Track & field vs. soccer: Coke, weed and a bag of chips/
Track & field doesn't need any original ideas of their own to improve their sponsorship, branding and commercial standing. They just need to read the room and follow the leaders.

Last month, the global financial media had a 48-hour news cycle asking this question: Did a word from Cristiano Ronaldo cost Coca-Cola $4 billion in market cap? Every outlet – the Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Forbes, NASDAQ’s blog – and the analysts they rely on for data and pull quotes were going deep to determine if Ronaldo’s action at the beginning of his Euro 2020 pre-game press conference caused Coke’s stock price to drop 1.6% by the end of the presser.

Ultimately, they determined it did not. It was a coincidence of market noise, a lag in reporting and a word by one of the world’s most commercially valuable athletes. But to many of those reporting on it and investigating it – not to mention many people in the sports industry, who are particularly bullish about athletes’ impact on markets – it was completely plausible that CR7 could have such a market-moving effect.

Less than two weeks later, a Twitter mini-swarm acted on behalf of sprinter Christina Clemons to get Clemons’ face on a bag of Doritos. Literally, a bag. A single bag, to the best of our knowledge, as there’s been no indication of an extended relationship and no reason to suspect one would develop.

Not long after that, US Track & Field Olympic Trials wrapped up and the entire world took notice of American track because Sha’Carri Richardson’s tested positive for THC.

Cristiano Ronaldo is the pinnacle of aspirational marketing

Over the years, Cristiano Ronaldo’s sponsors have included Nike (a lifetime deal), Tag Heuer, Clear, KFC, Armani (where he replaced David Beckham in the no-shirts-allowed campaigns), Egyptian Steel (because why not), Castrol (something something performance, something something lubricant) and Coke itself.

Most of his sponsorships have been consistent with his brand and his actual lifestyle: up-market, performance-oriented, no small amount of luxe and glam. KFC and Coke are the two notable exceptions, as are when they happened: 2006 and 2013, when Ronaldo was 21 and 28 years old. Even in his early 20s he probably never ate KFC, especially after he was upbraided by a Manchester United teammate for carrying a bottle of Coke to the training facility. That was probably the last soda he ever came close to drinking.

Ronaldo has refined his brand, his sponsorship portfolio and his performance regimen in parallel. But part of what makes him worth billions of dollars is how he layers and presents those elements.

His public and commercial persona makes you think he lives the life of Frank Sinatra, James Bond or Vincent Chase. In reality, his life is pure discipline, focus, effort and – in the eyes of many people who don’t understand the high-performance mind – self-denial and sacrifice. On the surface, it’s incomparable cool. Look one layer deeper, it’s incomprehensible work. That layering – it’s neither a dichotomy nor a contrast – provides something for everyone, and does more to link effort to output – the essence of ambition and aspiration – than arguably anyone else. And it’s worth billions.

See also: Brady, Tom.

Follow the leaders: The ones with trophies and the millions

Players like Ronaldo, Brady and Rafael Nadal have learned not just how to extend their playing careers into their late 30s and early 40s, but how to present themselves in a way that is as desirable to a non-fan seeing them in an ad as it is to a fan watching them on the field.

Ronaldo may not be able to move markets, but he can move his own industry. He said the quiet part out loud at his press conference: players don’t actually consume the food and drink products that sponsor sports properties.

His message to the industry was for brands and events to stop using the athletes as a cheap and dishonest vehicle to reach the fans. And to be fair, Coca-Cola handled this better than UEFA did (low bar, that). His message to other athletes was: don’t let yourself be used, or offer yourself up as such, for a cheap hit of sponsor exposure. If you do things right, you can have it all: the high-performance, the personal brand and the sponsors. With his tweet, Tom Brady co-signed all of it.

Track & field reading the room worse than usual

For most of the last decade, track & field athletes have followed the lead of their patrons and supporters and presented themselves as the kind of people parents want their kids to look up to. Not the kind of people kids and teenagers wanna be like in that teenager way. Not in an aspirational or wish-fulfillment way for the 18-34 crowd. Not as celebrities and certainly not as bad-asses. But as family-friendly, 80s sitcom role models. In a word: tools.

Some track & field athletes and fans realized that personae that make a milk commercial look edgy were never going to break into mainstream culture nor attract significant, actual sponsor interest. This leads to stunts and social media gaggles, such as the one we saw from Christina Clemons and her followers at Olympic Trials.

For a one-time conversation-starter, this was decent enough. But it reveals one more way in which track & field, from the top down, is completely disconnected from the broader sports industry. For starters, nothing about the Clemons-Doritos interaction qualifies as a single element from the actual definition of “sponsorship.” Second, read the room.

When the most valuable athlete in the world says “Agua!”, athletes hoping for a sliver of his commercial success do not respond with “Cool ranch!” Especially those who understand some amount of how he attained his competitive success. The most valuable and most accomplished athletes in the world project an image of, well, value and accomplishment. Yes, there are still superstar athletes appearing in snack, soda and fast food ads. But the number of people who think those athletes are market movers for doing so is probably about equal to the number of people who think those athletes actually eat or drink those products.


And, when the most valuable athlete in the world, hailing from the most successful sport in the world, doesn’t want to give even the appearance of promoting soft drinks, the track & field world needs a better response to one of their biggest stars failing a drug test, regardless of what anyone thinks of the rule. Sha’Carri Richardson herself has handled it better than nearly anyone speaking out ostensibly in support of her. But track & field has another serious athletic and commercial problem if they think this is what athletes do or should be given a pass on doing.

As always, the catch-all question is: Can you see this happening in another sport? Can you see Ronaldo using a performance-ambiguous drug the week of the Champions League final, Tom Brady the week of the Super Bowl, Rafael Nadal over the fortnight at Roland Garros?

Of course not. It’s no more a part of their personal life or commercial persona than it is their high-performance regimen. And that’s why track & field is as far from ever the rest of the sports industry. Instead of relying on their late 90s playbook or hopping from one stunt to another, they need to read the room and follow the leaders.

Photo credit: Screen shot via YouTube