Sport/football: The transfer merry-go-round

The comms strategy behind a football transfer can be crucial to a player's reputation, find Arun Sudhaman and Cathy Wallace

Reputation hit: John Terry
Reputation hit: John Terry

Today's transfer window is big business. Much has changed since the days when football deals were concluded over a hand-shake and a cigar; transfers are now subject to the same level of scrutiny as any major financial transaction. Add in the obsession with football in this country, and it becomes easy to understand the importance of the comms strategies used by clubs and players involved in a transfer.

'The business of football is becoming as important as football itself,' says Hill & Knowlton sports MD Andy Sutherden. 'This has made the transfer window much more newsworthy than it used to be.'

Deploy the right comms strategy, and your club could nab the player of its dreams at a knock-down price. Get it wrong, and you could see your prized asset depart in a huff of ill-will. 'If you are selling a player, you don't want a rift,' says Chelsea FC comms and public affairs director Simon Greenberg. 'In terms of bringing a player in, you want to assist the transfer. That could mean being part of the negotiation process.'

The proliferation of media sources, which now include club-owned TV channels, online fan forums, social media sites and newspapers, also poses challenges for the savvy PRO. Dominic Curran, deputy MD of sports sponsorship agency Synergy, says: 'There's no live football to report on so the only story is who's going where.'

Clubs have responded by using their own media platforms to manage the message. 'It's always best to start with the fanatical supporter base and ripple the story out,' says Sutherden. 'The highest risk of negative gossip starts from the less passionate fans who are taking a little bit of info and turning it into a much bigger story on their social media platforms.'

Ultimately, the way in which transfers now dominate the media agenda calls for some sophisticated PR thinking. With this in mind, PRWeek ran the rule over six summer blockbuster deals, complete with exclusive research by Braben Sport/Football Fans Census into how the players' reputations fared.


Key PR players

Manchester United Director of comms Phil Townsend

Real Madrid General commercial director Begona Sanz

Agent Jorge Mendes

The battle over controversial yet brilliant winger, winker and whinger Cristiano Ronaldo was the first big football transfer story of the season, culminating in his £80m move to Real Madrid.

Rumours linking the Portuguese superstar and the erstwhile Galacticos had been flying around since 2007. Sir Alex Ferguson was famously quoted saying he would not sell Real Madrid 'a virus' but in June this year the Spanish giant made an offer United could not refuse, not least because of the player himself.

'The club was very aware Ronaldo had said it was his dream to play for Real,' says James Clifford, co-founder of Clifford French. 'He was very vocal in saying he wanted to go.'

From Manchester United's perspective, director of comms Phil Townsend says the challenge was staying ahead of the media. 'The bid came through in the evening; by 9.30am the following morning we had a statement out.' The club took the decision to reveal the amount and quash rumours that the deal was dependent upon Real scooping trophies. 'The key thing was to communicate that the money came in one payment,' says Townsend. 'We felt we got the price we wanted and terms that were beneficial to the club.'

It is likely Ronaldo had been grooming his image for some time in preparation for Real to come knocking. The club is famed for signing global superstars and Ronaldo has, in recent years, turned himself into just that. 'There is no bigger player in football than Ronaldo,' says Clifford. 'He has been built up as a brand.' A string of post-transfer stories linking the player to, among others, Hollywood heiress Paris Hilton, further bolstered his international playboy image.


Cristiano Ronaldo is not a popular bunny among UK football fans. Just 4% felt he conducted himself well, and 35% said he behaved very poorly. But UK fans never thought much of Ronaldo in the first place - 50% said their opinion of him was about the same, with a further 23% saying their opinion was much less favourable.


Key PR players

Manchester City PR chief Vicky Kloss. Club owner Abu Dhabi United Group retains Edelman

Chelsea Director of comms and public affairs Simon Greenberg

Agent Aaron Lincoln

Ironically, the deal that attracted most attention during the summer was not consummated, with Manchester City's billionaires failing in their audacious attempt to land England captain John Terry.

City's comms strategy was a refined variant on a traditional favourite. The longer Terry kept his silence, the more widespread the interpretation that he was angling for a move.

'City used the media very cleverly,' says Synergy deputy MD Dominic Curran. 'Some of the comments (Man City manager) Mark Hughes made could have been construed as slightly unsettling Terry.'

Terry eventually broke his silence to confirm he would be staying at Chelsea. Greenberg refuses to accept the long silence was the wrong policy. 'As long as you are certain your line is right, you have to stick to it,' he says. 'We were not prepared to give a running commentary. We feel the appropriate course of action was the one we took.'

The announcement was made via Chelsea's website and TV channel.

The story also illustrated the increasing respect being afforded to the Manchester City project, after negative coverage of its attempt to sign Brazilian superstar Kaka earlier in the year.

'When City went for Kaka, it became a joke,' says a source familiar with City's comms operation. 'But people are now realising it is deadly serious.'


Terry's reputation slipped, with 32% of UK football fans viewing the Chelsea veteran less favourably now. 42% disapproved of his conduct, compared with 27% who felt he conducted himself positively.


Key PR players

Tottenham Hotspur In-house PR led by executive director Donna-Marie Cullen

Sunderland Media and comms manager Louise Wanless

Darren Bent's £10m move from Tottenham Hotspur to Sunderland is probably football's first 'twansfer'.

The striker demonstrated the power of social media by taking to Twitter to vent his discontent about the pace of negotiations. Attacking his club chairman Daniel Levy, the action cost Bent a hefty fine, but the 25-year-old later admitted it helped him complete the transfer.

'It will lead to players being able to influence clubs more on their own movements,' says Synergy deputy MD Dominic Curran.

It also demonstrated that players are also publishers, with the ability to generate their own messages in accordance with their own agendas. 'The media are loving the idea of fans and players being publishers,' explains H&K sports MD Andy Sutherden.

In the wake of Bent's 'twansfer', many wonder if clubs will tighten up their social media policies. Spurs denies any such moves are afoot.

'Not only is it impossible to control this, it is also not something we would want to do,' says Spurs executive director Donna-Marie Cullen. 'Our policy has always been and will continue to be that we expect players not to bring the name of the club into disrepute in any way and to behave in a professional manner. This expectation applies across all forms of media.'


49% of respondents felt Bent conducted himself poorly during the transfer window, compared with just 15% who approved.

33% had a less favourable opinion of the player. Just 10% saw their opinions of Bent improve.


Key PR players

Manchester City PR chief Vicky Kloss. Club owner Abu Dhabi United Group retains Edelman

Manchester United Director of comms Phil Townsend

Agent Kia Joorabchian is advised by Phil Hall

It is rare for a player at the peak of his career to leave the red half of Manchester for their bitter blue rivals, but Argentinean Carlos Tevez trod this very path in one of the summer's most contentious deals.

Much was made of Tevez's dissatisfaction with his treatment by Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson. His agent Kia Joorabchian, aided and abetted by PR man Phil Hall, played a pivotal role in shaping the story - which eventually ended with Tevez's arrival at Manchester City.

'Joorabchian wants to be known by professional players as the man who can get the best deal for them,' says a PR insider involved in the deal.

'Our position is always to make sure the player's reputation doesn't get tainted by the wild rumours,' says Hall.

The Tevez deal illustrated the role agents now play in transfer deals. It also revealed a considerable rift developing between Tevez and Ferguson. 'The problem for United is that Tevez had fan power,' adds the source. 'But I'm not sure what more it could have done. What must it be like trying to brief Sir Alex Ferguson?'


43% of UK football fans thought Tevez conducted himself poorly or worse. 38% said their opinion of Tevez was less favourable after the transfer.


Key PR players

Newcastle United Head of media Gary Oliver

Manchester United Director of comms Phil Townsend

Agent Wasserman Media Group

Michael Owen's free transfer from relegated and shambolic Newcastle United to champions Manchester United takes the phrase 'landing on your feet' to a whole new level.

The injury-prone striker, a former Real Madrid player and England's third highest scorer of all time, was rumoured to be in talks with lowly Hull and Stoke before Sir Alex Ferguson brought him back to the top of the Premiership.

Much was made of the 34-page brochure the Wasserman Media Group sent out extolling the virtues of its client. 'There was negative press about how injury-prone Owen was, but this reminded prospective buyers about his impressive career record,' says Ian Foster, editor of Match of the Day magazine. 'It seemed a desperate tactic, but Owen was getting bad press.'

The brochure, a tactic employed by lower-league players but virtually unheard of in a player of Owen's calibre, drew attention to his qualities.

'It achieved an enormous amount of coverage, with media and fans alike defending his skills,' says Rachel Froggatt, director of sport at Braben.


Owen was the only player to come out of the transfer window with his reputation boosted, not diminished. In total 41% of UK football fans thought he conducted himself very well, and a further 27% felt he conducted himself well. 26% said their opinion of the player was more favourable following the transfer, and a further 13% said their opinion was much more favourable.


Key PR players

Arsenal FC Head of comms Amanda Docherty

Manchester City PR chief Vicky Kloss. Club owner Abu Dhabi United Group retains Edelman

Agent Phil Smith

Togo international Emmanuel Adebayor's £25m move from Arsenal to Manchester City stands out as the summer's smoothest deal.

PR professionals point to the deal as an example of harmonised messaging. H&K sports MD Andy Sutherden says: 'That deal was agreed in 20 minutes, a rare example of club, player, agent and departing club all being aligned behind a common goal.'

Arsenal FC head of comms Amanda Docherty notes the club's general policy is to not engage with transfer speculation: 'It may push up a player's price or alert other clubs to the player.'

'The quieter it is in the transfer build-up, the bigger the publicity is when you get a player signed,' says a source involved in the Adebayor transfer.

Perhaps the only fly in the ointment where this deal was concerned was Sir Alex Ferguson's allegation that Adebayor had been 'desperate' to join either his club or Chelsea.


A remarkable 59% felt Adebayor conducted himself poorly or worse during the transfer, compared with just 8% who approved of the Togo star's behaviour. Similarly, the deal led to a less favourable opinion of the player from 50% of the fans polled - compared with just 4% whose opinions of him improved.

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