Image is Everything

When Andrew Agassi said ‘Image is Everything’ few would see that the world of sport would repay the talents of the its budding stars so well as it does today.


When we speak of sports personality’s image rights we are not usually talking just about their image. Instead, the phrase encompasses a much broader range of characteristics, including the individuals names, nickname, signature, voice and mannerisms or personal traits. Despite the fact that the UK does not recognise any specific image right, there is an increasing awareness of the commercial value of the images of sportsmen and women and of endorsement by them.

The story that hit the headlines recently was Gareth Bales ‘Heart Celebration’ which has become an approved trademark with the Intellectual Property Office which allows him to use his logo on clothing, footwear, and head gear and could make an additional £3m a year from his “love heart” trademark.

This is by no means a unique case within the sports industry and is a strategy that is becoming more commonplace as time goes on. In tennis there are similar examples with Roger Federer’s ‘RF’ and Rafael Nadal’s Spanish bull’s head images. It was also recently reported that the face of Wimbledon Champion Andy Murray has been super imposed on Murray Mints.

The major changes regarding image rights started to impact on the world of sport in 2002, when motor racing ace, Eddie Irvine, won a case against Talk Radio for manipulating a photograph of him to make it look like he endorsed the service. This earned him only a few thousand pounds compensation but has lead to great financial gains for other sports stars as a result, with that case proving to be a landmark ruling. This forced the UK’s legal system to confirm the rights of all well known people to control the use of their image and hence, recognise their right to payment for the endorsement of products and services.

In the wake of the Irvine case, businesses looking to use sports personalities to help sell their products are becoming increasingly aware of the need to secure bona fide licenses from those individuals whose images they are looking to use.

This recognition has propelled lots of sports stars to acknowledge the amount of money to be made from such endorsements and merchandising and now seems to be propagating their increasing desire to retain the rights to the exploitation of their own images.

Looking back to the 1980s and 1990s, by and large footballer’s image rights were managed and owned by the club of the player which meant that the player never received any of the royalty payments for promotional materials or endorsements. For example, John Hendrie who, throughout his 19 year career, his shirt identity was predominantly ‘Hendrie, 7’ but he, together with a vast majority of professional footballers at the time, were unable to register this as a trademark, unlike players that are top of the league in today’s game. Players such as Rooney, Van Persie and Bale are all able to register the numbers and names that they play in, and hence, receive royalties for every item sold possessing their trademark.

In addition, in 2001 David Beckham negotiated a deal with Manchester United, earning him £20,000 –a-week on top of his £70,000-a-week pay for his image rights, a practise that has now become commonplace.. Also, as sport becomes more and more commercial, players are even attempting to trademark goals that they have scored in order to earn royalties each time they are repeated.

Due to increased commercial potential and awareness by top sportspeople and their advisors, the top percentage of sportsmen and women will continue to reap great financial rewards by monopolising on their image and this will be driven by continuing advances in digital, cable and satellite television, which compete to air sporting challenges and hence, have a huge impact upon the sports industry as a whole. Again this can be highlighted by the ‘trademark’ images of Usain Bolts ‘lightning bolt’ pose and Mo Farah’s ‘mobot’ signature pose.

Such financial gains and commercial benefits are hitting an increased number of sports. Tennis, Athletics, Motor Racing and Horse Racing are increasing their share of commercial equity through the use of sponsorship and TV coverage, which help to raise the profile of the sports and the contenders, and hence, increases the value of image rights for the sports personalities that have been created as a result. In addition, top players in the world of rugby and golf are also reaping large financial rewards for their sporting image.

Four times Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova is also making large financial gains from her image. It was recently reported that she had asked the Supreme Court in Florida to allow her to change her name on a short term basis in an attempt to raise brand awareness for the sweet company that she set up last year. Sharapova wanted to be officially known as Maria ‘Sugarpova’ for the duration of the US Open. Although she had to withdraw from the tournament through injury, it was her intention to display the Sugarpova lip symbol, a pair of red lips, on her clothing during the tournament. Therefore, this highlights, that it is no longer purely sporting ability that today’s sports stars are paid for, but the image that they have built up as a result.

It is fair to say that the “value” of image rights very much depends on the profile of the sportsperson and the extent to which they are commercially relevant outside the realms of the select few top sportsmen. While many image profiles and arrangements are unlikely to ever grab headlines in the same way as Sharapova, Bolt or Bale, their significant will no doubt continue to grow.

Jim Pearson – Sports Consultant