The Underrated Power of Celebrity

Cristiano Ronaldo from his comic book Striker Force 7

Cristiano Ronaldo is the world’s most followed human on Instagram, with 200 million followers. That puts him in a comfortable position to have many ways to monetise his brand.

The interesting economics of sports are that the salaries of the world’s top athletes are significantly lower than their earning potential from sponsoring products off the field.

Cristiano Ronaldo actually makes more money from promoting products on Instagram ($47.8M a year) than his annual salary at football club Juventus ($34M). So he makes more money from his ‘digital’ presence (his brand) than his ‘physical’ presence (the literal skill of playing football).

It’s like being really good at a sport is only a stepping stone to being really good at commercial influence. And what does influence mean in the digital age? Influence is getting people to listen to you. Influence is your ability to sell product.

When it was announced on July 10, 2018 that Ronaldo would be moving teams from Real Madrid to Juventus, 520,000 of his new club’s jerseys (worth $60 million) were sold within 24 hours. Overnight, Juventus got 1 million new Twitter followers as they welcomed Ronaldo to their team.

Today, young fans demonstrate more loyalty to individuals rather than teams. So Ronaldo probably won’t struggle to monetise, no matter what team he’s playing for.

Some of his sponsorship deals make a lot of sense, like Nike, Emporio Armani and TAG Heuer. He has also become part owner of a hotel group, footwear collection and apparel line under his brand CR7.

At the same time, some of his sponsorships are less inspired.

For Ronaldo specifically, his influence extends not just to products, but also social causes. He has done a lot to support charitable causes and has been placed on lists naming him as one of the ‘most charitable athletes in the world.’

He has donated millions to charity over the course of his career and has paid for life-saving surgery for some of his young fans. Unlike many other athletes, he doesn’t have any tattoos because that decreases his ability to donate blood, which he does twice a year.

He sold his 2011 European Golden Boot award to an auction that raised money to build schools in Gaza, and sold his 2013 Balloon D’Or award to raise £530,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He also serves as an ambassador for Save the Children, UNICEF, and World Vision.

What a nice guy

I watched the Ronaldo documentary on Netflix last year and have a newfound respect for him. I get the feeling that he’s a person with a simple goal in life, to be the best in the world at the sport of football. Coming from a poor family in a small town, he maintains a sense of humility and charity.

He clearly has enough business competence to understand how his brand can extend beyond the playing field. And he clearly cares enough about certain social causes that he has given his time, money, and image to support them.

Ronaldo sits in a venn diagram encompassing athlete, businessperson, and humanitarian. For someone with so much influence who is only 34 years old, what’s next?

Could it be Cristiano Ronaldo, politician…?

Because, what qualifies someone to be a politician? Is it how many years they have spent in government? Is it their level of education and experience? Or maybe what matters today in our digital world is how much influence someone has to affect people’s thoughts and actions.

If the strength of your digital presence is a proxy for influence, Ronaldo’s influence might actually be stronger than that of any major politician. The world’s most followed politician on Instagram is Prime Minister of India Narendra Modhi, who has 34 million followers, 17% the number of followers as Ronaldo’s 200 million.

In this new world of digital media, there are new rules around who has the most social influence and I’m sure Modhi wishes he had as many Instagram followers as Cristiano Ronaldo.

In Taylor Swift’s new Netflix Documentary Miss Americana, part of the story involves Taylor agonising over whether she should make her first openly political statement on social media.

She debates with her internal team of advisors as to whether or not she should encourage her fans to vote against Republican Marsha Blackburn in the November 2018 mid-term elections for Tennessee.

While many of her advisors encourage her to stay silent, in the end Taylor decides to make a big Instagram post outlining her political beliefs.

Despite the fact that Marsha Blackburn still won the election, the end of documentary shows Taylor getting more actively involved with politics. The film shows her encouraging people to vote when accepting an American Music Award in 2018 and ends with societal messages of equality in her music video “You Need to Calm Down.”

In a similar league of influence as Cristiano Ronaldo, Taylor Swift has 126 Million Instagram followers.

The public reaction to Taylor’s political enthusiasm was mixed, but it was reported by USA Today that Taylor Swift inspired 65,000 people to register to vote in Tennessee. As her first ever political post, seemingly unpolished and without any calculated, sophisticated campaigning, that’s pretty impactful.

Whether it’s Taylor Swift or Cristiano Ronaldo, we have come to live in a world where celebrity political involvement is increasing, encouraged, and even expected.

British hip hop artist Stormzy launched his own political campaign last year urging people to register to vote in the 2019 UK election. After Stormzy’s posts on social media, voter registration in the UK increased 236% on that same day, particularly for younger people.

This is similar to what has been accomplished by Rock the Vote, a non-partisan non-profit organisation founded by music industry executives in Los Angeles in 1990 to encourage young people to vote, which is still active today.

In other ways, celebrities can have even more subtle influence in society.

Mo Salah, the Egyptian striker for Liverpool FC, is one of the most famous openly practicing Muslims in the English Premier League. Stanford University Immigration Policy Lab published a May 2019 study indicating that the number of hate crimes in Liverpool has reduced since Salah joined the club in June 2017. The number of anti-Muslim tweets also decreased over that same time period.

The study suggests the results may be driven by the city’s increased familiarity with Islam, and that positive exposure to role models of different groups (in this case, Muslims) can humanise the broader group. An athlete like Mo Salah becomes more than a football player, but a role model affecting the dynamics of society.

Swift — Stormzy — Salah. Their influence moves people.

Mo Salah, Liverpool FC striker

So if Cristiano Ronaldo decided to run for political office today, he would do pretty well. He would probably get a lot of votes and maybe do a great job in office.

Considering some of the options we have today, maybe we should look to athletes, musicians, and entertainers as people who could help us; a set of people who perform at the highest levels of their field, defined by their world-class dedication.

These celebrities are some of the most culturally attuned, psychologically admirable, and influential people in the world.

If fans around the world already look up to them, products and hearts and minds move because of them, maybe we will see more votes cast because of them.

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Tech, Entertainment, Media, Emerging Markets. Ex-Facebook and Singularity University.