So here’s today’s question to ponder while waiting in line at Starbucks: What would Pele, perhaps the greatest player ever in the world’s most popular sport, make today in endorsement deals? Is there a dump truck big enough to transport all that loot? As big as Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan are in the corporate world, as huge as Michael Phelps is and will become outside of the pool, if he played today, Pele would be bigger. Oh yeah, how quickly we forget.
It’s one of fate’s cruel ironies that David Beckham, who was practically booed off the field in his LA Galaxy closing act recently, made $45 million in endorsements last year, while the former Brazilian soccer great is struggling to make a living. All because he was born a couple of decades too early.
Good piece in the WALL STREET JOURNAL today in which we are reminded that Pele made $4.4 million when he signed with the New York Cosmos in 1975, which at the time was the highest salary ever paid to someone in a team sport. Impressive, until you realize that it’s only about a third as much as the Kansas City Royals’ Jose Guillen will make this season.
The business world, however, has never been Pele’s playing field. A great example was his infamous Viagra endorsement in 2002, of which he later admitted that he didn’t even use the product. And then some Adus Interuptus occurred when the Brazilian government banned the spots, claiming that Brazilian youths were abusing the pills.
The soccer great says he’s not bitter about his timing or his business choices, even if it has left him still hustling at an age when current superstars may have little else to do but count their money.
“Their careers are short, so they need to make a lot of money,” he said, lamenting that the promise of money motivates the world’s top players today rather than the love of the game that drove him. “A kid who plays for money moves all around and is not concerned with his sport or the team.”
I have to believe, however, that Pele would be making zillions in salary alone if he played today, whether he liked it or not. It would be enough to buy and sell Kobe Bryant. He’d be able to build a house that makes Derek Jeter’s look like a guest cottage. He played before the era of insane sports marketing, but also consider this: He played before the invention of ESPN. Imagine Pele playing for an MLS team and how the WWL would be slobbering over his every move … unless of course he was named in a civil sexual assault suit in Nevada.
But he’s still in there kicking. Pele has just signed a merchandising deal with Nomis, an obscure cleat manufacturer in Switzerland. What’s the soccer version of a Hail Mary?
Now comes the Nomis deal—the latest effort by Pele to transform himself into a branded empire rather than simply to associate him with established companies and products. There are a half-dozen Pele-brand coffee shops in Brazil, a potential bio-pic, and plans for a video game and an animation feature in India. All of this raises the question of whether a near-septuagenarian still has enough marketing juice to compete with superstars one-third his age in a youth-dominated industry. In short: Will a 9-year-old in Spain want to buy Pele’s cleats or Lionel Messi’s?
Pele has no doubt he can still hold his own. “My career gives my brand positive values and attributes and a message that goes from generation to generation,” Pele said through a translator last week. “It’s not like athletes now that are at the top of the game and then start playing badly. In my career, I have done it all. My message is clear from generation to generation. Pele is a guarantee.”
If there’s justice in the world, that’s the way it would be. But we’ll have to wait and see.