Did no-one tell Real Madrid the world was in a recession? In a climate of belt-tightening and general gloom, the club splashed out £80m on Cristiano Ronaldo. This may sound a huge amount, but the club will easily make that back in sponsorship and exploitation of the Ronaldo brand.
Sports PR and sponsorship is big business. Andy Sutherden, MD of sports marketing and sponsorship at Hill & Knowlton, estimates global sponsorship to be worth about £5bn a year - an increase of 38 per cent since 2000. 'Eighty per cent of global sponsorship is in sport,' he points out. 'The need for sports PR to become a more robust professional discipline will continue.'
Since November 2008, three PR agencies have launched dedicated sports PR practices - Weber Shandwick, Cake and Braben - and the number of specialist sports PR agencies is on the rise. Rachel Froggatt, director of sport at Braben, says: 'Sport is a global language that all can understand, regardless of background.'
Scott Bowers, co-head of sport, Weber Shandwick, says: 'The UK has a huge appetite for sport. It provides a bit of escapism.'
This year, he says, an extra one million fans worldwide watched the Superbowl. Four billion watched the Beijing Olympics. Tapping into these audiences can transform the fortunes of a brand, and sponsorship can provide longevity of recognition.
But the main reason brands are cottoning on to sports PR is that there is always something going on - from World Cups and Olympic Games to Royal Ascot, Wimbledon and the Ashes. Sport has become front-page news in its own right.
Steve Martin, CEO of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, which is working with Wayne Rooney and Coca-Cola on the Street Striker concept, says: 'Sport is news 24/7. It never stops, and brands have really woken up to that. The growth in sports PR over the past five years has been phenomenal.'
It may be impossible to pin down specific people or events that turned sport from a national pastime into a global multi-billion-pound industry, but all of the following certainly played a part
PREMIER LEAGUE FOOTBALL
Since its birth in 1992, the Premier League has changed the face of football both in the UK and around the world. It turned players into super-celebrities sharing red carpets, and beds, with musicians, film stars and models.
James Clifford, co-founder of sport and entertainment consultancy Clifford French, says: 'The repackaging of the top division, financed by a massive broadcast deal with Sky Sports, turned it into the most popular league in the world and a huge global product.'
Jack Melling, account executive, Loud Group, adds: 'From that moment on, there was more interest in footballers than ever because of their money and lifestyle.'
Footballers, such as Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard, became just as likely to appear in gossip columns and on the front pages of newspapers for their actions off the field as they were to appear in the sports section for achievements on it.
Andy Sutherden of Hill & Knowlton says lager brand Carling's eight-year sponsorship of the Premier League defined a new era of brand association and promotion previously limited to a TV ad slot in the middle of a big game: 'The Carling Premiership became a brand in its own right. What Carling did with football was discover a more effective way of talking to its audience.'
By 2010, world number one golfer Tiger Woods is expected to become the first-ever sporting billionaire. The 33-year-old's achievements to date rank him among the most successful golfers of all time. According to Forbes magazine, the world's highest-paid athlete for the eighth year in a row has made a cool US$110m over the past 12 months.
To put that into perspective, the same magazine estimated David Beckham only made US$42m. And Woods took eight months off during that time to recover from knee surgery.
As a young black man, Woods has broken down stereotypes of golf as a sport for older, white, upper-class men and acted as an icon for young people and minorities. 'Tiger Woods is the most globally recognised sportsman on the planet,' says James Clifford, co-founder of Clifford French. 'He has made the game cool, which would have been unthinkable for a golfer 15 years ago.'
Dan Clifford, director of Haslimann Taylor, agrees: 'Tiger Woods has rewritten the rulebook and his global appeal has shown that sports stars can be used to market any product.'
Companies fall over themselves to be associated with Formula 1. 'Brands can tell their story through sporting success,' says Andy Sutherden of Hill & Knowlton. The publicity afforded to technology companies such as HP and Intel, tyre companies (remember the Goodyear vs Bridgestone years?) and other brands simply cannot be found anywhere else. 'If a product is good enough for the Ferrari F1 team, it will be good enough for your car,' says Sutherden. The glamorous lifestyle surrounding the sport makes young, good looking drivers such as Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button ideal ambassadors for luxury, upmarket, stylish brands. 'The world's biggest brands want to get involved and be associated with F1,' says Jack Melling, MD of Loud Group. 'This money has allowed it to grow into a global industry that is recognised worldwide.'
As Victoria Fuller, board account director at Pitch PR, puts it: 'He was the first front-page footballer.' Becks is the complete package - good-looking, talented, a style icon, a family man, married to the most popular member of 90s girl band the Spice Girls.
Before Becks, there were other great football characters such as George Best, but outside the sports pages, he tended to hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
'In some places, Beckham is almost better known for being a fashion icon than he is for being a footballer,' says Fuller. Becks was also one of the first sports stars to secure lucrative sponsorship deals with non-sporting brands, such as Gillette.
'That was the first time a global brand acknowledged it could look at the world of sport, and one of its leading icons, to represent it,' says Andy Sutherden of Hill & Knowlton.
The next big thing? The developing trends likely to shape the future of sports PR
Despite all the negative publicity surrounding the spiralling costs of hosting the Olympics, when 2012 rolls around the smart brands will be basking in the feelgood factor the Games will create. The event should also coincide with the UK's recovery from recession, creating a 'halo' effect for brands associated with it.
The introduction of Twenty20 has revolutionised cricket for fans of 'Freddie' Flintoff and the like. 'It can reach out to so many more people now as it's a three-hour match, not a five-day game,' says Laura Mashiter, head of sports at Tangerine PR. 'Cricket is not quite global as the US does not play it, but it will be interesting to see how it develops further.'
'Sailing used to be a remote sport, but with advances in technology you can watch the action at home as it happens in the middle of the ocean,' says Gill Gould, MD of Carswell Gould. 'Add to this personalities such as Ellen MacArthur and the success of Ben Ainslie and Team GB at the Beijing Olympics.' Victoria Fuller of Pitch PR says sailing, a sport at which Britain excels, attracts far larger audiences than people think.
BRANDS' OWN EVENTS
Rather than waiting for the next World Cup, Olympics or Ashes series, brands will increasingly begin to create their own events.
Red Bull has already had great success with the Red Bull Air Race, and international series of air races. There is no equivalent event with its own organising body.
And Wayne Rooney's Street Striker, a search for hot football talent, is in its second series.
Triathlon is one of the fastest-growing sports in the UK, says Victoria Fuller, board account director at Pitch PR. It is accessible and it attracts celebrity interest. Both Jenson Button and Jennifer Lopez have recently completed triathlons. 'I also wouldn't rule out extreme sports,' says Fuller. 'They are ideal for digital platforms such as YouTube.'
Then there is darts, which James Clifford of Clifford French says is gaining wider appeal. 'There is a new generation of young players who are more glamorous and athletic, and the way Sky packages it is fantastic,' he argues.
BRITISH STARS - AND WIMBLEDON
Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Andy Murray, Rebecca Adlington, Laura Robson, Wayne Rooney - the list goes on. The UK has plenty of marketable sporting talent. And there is Wimbledon. It is one of the few major global sporting events without a title sponsor, and PR professionals wonder how long it can hold off. 'If the All England Club took on a title sponsor it could transform British tennis,' says Natalie Luke, associate director of sport, Shine Communications.