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Benjamin Block @Benjaminblock21

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What: ATP star Rafael Nadal’s recent comments at the Australian Open may have an effect on his marketability moving forward.
Why it matters: The world’s No. 1-ranked player has been a spectacularly successful pitchman for numerous products across various categories, but will his remarks praising Margaret Court and bashing the ATP schedule cause sponsors to rethink their commitments to him?

(Wikimedia Commons/Mikelokok)

His recent exit from the Australian Open and failure to win the year’s first major won’t affect World No. 1 Rafael Nadal’s value whatsoever. The Spaniard’s actions and comments, however, very well could have an impact on his brand partners down the line.

In the span of a few matches, Nadal (@RafaelNadal) managed to potentially hurt his long-term value with two separate but equally unsavory moments. Following his third-round win over Damir Dzumhur, Nadal addressed fans in an on-court interview saying, “It’s very special for me to play in Margaret Court Arena for the first time in a long time.” But considering how Margaret Court —the former Australian tennis star for whom the arena is named after— has drawn widespread criticism for her staunchly anti-gay and anti-transgender views, Nadal’s comments could seem of poor taste to sponsors.

How could this affect some of the long-term partners Rafa has, especially as the tennis legend’s career wanes and brands around the world become warier of engaging with athletes who may stray from the mainstream?

Especially because days before the Australian Open commenced, tennis’ biggest ambassador Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing), who is a gay woman, remarked, “If I were playing today, I would not play on it,” referring to Margaret Court Arena. Days later, Nadal conceded defeat to Marin Cilic after falling behind 2-0 in the fifth set of their quarterfinal match. Opting not to gracefully accept defeat, despite the unfortunate and untimely injury to his right leg, Rafa attacked the ATP Tour, resuming his longtime claim that the intensity of the schedule causes injuries.

“Somebody who is running the tour should think a little bit about what’s going on. Too many people getting injured. I don’t know if they have to think a little bit about the health of the players. Not for now that we are playing, but there is life after tennis. I don’t know if we keep playing on these very, very hard surfaces what’s going to happen in the future with our lives,” he added.

Potential Effect on Partners?

How could this affect some of the long-term partners Rafa has, especially as the tennis legend’s career wanes and brands around the world become warier of engaging with athletes who may stray from the mainstream?

“The value that Rafa Nadal has brought to the sport of tennis, and to his brand partners, is almost immeasurable. He has changed the game and brought millions of new fans to the sport and its partners,” said Columbia University professor and longtime sports marketer now at MP & Silva, Chris Lencheski. “However, like all aspects of our business, public perception and current value play an even bigger role, and the use of athletes as brand ambassadors has never been more in question. Would we like to see elite athletes like Rafa go gracefully? Sure. Sometimes that doesn’t happen the way we would like. Will his recent comments and actions diminish his long-term value for his biggest partners? That remains to be seen.”

For now, Nadal still has the long-term support of one of all of his biggest sponsors, including Kia Motors, who tweeted their support, following his shaky Aussie stunt. Kia vowed that they will be along for Nadal’s journey “together as always.” The rest of his key brand partners include Nike, Babolat, Telefonica, Banco Sabadell, Richard Mille, and Tommy Hilfiger, none of which have expressed any concern about Rafa short-term, and obviously still see the investment for the long-term as his brand matures from player to spokesperson. Nadal has always been a safe bet, and like Roger Federer (@rogerfederer), he has shied away from controversy and has let his racquet do the talking. That is what has made him such a valuable global brand ambassador; a great look, a humble, hardworking approach, and amazing success.

Will that change if controversy keeps coming? Brands will run if the public tide shifts, but for now, they will watch and weigh the benefits of a great champion and ambassador vs what may have been a misstep or two.

Cover photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Carine06

Video refereeing might be implemented for the 2018 Russia World Cup.

The historic vote on whether Video Assistant Referees (VAR) will be added to the event is scheduled to take place on January 22 in Zürich amongst officials from the International FA Board (Ifab).

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However, VAR’s have already been used in Italian and German football leagues, and according to former referee and Ifab’s technical director David Elleray, it has yielded mostly positive results so far.

Generally I think it has gone much better than people have anticipated and almost every week we get an inquiry from another league about using VARs.

The technology has drawn some skepticism though, most vehemently from Italian Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who thinks that VAR’s ruin the entertainment value of soccer.

“It takes too long. I didn’t celebrate when we were awarded a penalty because six minutes had passed,” Buffon said after a game that Juventus has won over Genoa this past August. He added, “They told us that VAR would be used in clear-cut incidents where there were mistakes, but now you are even checking the replays for a trodden toe or a finger in an ear.”

The frustration that Buffon experienced has already been felt by athletes and fans alike throughout the four major sports in America — Basketball, Football, Baseball and Hockey. Variations of video replay, and the merger of technology and sports has spawned fan and player unrest about compromising their respective sport. And soccer won’t be immune to such a debate.

That is the something that Ifab officials will have to mull over in a couple of weeks when they vote. Yet, while it seems imminent that VAR’s will play a starring role in this year’s World Cup and beyond, there’s really only one question that officials must ask themselves before making this impactful decision.

At what cost is it worth it to get the call right?

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A growing trend among professional athletes has been the usage of social media to make important announcements. And on Sunday, December 17, Brazilian soccer star Kaká declared his retirement via his Twitter account to his nearly 30 million followers.

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The 35-year-old leaves a legacy that will forever rival the playing careers of fellow superstars, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. In fact, Kaká is the most recent recipient not named Ronaldo or Messi to win the Ballon d’Or, which is the award given to the male player of the year.

In the year that Kaká won the Ballon d’Or (2007), Pele said of attacking midfielder, “He’s the complete player.”

Five years earlier, in 2002, Kaká announced himself to the world stage, winning the World Cup with Brazil.

Full name Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, Kaká did most of his international damage in his career with AC Milan, where he played for six seasons beginning in 2003, before leaving to play for Real Madrid. While in Spain, Kaká captured a league title and a Copa del Rey. He returned to Milan for a brief stint before coming to the United States to play three seasons for Orlando City of the MLS.

Upon his announcement, Milan was one of the clubs to offer him a contract that would have extended his playing career, but Kaká felt that it was time to hang up the cleats.

In a farewell interview he gave to Brazil’s Globo TV, he was candid about a different kind of future with Milan.

I would like to participate in the club in another way, as a manager, a sporting director, as someone who is between the pitch and the club. I prepared very hard to be a professional footballer and I want to prepare for this new role.

From the sounds of it, Kaká is determined to once again leave his mark on Milan in his third stint with the club. It just won’t be as a player this time around.

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Hope Solo’s quest to succeed Sunil Gulati as President of the U.S. Soccer Federation shouldn’t be, and likely won’t be, strongly considered.

The United States’ embarrassing failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup helped trigger Gulati’s decision to not seek re-election for a fourth term, creating a logjam of nine candidates looking to replace him.

However, Solo is not the answer.

The decorated U.S. Women’s goalie took the stance — detailing her passion and qualifications on Facebook — that in order for U.S. soccer to return to prominence, it would need to distance itself from the path of capitalism and elitism that she claimed persisted under Gulati’s reign.

Referencing her own experience as a youth, Solo drilled down on how the USSF must refocus on the development of youth soccer in America. From Solo’s Facebook post:

“The systemic problem in U.S. Soccer starts at the youth level. Soccer has always been a middle-class sport and in more recent times, has become an upper middle-class sport. Some of the best clubs around the country charge each youth player between $3000-$5000 per season. I have personally witnessed young players heartbroken over the financial reality that they could no longer pursue their dream.”

Solo holding up a mirror to the USSF is refreshing, and an unfortunate truth. But her vision to eradicate a pay-for-play culture in American soccer, among other goals, rings hollow, as her personal past makes her unfit to do so.

Solo was arrested in 2014 for allegedly drunkenly assaulting her nephew and half-sister, which is still a pending case according to ESPN. And more recently, she was suspended in 2016 for six months after she called the Swedish team that eliminated the U.S Women from the Rio Olympics, “a bunch of cowards.”

Solo has always been a strong advocate for soccer and was outspoken as a player, but some of her actions off the pitch don’t align with her vision to rebuild American soccer at the youth level, should she be president.

Someone that the USSF could benefit from at the helm is Kathy Carter, who is currently president of Soccer United Marketing.

As one of the several candidates vying to replace Gulati, Carter has a proven track record of promoting and executing the business of soccer in America.

The other seven people in the running, besides Solo and Carter, are former men’s U.S. players Paul Caligiuri, Eric Wynalda and Kyle Martino, USSF vice president Carlos Cordeiro, Boston lawyer Steve Gans, New York lawyer Michael Winograd, and Northeast Conference manager of the United Premier Soccer League, Paul LaPointe.

Should Solo work with the USSF in some capacity? Absolutely. Just not as the president.

The election will be held at the annual general meeting in February.

Far removed from their height in popularity during the Pelé years of 1975, ’76 and ’77, the New York Cosmos have enjoyed a huge resurgence lately, but are at risk of becoming defunct unless the North American Soccer League scores a major assist.

Since a rebirth in 2010, and just as they were in the 1970s and 80s, the Cosmos are a mainstay of the NASL. Their imprint on the pitch and in the soccer community is widespread.

Considered by many as a force in the NASL, the Cosmos have won the championship three out of the previous five seasons — 2013, 2015, 2016.

And after a four-year stint on the campus of Long Island’s Hofstra University, the 2017 club relocated to the more intimate setting of MCU Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn. The move not only helped expand its fan base and brand recognition to Brooklynites, but it also catapulted them to their third consecutive championship game.

They ultimately fell short to the San Francisco Deltas, yet in the losing effort, the Cosmos positioned themselves for an exciting 2018 campaign.But, that’s assuming that there will be a 2018 season.

On a conference call with the media in late September, NASL legal counsel Jeffrey Kessler stressed the importance of the league’s upcoming appeal on December 15: “In order for the NASL to continue in 2018, and to grow and to survive, it needs to obtain a preliminary injunction from the court to retain its Division II status,” said Kessler.

NASL interim commissioner Rishi Sehgal confirmed last month that they remain confident about regaining their Division II status, which had been rescinded by the U.S. Soccer Federation. Also part of Sehgal’s announcement was that the defending champion Deltas and FC Edmonton would not return next season.

Despite the hearing quickly approaching, Sehgal has been buoyed by the number of expansion candidates that have expressed interest in joining the NASL.

As the fate of the NASL rests with the court’s decision on Friday, an injunction would benefit the Cosmos the most, as they would like to get back to the business of winning.

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