Last month, star French forward Kylian Mbappé hit the headlines for refusing to take part in some of the French national football team’s sponsorship commitments; an act of resistance that has prompted the French Football Federation (FFF) to conduct a review of the image rights arrangements in place with French national team players “as soon as possible”.

Was this simply a case of Mbappé throwing his toys out of the proverbial pram (as he is inclined to do from time to time), or does his refusal to oblige the French national team’s sponsorship obligations signal something more significant for sports sponsors and brands?

What happened with Mbappé?

In late September, Mbappé and his teammates were due to participate in a team photo as part of the FFF’s sponsorship activations ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Despite the terms of his FFF player agreement, Mbappé refused to feature in the scheduled photo-shoot on the basis that he did not want to endorse some of the FFF’s more controversial sponsors, including fast food chains and betting companies. His move was supported by several top players in the French team, who made it clear to the FFF president that they wanted to be consulted when it comes to commercial partnerships for the national team.

Mbappé’s activism naturally ruffled some feathers amongst the FFF and their affected sponsors, which led to a 45-minute meeting involving FFF president, Noel Le Graet, players Hugo Lloris, Raphael Varane and Mbappé, and France head coach, Didier Deschamps. The meeting seemingly resolved the issue for now, with all parties agreeing a change was needed and Mbappé reportedly agreeing to take part in the sponsorship obligations on this occasion. The FFF have since announced they will be reviewing the image rights provisions in national team contracts as quickly as possible.

A reminder… what are image rights? 

‘Image rights’ are, in simple terms, rights in an individual’s likeness, including their name, nickname, image, voice, and signature.

Image rights are recognised differently across various jurisdictions - some countries have specific laws preventing the use of a person’s personality for commercial purposes (including France), whilst others do not have any codified legislation that confers such protection (such as in the UK - where an aggrieved athlete will have to piece together a cause of action to prevent the unauthorised use of their image from a patchwork of statutes, common law, IP rights and regulatory protections).

Image rights are crucial for football players, as they allow players to exploit their image commercially and derive a completely separate stream of income (in addition to their salary earned through playing services) by way of granting third parties the right to use their image for marketing and promotional purposes.

How are image rights exploited in football? 

Under the agreement(s) a footballer will enter into with a club/national team, the club/national team will be granted the right to use and exploit the footballer’s ‘image rights’ – both to promote the club/national team itself, but also in order to endorse the products and services of their sponsors and other commercial partners.

The rights granted under a typical player agreement can be fairly standardised, and will normally include rights to use the player’s image in a “team context” only, with limited obligations to attend events and content capture sessions for sponsors. Star players often therefore enter into specific image rights agreements with clubs/national teams (either directly or via a specialist ‘image rights company’ they have set up for this purpose) under which they grant enhanced rights to the club/national team to use and exploit the player’s image in return for greater consideration. Players are generally also free to enter into personal agreements with sponsors, brands and other commercial partners on an individual basis (see Jack Grealish’s speculated partnership with Gucci, for example), subject to such arrangements not conflicting with the arrangements in place with their club/national team. Clubs might have approval rights over these individual deals and may even seek to share in revenues in return for seeking to source such deals for players.

The overall picture is a very complex and often overlapping web of very specific rights granted to numerous different entities, which requires careful legal drafting across the image rights provisions in each contract.

 Key takeaways for sponsors and brands following the Mbappé debacle

  • Player power: Mbappé’s activism illustrates how the star player brands – and the values that they communicate – are perhaps becoming as powerful as their more traditional corporate counterparts. Think back to the Euros in 2022, when Ronaldo’s advice for people to “drink water” instead of Coca Cola (a major sponsor of the tournament), knocked a whopping $4 billion off Coca-Cola’s market value. Players are becoming increasingly aware of their immense commercial value and may be more willing to fly in the face of club and national team sponsors and, in doing so, breach the terms of relevant player and image rights agreements (that clubs and federations may be in practice unwilling to enforce). Of course, this probably only applies to today’s top players – those with less commercial fire power might be less willing to put their head above the parapet and risk breaching contractual terms. That being said, well-advised brands may be inclined to impose tighter contractual protections in their commercial agreements with clubs/national teams that address acts of rebellion of this type - a risk that clubs and federations may ultimately seek to flow-down contractually to the players themselves.

  • Expect increased negotiationPlayers are becoming more and more cognisant of the power of their image rights - Zlatan Ibrahimović’s cryptic tweet from back in 2020 springs to mind, where he openly questioned EA Sports’ use his image rights in the popular FIFA video game franchise. As such, players may be more incentivised than ever to negotiate the terms of image rights agreements with clubs and federations, with a view of retaining more control over the ability to exploit their image and to collect a greater share of the royalties in respect of such exploitation. We recall that Mbappé’s image rights were a major subject of negotiation when he flirted with a move to Real Madrid earlier this year, and he reportedly turned down one of the most generous offers in the history of football made by the club due to his reluctance to agree to a clause that entitled the club to 50% of the profits from the exploitation of his image rights. He later re-signed with PSG on terms that reportedly enabled him to retain 100% of his sponsorship earnings.

  • Importance of mission alignment: The young footballers of today are (generally speaking) supportive of socially conscious values and initiatives (e.g., sustainability, health and wellbeing) - with Marcus Rashford’s food poverty campaign being a prime example. Rightsholders may seek to find sponsors that align with this ethos and those sponsors that conflict with these social values may find themselves increasingly side-lined (or the subject of the player power referred to above). Query whether more control being granted to footballers in their player agreements with respect to the sponsors of clubs and national teams may bring about a shift towards more progressive and socially minded sponsors and brands.

Final thoughts

What the FFF’s revised player agreement will look like is yet to be seen and raises some interesting questions – will it give players a right of consultation over prospective sponsors? Will it go as far to give players a right of veto?  Will all players receive the benefit of these rights or select “star” players? What terms might be attached to the rights? Will other football federations follow suit?

There are perhaps more questions than answers at this stage, and we’ll be following developments closely. It may be the case that individual acts of resistance against sponsorship obligations (like that exemplified by Mbappé recently) could usher in a shift in the power dynamic between players, clubs, and federations, a movement which would be of great interest to football sponsors and brands and the world of sports sponsorship more generally.