»Superstar« effect

The transfer of Lionel Messi, one of the best footballers in history, shocked the sports, business and everyday world. Cristiano Ronaldo, who recently made his début in the Manchester United jersey for the second time in his career, also produced an aftershock. Both examples show the power and influence of individuals and force us to think – about business, communication, cheering, emotions and loyalty. Any reflection, however, must take into account the times in which we live. A time when individuality takes precedence over collectivity, and a time when reputation is largely defined by social networks.

We need to understand modern sport more broadly than just in terms of results. Nowadays, cheering for the individual is more prevalent than cheering for the club. Top athletes and superstars are not just actors, but public figures and celebrities, with lots of fans and even more followers on social networks, who are followed by cameras always and everywhere. Athletes are very often brand ambassadors. People remember ads that include a sport personality. Partnerships between companies and athletes today are about connecting two brands that have a mutual benefit in doing so. As a result, athletes also have more power and influence. They are public figures who sign sponsorship contracts for amounts that exceed their salaries brought about by the ‘sporting’ part of their lives.

This is also reflected on social media, as sport content breaks records. A picture of Lionel Messi winning the Copa America title, a picture of him with tears at a farewell conference from Barcelona and a picture of his arrival in Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) are the three most liked sport pictures on Instagram in its history. In total, four of the ten most liked images are sport images. And yes, the fourth belongs to Cristiano Ronaldo. And when it comes to records, the photo on the Manchester United profile that announced the return of Ronaldo, with more than 12 million likes, is the most liked photo of the sport team in the history of Instagram.

Match on social media 

Messi’s move to PSG has raised a huge amount of dust and caused followers to move to the French club’s profiles. Record-breaking began and, when Cristiano Ronaldo changed the club colours as well, the contest moved to social networks, of course. And though we can debate about who is a better footballer on the field, Ronaldo is, as expected, the undisputed king on social media.

When PSG announced Messi on Twitter on 10 August, we were taken aback by the numbers, which currently show 258 thousand retweets and 871 thousand likes. And if that sounds like a lot, you’d better brace yourself — Manchester United’s Twitter post announcing Ronaldo’s return has more than two million likes and a megalomaniacal 863,000 retweets today. So almost as much as Messi provided PSG with likes.

The power of individuals and the influence they have can be quickly measured today by the number of followers on Instagram. Cristiano Ronaldo boasts as much as 341 million, his current club Manchester United records 46 million, with some million more to be attributed to the recent arrival of Ronaldo. Messi is followed by 263 million users on Instagram, and his club PSG by almost 50 million. We can imagine for ourselves what kind of a crowd the individual is addressing and what kind the club. And what would you do if your content was followed by a few million more people tomorrow?

Investments that pay off on several levels

Messi and Ronaldo’s transitions put the theory of the impact of social networks into practice in business terms as well. In the 24 hours since PSG announced the news of Messi’s signing, the number of followers has grown by as much as 3 million. A total of more than 10 million. How important strategic and planned communication becomes at all levels.

The club was aware of the fact that the new followers only wanted one thing and PSG posted 22 consecutive posts on their Instagram wall in two days, all featuring the superstar. Posts where Messi is pictured or on video have about 3–6 times higher engagement of followers than those where Messi is not present.

  • PSG sold all 150 thousand (!) Messi jerseys in its online store in just seven minutes, and in the first 24 hours a total of more than 830 thousand.
  • Manchester United recorded the most sold single-player jerseys in the history of all sport in the first 24 hours.
  • PSG recorded revenues of more than 23 million Euro in a matter of hours.
  • Michael Jordan, whose Air Jordan brand Nike uses for PSG jerseys, receives 5% of every jersey sold, meaning he earned about six million Euro in a week from the sale of the jerseys. 


All of this can be interpreted as proof of how big business is sport and how much influence individuals represent in today’s sport world. Often bigger than the clubs they play for. Let us remember the transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo from Real Madrid to Juventus. Juventus’s social networks have exploded, the number of followers has drastically increased, and the same is true for the club’s shares — the phenomenon is therefore multifaceted. And we see the same thing now with Lionel Messi, with the addition that social networks have developed even more in these few years, they have even more users and, with that, the numbers we have been following in recent days are so much bigger.

The transfer of sport superstars, therefore, has several dimensions, as it is an investment that pays off on several levels. The effect of a superstar engagement is multifaceted. Followers on social media and the opportunities that come with that are only part of the whole story. It should be understood that the cases of Messi and Ronaldo are extreme in their dimensions, but as such they shed light on the general situation in the field of sport. They point out that sport is big business. And communication is more important at this point than ever before.

Interestingly, Slovenians have recently faced similar cases: Luka Dončić, Primož Roglič, Tadej Pogačar, and Janja Garnbret. All outstanding, among the best, if not the best in the world in their sport. How they as individuals and how domestic organisations and industry associations communicate for them and with them can bring a lot of success, reputation, visibility, even earnings. But it can also bring dissatisfaction, a worse reputation, and a missed opportunity. Much like — you guessed it — social media.

And how do social networks and sport coexist in the age of individualism? How do social networks affect sport and vice versa? How can collectives consolidate or even solve their position in relation to individuals? More on this in the next post.

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