Sports finance expert on working with Jorge Mendes, Cristiano Ronaldo and the future of commercial deals

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Goal gets the inside track on the future of commercial deals and working with Jorge Mendes from sports finance expert Rahul Mehta

Where would football be without deals? Every day a new agreement is made in the sports world, from transfer deals to loan moves and multi-million-pound sponsorships involving the top players. Those on the outside rarely get to hear genuine insight from the movers and shakers taking part in business which keeps the riches flowing throughout the game.

The biggest clubs are now buying shareholding stakes in clubs around the world, players are investing in projects off the field and social media is changing the way commercial deals are negotiated. Rahul Mehta works with some of the biggest names in world football having negotiated deals on behalf of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho.

To find out more about intricacies of deals and why clubs are seeking to globalise their fanbase further, Mehta spoke to Goal and revealed all.

“We created a sports company called Obsidian Sports Management which fully formed 18 months ago,” Mehta told Goal.

“It was a coming together of ex-professional footballers, one of them being former Middlesbrough and Aston Villa player George Boateng. We have another partner Kaldip Sunner who has been a registered agent for the past 10 or 12 years. He actually helped discover Falcao many years ago but, unfortunately, at that time nobody thought he’d be that great! 

“We’re doing a lot in South America - and now we’re doing consultancy taking clubs into the Africa and India regions. We are doing sponsorship for clubs, players not just in football - in others sports like Formula 1 and Formula E as well. 

“We’re being approached quite often now by clubs who want to buy stakes in other clubs across Europe or even in Africa and India to have them as feeder clubs to develop players, and hopefully sell them on for profit or to come in the club one day. 

“We get a lot of enquiries wanting to go into India for instance, because they’re seeing there’s a middle class there with disposable income. They can entice fans to support their club, buy their merchandise, follow them on the TV and hopefully buy tickets to the matches one day. Hopefully, by doing things like that we’ll eventually see more Asian and Indian footballers play in the Premier League.”

Mehta and George Boateng

Chelsea recently completed the signing of American international Christian Pulisic from Borussia Dortmund for a fee in the region of £58m ($76m). The cynics out there suggested that it was a move primarily based on Pulisic’s nationality which would give the Blues further weight in the US market, and Mehta thinks the trend of clubs targeting certain nationalities with the aim of boosting their commercial weight is likely to continue.

“For Chelsea to pay £56m for a player who is 20 years old... clearly he has talent, but yes, there’s another angle there where Chelsea can tap into American sponsors. 

“These days the clubs not only look at if the player is talented but what other commercial angles they can do through that. Certainly being a US player they’ll be able to tap into big US corporates. This has been happening for a very long time. Now you are going to see more clubs getting certain nationalities, be it Chinese, Indian or African, and have them in their playing side so they can leverage where those players are from. 

“For an example, if an Indian player came to the Premier League from India the amount of following that club would have would be huge and they’d get a lot of corporates to start following them. I do think going forward clubs will try to exploit them more.”

Rahul Mehta and Jose Mourinho

Mehta has been involved in setting up football academies in India and believes the development of Indian football can be improved with increased investment at grassroots level. He suggests that an Indian player starring in the Premier League may not be as far off as some may think.

“India produces some of the best cricket players in the world so they can do this with football and other sports. It’s just that at the moment the grassroots infrastructure is not as good as it should be. Either the government needs to put more money into it or more private partnerships like clubs coming to India and building these academies could help. 

“I would say Indian football is currently how the MLS was 20 years ago. It’s slowly increasing in popularity, training techniques and the top league has a lot of foreign players and coaches which really raised the profile. 

“Now they’ve decided to focus on building a younger generation who can forge a career out of football. I think there will be one or two players in the next five to ten years who could come to the Premier League and do very well.”

Jorge Mendes is described as "the titan of professional soccer representation" by Forbes. He is perhaps the most famous football agent in world football and boasts clients in almost every major European league, from Ronaldo and David de Gea to James Rodriguez and Diego Costa. Mehta is a close friend of the Portuguese and has negotiated deals on behalf of his clients in the past.

“I first met Jorge two years ago to discuss a club takeover,” recalls Mehta. 

“A few of us were there including ex-Barcelona president Joan Laporta and Hristo Stoichkov. At that meeting we didn’t discuss anything about the club we were meant to discuss, he just told me about every transfer deal he had done which was quite interesting actually! 

“After we had finished he said to me ‘I like you, we can do a lot of things together’. We kept in touch and because of that we’ve worked on a number of sponsorship deals for a number of his players, notably Cristiano Ronaldo, but we’ve done things for David de Gea, Falcao and Bernardo Silva. 

“He rings me if he wants help with clubs who are wanting to sell and we help him with looking at the finances at those clubs. With the players, it’s mainly sponsorship deals. He’s a very professional, hospitable, generous man.”

Mehta (centre) with Jorge Mendes (far right)

Real Madrid lost over one million social media followers after Ronaldo’s move to Juventus last summer. The power that certain players have over clubs gives them significant market values and an ability to negotiate commercial deals on a huge scale. The 33-year-old has an array of investments designed to continue his revenue stream post-retirement - a sign of an intelligent player who has the right advisors around him.

“Ronaldo is a brand. It’s phenomenal the number of followers that he has on social media. He’s involved in so many things from hotels to underwear. They’ve really cornered everything. This is a smart footballer because he realises he has another few years at the top. I think he can probably play until 40 but if he gets a bad injury that might change. 

“He’s doing so many things outside of football, making so much money that he’s going to be so well looked after when he retires. I don’t see Ronaldo being a pundit or coach so I think he’ll grow on his investments after he’s retired. The couple of times I’ve had dinner with him I never talk about football with him. The last time I saw him it was actually about charity work and he has to be commended for the amount of charity work he’s involved in.”

We’ve all seen adverts featuring players and sponsored posts on social media, but players don’t always say yes to deals even if there is big money on the table. Mehta recalls the story of a high profile Premier League player turning down a significant sum of money because of excessive demands.

“We’ve been working very closely with Delacour watches. They’re very expensive, not everyone likes them because they’re very brash but they’re also niche. 

“A lot of players like that because they want to be associated with brands a lot of people on the high street haven’t heard of. To a lot of the players, the financial package is actually the last thing they want to do. 

“They want to see if the brand fits with their lifestyle, whether they like the design and build the financial package around that. I had one player I gave a proposal to and the first thing he said was ‘I want £1m and then I’ll sign up’ - obviously that’s not going to happen."

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The influx of cash from TV and commercial deals keeps the Premier League wheel spinning. Generally, it’s the biggest players who continue to recoup vast sums through commercial deals which, according to Mehta, are now more difficult to secure than in the past.

“Nowadays to do commercial deals is more difficult than it used to be. Before, sponsors and brands used to throw a lot of money at things and not see how it’s going to work out for them. Now with social media, they want to target more, what kind of social following does he have? How do we penetrate those followers to get a return on our money?

"For the biggest footballers we’re going to see big deals happening because of their social followers. For smaller players it’s going to be more targeted and maybe they want to get more cash upfront. A player will be paid depending on how many sales the brand gets through social media - and that’s the biggest change we’ve seen.”