Why £500m for Neymar is a PR investment

When people, and indeed whole countries, began investing mind-boggling sums in football and football players it seemed as though they’d gone mad. Maybe they had but the rest of the world of the world seems to have caught up with them.

This week, of course, we’ve had the £200m transfer of Barcelona’s Brazilian star Neymar (below) to Qatari-owned French club PSG and, significant in its own way, former Disney Boss Michael Eisner’s surprise decision (in the sense that there are still surprises left in football) to buy second tier British club Portsmouth.

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger thinks near £500m for Neymar (the total when transfer fee, salary and all the other swag has been computed) is bonkers. Manchester United’s Jose Mourinho thinks it’s pretty reasonable, but he would having paid £89m for Paul Pogba, who Man U allowed to slip the net for free not that long ago. The Spanish League can’t see how PSG can stay within UEFA’s byzantine Financial Fair Play rules with such a deal. Barcelona have got the sulks as well as a lot of money. Barca raised the stakes significantly before all this started by agreeing to pay Leo Messi €1m a week.

So does this deal make (some sort of) sense? Here’s what MediaCom’s VP of sport and entertainment Misha Sher (left) thinks:

“Neymar’s move to Paris Saint-Germain transcends a business transaction; there’s a political, cultural and commercial aspect of this deal like we’ve never quite seen before. For one of the most iconic players in the world to move to a, some say, lesser league, Neymar’s transfer represents something of a coup. The football broadcast rights will almost certainly increase as demand rockets to watch a genuine sports superstar join the French league. With the Qatari-backed PSG and the World Cup just around the corner, Qatar is also being seen as a big winner here, leveraging the transfer to raise its value and appeal.

“As it stands, there’s a huge amount of competition in the marketplace already, with many clubs competing for a small pool of five-star, world-class players. With a lot more channels and platforms on which to view content and watch sports – but a lot less time to do it these days – it’s never been more important for sports club to have a unique selling point to attract advertisers and sponsors. It’s unclear at this stage whether PSG will recoup the £450m (including fees, wages and cuts for agents) over the course of Neymar’s contract and beyond, but what it offers the club is something totally unique and a chance to compete commercially and reputationally with the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester United and, ironically, Barcelona.”

Sounds fair enough. But the the political and cultural issues are, arguably, more important than the football ones. Qatar doesn’t sound the most pleasant of places, neither do its rulers (accused by many of backing extremist Islamists). There’s an ongoing scandal about how Qatar managed to land the 2022 World Cup (if it’s in the summer they’ll be playing in 40 degrees or more) and also about its treatment of the thousands of imported workers imported to build a football infrastructure from scratch.

The 2018 FIFA World Cup (run by arguably the world’s most corrupt organisation) is in Russia, which also – presumably – sees it as a gigantic PR operation. It’s still possible some countries might boycott it. Neymar’s move to Qatar-owned PSG (local rival Abu Dhabi owns Manchester City) is all part of a similar gigantic PR operation by the controversial Gulf state.

At which point £500m doesn’t actually seem all that much.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.