to be in the region of £50 million in prize money, not to mention the additional sponsor bonuses and a chance to play in the following season’s UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup.
A starring run from Ronaldo that pushes United to the Champions League final in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg next May could fully vindicate their investment. Juventus, though, can attest to falling short.
“Ronaldo was bought by Juventus for two purposes,” explains KPMG’s Sartori. “One was to bridge the gap in revenue, particularly commercial revenue. The second was to help the club achieve European sporting success, in particular winning the Champions League.
“If you look at the brand’s international exposure measure through the growth of social media followers and interaction, as well as commercial revenue goals, the result has been pretty positive. However, Ronaldo hasn’t been able to help the club achieve the European sporting success they had planned.
“The real failure of the Ronaldo acquisition was from a sporting angle. The club was not able to capitalise and build the right team around Ronaldo.”
United’s motivation behind this reunion leans more towards sporting success with a player who helped them to their most recent Champions League title in 2008.
He does, however, bring other tangible benefits, too.
This article was originally published on The Athletic. Follow @theathletic and @theathleticuk on Twitter.
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