Even if you are not an avid football fan, you would have heard that the Real Madrid and Portugal player, Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid and Portugal) was awarded the Ballon d’Or in January 2014, recognising him as the world’s best footballer. He nudged serial winner Lionel Messi from the pole position to second, leaving the third position to the Bayern Munich and French player, Franck Ribery.

As the champion rejoiced in the aftermath of winning the most prestigious award in football, many expected the star to use his title as Ballon d’Or winner in marketing campaigns. The not-so-camera-shy footballer did not have a sudden change of attitude towards his fame and success – he was simply not able to use the official award name in relation to any promotional activity due to sponsorship arrangements.

Adidas has the exclusive rights to promote Ballon d’Or merchandise.  Adidas is also one of FIFA’s six official sponsors, with the relationship between the parties going back some 44 years (since the 1970 FIFA World Cup), and looking set to run through to at least 2030. So it’s safe to say that Adidas is pretty well ensconced there.

This means that Ronaldo - who is sponsored by, and endorses the products of, Adidas’s arch-rival, Nike – might not be able to profit from his award to the extent that he may have wished. He won’t, for example, be able to use the Ballon d’Or name in connection with the promotion of any Nike goods. An Adidas spokesman put it quite bluntly: ‘These official partnerships are the reasons why we can use the official award name within promotional activity and therefore, by the same token, why Nike could not.’  Ribery, who is also a Nike man, would presumably also not be allowed to use an expression like ‘Ballon d'Or runner-up’ in connection with his endorsement activities. This is not a problem that Lionel Messi ever had to face while holding on to the award for three consecutive years. This was quite simply because is sponsored by and endorses Adidas. 

It appears that Ronaldo understands (or has at least been told) just how things stand. It was reported that both he and Nike tweeted videos after the award ceremony, but that neither used the name Ballon d’Or. 

Competing sponsorships between players and the events in which they participate certainly can cause problems and confusion. We saw this a while back when South Africa hosted the 2003 Cricket World Cup. It became apparent that certain teams and players had sponsorship agreements with companies that weren’t official sponsors of the event and, in some cases, with companies that were direct competitors of the official sponsors.  This resulted in South Africa implementing the ambush marketing legislation that it now has, and that made so many headlines during the 2010 FIFA World Cup.  

The ambush marketing legislation is multi-faceted. Official event names and logos can be declared prohibited marks, which means that no one other than the authorised parties can use them. On top of that, the event can be declared a protected event, in which case it becomes unlawful for any company that isn’t an official sponsor to use its brand in a way that alludes to, or is associated with, the event. Measures like this are now the norm in many countries, with similar restrictions having been put in place for the 2012 London Olympics and for the 2014 Football World Cup in Brazil. 

In 2013, we had reports of an interesting sponsorship/endorsement case in South Africa. It was reported that Bafana Bafana footballers Steven Pienaar, Kathlego Mphela and Sipiwe Tshabalala were suing SAB for R6.5 million, arising out of the unauthorised use of their photos in beer ads that appeared around the time of the 2010 World Cup – the players’ images appeared on billboards, together with wording like ‘The beer behind our boys’ and ‘It all comes together with a Castle’. The matter was made more interesting by the fact that the ads also featured rugby and cricket stars like John Smit, Victor Matfield and Graeme Smith, who were apparently all paid.  SAB’s defence was that it had been granted the right to use the footballers’ images by SAFA, which in turn claimed that the players were contractually prevented from endorsing any products without the organisation's consent.

Needless to say, the relationship between the players of sports and their sponsors, as well with the sponsors of the events in which they participate, should be clearly identified and set out in order to avoid massive financial liability and any embarrassment. There is undoubtedly a significant amount of money at stake. It has been reported that Adidas is projecting sales relating to its football products to be some EU 2 billion for 2014, with Lionel Messi forming a major part of the company’s marketing efforts.  In January 2014, Puma signed a record-breaking five-year kit deal with UK football club Arsenal worth a reported US$249 million, ousting existing sponsor Nike in the process. Days later there were reports that Manchester United was expecting to sign an even bigger deal, for a rumoured GBP 65 million per year deal with Adidas.

Given the amount of money that companies are expecting to generate in sales, it is little surprise that they are prepared to spend big by way of sponsorship/ endorsement deals. It is also no surprise that companies protect their turf so keenly.