Superstar David Beckham’s contract with Paris Saint-Germain Football Club (PSG) is big news on many levels: More than just talent or experience, the 37-year-old midfielder promises to add some Beckham “brand” starpower to PSG, to the French Premier League more broadly, but also to French football’s Qatari investors. Indeed, it’s no secret that Qatari investments have been seriously shaking-up French football. Beckham’s new contract fits perfectly within Qatar’s long-term strategy outlined in the “Qatar National Vision 2030.”
The past two years have been eventful: In early 2012 the Qatari owned Al Jazeera sank some 380 million euro into broadcast rights for the French Premier League. In May, Qatari Sports Investment (QSI) bought out 70% of the then struggling PSG. Since his arrival in Paris, the new PSG club president – Nasser al-Khelaifi – has made no secret of his intentions to sign the great David Beckham as he reached the end of his five year contract with LA Galaxy.
Is it all about branding? David Beckham’s is 37 years old and nearing the end of his professional career – one might be inclined to think that he won’t be as omnipresent on the field or as strong a player as he would have been a few years back. That said, ESSEC’s Thierry Lardinoit – Professor of Marketing and founder of the School’s Sports Marketing Chair – would argue that we should not underestimate the competitive implications of this transfer.
“Near 19 years have passed since PSG were champion of France. The team has never won the UEFA Champions League where this year they will face Valencia CF in the second round. Even if Beckham doesn’t play every game and gets relatively limited playing time he will nevertheless lend maturity and experience to his adoptive team, on the pitch as in the locker room, during a critical time for the club.”
“This second round will pit six major European teams against each other – Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Arsenal and Bayern Munich – with only three surviving to the quarter final. Clearly, Beckham’s knowhow comes at a key moment and will help PSG seize a great opportunity if it presents itself. The same goes for the French Premier League title which has eluded PSG for too long.”
But beyond what he brings in term of competitive advantage, it’s highly probable that Qatar’s strategic vision is a driving force behind the transfer.
“David Beckham is an internationally recognizable brand”, continues Professor Lardinoit. “He is an icon in his native England as well as in the United States where he signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007. Internationally, he has some 35 million fans in Asia alone. Through his rise in the public consciousness, the David Beckham brand has come to symbolize a promise of social standing, showbiz and international stardom. And his “brand” sets itself apart by its longevity.”
Just a few social media stats to illustrate the point: “looking at Facebook, Tiger Woods has nearly 3 million ‘likes’, Beckham has 24 million, Messi 42 million and Ronaldo 53 million. What’s striking about Beckham is the longevity of his popularity. Where will Messi and Ronaldo when they are 37 years old? David Beckham has built a strong brand able to withstand the test of time. His move to donate his entire 5 month salary to charity reinforces this brand by interweaving it within the French socio-cultural fabric and emphasizing that his primary interest is sportsmanship ahead of monetary gain.”
But beyond bringing the Beckham “brand” to the Paris team, his arrival could also add some superstar glitz to the French Premier League as a whole. “However”, Professor Lardinoit warns, “this effect will mostly be felt over the long-term. If Beckham stays only five months in Paris, the effect will be limited.”
“That said, this 5 month contract follows a storyline, the kind of narrative that the media tends to favor. The story began in 2011 when a contract with PSG was almost signed, with a second, similar episode in 2012. This third episode in 2013 has culminated in the signature of a short-term contract. Will the story continue? It will certainly take new shape in the months to come.”
But what’s most striking here is how this move seems to fit with the long-term strategy of Qatar in their national repositioning on the international stage.
“Qatar aims to move from a carbon-based economy to one based on knowledge, education and communication. From this perspective, Al Jazeera and QSI have become key mechanisms within the Qatar 2030 strategy. Al Jazeera has masterfully succeeded in making itself visible and credible on the international stage. However, its leaders have been quick to realize that sport will play an essential role in making Al Jazera a global brand. This explains their efforts to get involved in the world of sports (PSG [ownership], Barcelona [sponsorship] and media rights…the complete chain of sports business) and to attract international champions: They hosted the Asian Games in 2006, are set to host , among others, the Swimming World Championships in 2014, the Handball World Championships in 2015 and the coveted FIFA World Cup in 2022. Beyond that, Qatar has also shown interest in hosting the Olympic Games in 2028 at the latest. It’s obvious that the country has chosen to invest in sport at the highest level. This past week, Nasser Al-Khelaifi said himself that Beckham would be a great ambassador for PSG. In so becoming, he will also become a legitimate ambassador for Qatar and for their ambitions in terms of international sport.”
Their biggest challenge today is ensuring a successful, well attended and star-studded World Cup in 2022. They also need to prove they can host a world-sporting event despite high summer temperatures. Easier said than done!
“Beckham is in a position to help Qatar fill those stands. His contract with PSG’s seems to fit within this logic of making Qatar more attractive, encouraging sport-tourism. We could argue that Beckham and his brand will help make Doha more international, more showbiz, more glamorous. The fact that the Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA) has once again become sponsors of PSG seems to bolster this hypothesis.”
By signing with PSG, multiple opportunities have been created: opportunities for PSG, for the French Premier League, and for Qatar’s QSI and Al Jazeera – who also see in Beckham an opportunity to expand to American markets (as the star is currently looking to invest in a franchise). – More importantly, this is an important move for the long-term positioning transformation of Qatar. In all probability, this will be more than just a short-lived communication push but a true long-term sport project that will leave a lasting legacy.