International footballers are worth millions on the pitch. Now, a new generation of players are becoming cultural figures beyond the game, and luxury fashion brands are signing them on to reach young consumers and build brand cachet.

Valentino last month partnered with Lyon footballer Memphis Depay in a content campaign that will be hosted on Valentino social platforms, in collaboration with Gaffer magazine, a niche publication blending fashion, football and culture. In November, Burberry launched a philanthropic partnership with Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford to support global youth charities. The announcement, featuring Rashford in a Burberry cape, highlighted his efforts to fight child food poverty alongside his sports acumen. Loewe became one of the first luxury brands to sign a female footballer when it released a campaign with US football captain Megan Rapinoe in January 2020 with a video in which she discussed the possibilities of change.

These campaigns underscore not just growing investment in football stars, but also a move beyond more surface-level endorsement to layered sponsorships that play on athletes’ interests. Fashion brands and athletes often work together to borrow from the others’ cultural cachet; in the US, NBA stars have long been associated with fashion campaigns and brand deals. Footballers, however, have been more reticent to show interests outside of their sport. But with five billion fans across the world, according to FIFA, football has bigger global resonance and reach than any other sport. Now, a network of talent and content agencies and brands are pivoting to work with a new wave of football talent to reach global customers, and are both following and updating the NBA blueprint to do so effectively.

“Athletes are taking greater control of their image and are much more involved in their personal brand build off the pitch,” says Kelly Hogarth, VP of strategic marketing and communications at Roc Nation Sports, the talent agency owned by rapper Jay Z, which has signed 19 footballers in the last five years including Rashford and Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne. “They possess strong engaged audiences across their social channels, which act as their biggest marketable tool to have their voice heard, and many have found that voice in recent years.”

Collaborations and campaigns built on shared interests and values between the brand and talent is key to reaching young people today, says Reda Lazram, brand director of content agency False 9 that often works with football talent to produce campaigns. “With the pandemic, brands have had to refocus more of their budget on content to inspire the youth of today to buy into their brand.”

Select talent based on personality

Memphis Depay is not only the captain of Lyon and player for the Netherlands national team, he is also a rapper, releasing his debut album in November. This multi-hyphenate status is appealing to brands wanting to build cultural equity, says Jordan Wise, co-founder and chief executive of Gaffer magazine and its content agency False 9, which focuses on emerging music and football talent. False 9 produced the Valentino and Depay campaign, which seeks to showcase the brand’s resort 2021 collection. “Memphis’s creative spark stretches beyond just being a footballer, down to the clothes he wears, the tracks he writes and the way he plays the game with a certain freedom.”

© Gaffer, Rafael Pavarotti/Burberry, Études, Filippo Fior/

Image may contain: Marcus Rashford, Clothing, Apparel, Human, Person, Sleeve, Steven Bergwijn, Coat, and Overcoat

“There’s been this wave and momentum building whereby it’s great to see athletes celebrating their interests outside of work,” says Wise. “Brands have worked with certain partners for a long time. Now, they’re looking at ways in which they can change their approach to this younger audience and explore ways in which they can better connect with them.”

French luxury streetwear brand Études began collaborating with Serie A club Napoli player Tiemoué Bakayoko in 2019. Bakayoko loved the brand’s Spring/Summer 19 collection featuring his shirt number 14, and visited the studio for a fitting to meet the founders. The player, who has previously played for Chelsea, AC Milan and Monaco, has since become an investor and creative force within the brand in February of this year. This has brought the brand to a new audience, says founder and creative director Aurélian Arbet. “Etudes is very much involved in the fashion world, the art world. Working with someone with a large audience that is more connected to sports has opened us up to a whole new group of people,” he says.

Reaching more global consumers

It’s difficult to ignore the marketability of an athlete in modern culture and their ability to sell products via engaged social audiences, says Roc Nation Sports’s Hogarth. “If you analyse celebrity culture in Europe, you don’t get names much bigger than footballers in relation to their global reach. It’s guaranteed partner ROI.”

As trainer resale marketplace StockX expands in Europe, football talent is key to its community, says the company’s European director, Derek Morrison. StockX has worked with basketball stars (founder Dan Gilbert is also the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers), but to reach the European market, it had to change tack. “We recognised that a lot of the equity we had in the States doesn’t leverage over into Europe, particularly the basketball relevance — there’s people in London that don’t know who LeBron James is,” Morrison says.

To reach young sneakerheads in Europe, StockX linked up with False 9 and Gaffer, rolling out a content series that challenges young football players to curate looks from a selection of StockX merch. Morrison is keen to continue this kind of activation that spotlights new talent and attaches StockX to multifaceted players.

“When it comes to their cultural influence, football in Europe and basketball in the US are very similar in terms of their ties to the audience, with similar influence, impact and importance,” Morrison says.

Emerging talent wins young audiences

Virgil Abloh tapped footballer Héctor Bellerín to walk the Spring/Summer 2020 show for Louis Vuitton men’s, and the relationship has continued since, says Ehsen Shah, founder and chief executive of B-Engaged, the sports marketing agency that represents Bellerín. The focus for Louis Vuitton and other B-Engaged clients is a younger fanbase. “We always have the issue where an old school football fan doesn’t get it, but we’re not trying to communicate to them,” Shah says, adding that the target market is 13 to 35 year olds who embrace sports culture in a way similar to US fans. “It’s a very different strategy.”

Emerging talent can be the best bet for luxury brands wanting to boost their reputation with a young consumer, says Sarah Willersdorf, global head of luxury at Boston Consulting Group, as it lays strong foundations when or if the talent blows up. “Many luxury brands have used PR and VIP teams to identify emerging talent and really get behind them early in their careers. And that pays off well for them,” she says.

Working with talent comes with risk. However, Hogarth believes this has reduced. “In recent years, footballers and athletes in general have taken a more sophisticated approach to their personal brand build,” she says. “There is a greater professional management, thus less element of risk from the perspective of the partner.”

The social media power of footballers is an important factor. False 9/Gaffer and B-Engaged both underline the importance of authenticity when brokering deals, to ensure the talent will be keen to share the campaign or project on their own channels.

“Brands are trying to engage a new wave of digital-savvy consumers thus it’s imperative that an ambassador has the ability to speak to these consumers with authenticity,” says Hogarth. “If you look at the level of engagement footballers have with their following on social media in particular, and how this spans across a range of age groups and demographics, they are the perfect vehicle to generate effective sales.”

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