Good morning from a Gooner in the USA.
The news broke yesterday that Adidas and Mesut Özil are parting ways. The playmaker’s lucrative $25 million sponsorship deal was negotiated shortly after Özil joined Arsenal in 2013, and is understood to expire later this month. Adidas have decided not to renew their commitment when the current contract runs out, citing economic concerns due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the company’s desire to focus on a new generation of talent.
German news sources jumped on the 2018 Erdogan photo controversy and Özil’s criticism of China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims as the reasons behind Adidas “dumping” one of their biggest stars. (It wouldn’t be the first time Özil has suffered retribution from sponsors: amidst the Erdogan controversy, Mercedes-Benz quietly removed Özil from their World Cup ad campaign.) Özil’s agent Dr. Erkut Sögüt, however, has refuted Bild’s claim. According to Sögüt, his client “could sign another deal tomorrow” but is choosing to leave Adidas in order to launch his own brand. The agent explained that Özil wants to promote his own brand while he was still playing, rather than leave it until post-retirement as other players have done.
The reasons given by Adidas and Sögüt seem reasonable enough. There is, however, one glaring logical fallacy that leaves this fan skeptical—and that is the lack of any detectable downside in their mutually beneficial partnership. For all the controversies (real, overblown, or absolute nonsense fueled by gossip rags), Özil remains one of the most popular and influential footballers in the world. As for Özil promoting his own brand, there’s a reason athletes save their personal business ventures for retirement. Personal brands hardly suffer from piggybacking off a respected, established brand. The example of Roger Federer’s Nike RF logo comes to mind. You better believe that “RF” made money for everyone involved. It’s hard to believe Adidas wouldn’t have jumped at an opportunity to sell M1Ö branded merchandise.
If anything, Özil’s history of cutting ties with institutions he no longer trusts (from Schalke 04 to the Germany NT) makes it plausible that the decision to terminate was driven by his side of proceedings. But if so, the decision is questionable at best, if not outright hubristic. As for Adidas, the German sportswear company shelled out a whopping $391 million to become Arsenal FC’s kit sponsors last season; one of the driving reasons behind their interest was reported to be Özil’s intense marketability. And when it comes to “focusing on a new generation,” it’s worth noting that Adidas remains the sponsors of Özil’s former national teammates Toni Kroos, Thomas Müller, and Manuel Neuer—none of whom are exactly spring chickens.
With all that being said, it’s neither useful nor particularly interesting to speculate on the petty politics behind this sponsorship deal. For one, Adidas keeps a famously tight lid on negotiations so information will be scarce. Both parties have now given their sides of the story. If you choose to believe what Bild reported, Adidas are dropping a golden goose of a player to distance themselves from years-old controversies. If you choose to believe Dr. Sögüt, we’ll soon be seeing fans kitted out in M1Ö hats, shirts, shorts, snoods, you name it. (Personally, I could go for some socks.)
What I will say is this: sponsorships, like all investments and monetary commitment, are a statement of value—of a company’s priority, alignment, and goals. The primary goal of any corporation is obviously to promote their brand and thereby grow their customer base and increase profit, because that’s capitalism. But how a particular company or brand goes about that business—who they choose to represent them, as Özil represented Adidas—is a statement of value. For a person, actions speak louder than words. For a company, money speaks where their communications—from advertisements to public statements—obfuscate, spin, and tell pretty focus-group tested lies.
The mechanisms of brand management, and the embedded value statements or lack thereof, are more obvious than ever right now. This is where I apologize for the ungainly pivot. Still, a pivot must be made to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, one more violent death in a long history of racism in the U.S., and its explosive consequences. As civil rights protests sweep this country and elicit sympathetic rallies and demonstrations from across the world, every company, personality, and institution with a communications department worth their salt has put out some form of statement—from the bare minimum of posting a hashtag to take advantage of social media trends, to Ben & Jerry’s outright condemnation of white supremacy.
In the German Bundesliga, four players sent messages of support. Marcus Thuram took a knee after scoring for Gladbach. Schalke’s Weston McKennie wore a “Justice for George” armband. Over at Dortmund, Jadon Sancho and Achraf Hakimi revealed messages on their undershirts that read: “Justice for George Floyd.” Sancho received a yellow card for displaying his shirt message by stripping off his kit during a goal celebration. Following the weekend’s games, the DFB control committee opened an investigation into the four players—was met by a resounding outcry from fans, journalists, and clubs, and even managed to get FIFA, that bastion of moral mediocrity, to issue a statement urging restraint and common sense—after which said committee announced they would not seek further sanctions against the players.
That the DFB opened the investigation at all speaks volumes. Common sense said: stand down, anti-racism and police violence is every person’s fight, here are four young men standing up for their beliefs and for their own humanity. But in that moment, the DFB did not act as an agent of common sense. The DFB took action in their role as brand managers; it was their obligation to investigate whether saying “we demand justice for George Floyd” was on brand for the Bundesliga.
The rules banning political messages exist not to make football an apolitical space (because, come on, any reasonable person can see all the political statements football and its governing bodies make every year, every day, by getting in bed with sponsors and partners that have known records of labor and human rights abuses). For all the reflexive “stick to sports” talk, football has never been apolitical—it cannot be, when football has been wielded by authoritarian regimes as a tool of propaganda, as well as served as a gathering space and stage for radical social change. Today, Kick It Out and Rainbow Laces campaigns prominently exist within football, with the blessing of clubs and governing bodies. And therein lies the key: with their blessing. The “no political messages” rule only applies to unauthorized messages, like the one Sancho displayed after scoring at the weekend.
We know why authorized political messages are authorized. They’re the ones that have been vetted and approved and will provide a net benefit to brand value and profit. Rainbow laces and decals equal merchandise that sells. Anti-racism slogans are great as long as they turn a buck. Every entity from Amazon to the NFL to the Chinese government have rushed to condemn racism in the U.S. and declare their support for a more just and equitable future—but how many of them are willing to make that future happen by, say, leveling pay structures or divesting from supply chains and labor practices firmly rooted in centuries of colonization, empire, and the dehumanization of black lives? I’ll give you a rough estimate: zero.
Which is why I say: follow the money. Because under capitalism, investment is a value statement. Whether it’s a sponsorship spat or a brand piggybacking on a popular uprising for justice, more often than not it’s money and not words that will tell the true story.