Suarez bite: the real impact

Published 13 May 2013 By: Charles Maurice

David Cameron

Much has been written since the FA handed down a 10 game ban about the proportionality of response and the impartiality of the independent panel set up to investigate the Suarez incident. However, it is worth taking a moment to consider the political and commercial consequences of Suarez’s latest transgression.

Short of a public lynching, it is quite hard to criticise any sort of punishment where one human being bites another. Nonetheless, the FA has found itself in an awkward position in its dealings with Luis Suarez’s latest transgression. Much has been written since the FA handed down a 10 game ban about the proportionality of response and the impartiality of the independent panel set up to investigate the Suarez incident (to the extent that “man bites another man’s arm on live TV” needs investigation). It is evident that the FA has residual issues with which it needs to deal and this incident clearly comes at a challenging time for an organisation seeking to restore legitimacy. In the wake of the Suarez and Terry scandals of last year, the FA has inadvertently set a rod for its back for disciplinary matters, almost amounting to a no-win situation – too strong a penalty risked ridiculing its 2012 racism responses, with too weak a response failing to satisfy the public outcry attracted by an awful piece of behaviour.

The issue of political interference in sport has also raised its head here (see article)  for a general view on this). Liverpool Manager, Brendan Rogers, has been forthright in his views that in providing an opinion on this incident, David Cameron has (intentionally or otherwise) influenced the outcome of the independent panel hearing the Suarez case. It is hard to disagree with this sentiment, particularly given that the government has refused to comment on sporting matters in the past with an arguably far greater political significance. The suggestion that the FA ought simply be left to deal with this incident without political interference is not an unwelcome one.

I shall leave the discussion of the FA disciplinary processes for another forum however, as whichever view one takes, the fact remains that on-pitch “non-footballing” incidents (whatever they may be) have a far greater fall-out that can be remedied by a 10 match ban or a fine. For the interested lawyer, the impact of such incidents from a sports marketing perspective is worth noting and Adidas’ (with whom Suarez has a kit deal) response candidly illustrates the potential for issues like this to trigger a commercial melt-down:

"Adidas takes this type of incident very seriously and does not condone Luis Suárez's behaviour… We will be reminding him of the standards we expect from our players. Luis has admitted his actions were unacceptable and we support the way Liverpool are planning to handle the situation."

Clearly this is morality clause territory, and what to do next poses quite a conundrum for the relevant sponsor brand. Tiger Woods’ return to the top of the world golf rankings has encouraged sports brands to think twice about taking swift action for breach of a morality clause – there is, after all, always a chance that the relevant sports star’s reputation will be restored in time (usually through a mixture of sporting performance and suitable public atonement) and a patient, behind closed doors approach may well pay off in the long run - what better than to be the brand that has stuck with the sports star through the tough times.  Adidas’ response probably represents something akin to a holding response here - Mr. Suarez can count himself lucky that his market value is currently sufficiently buoyant for him to receive a slap on the wrist rather than an immediate contractual termination, but this is not to say that this will be the end of the matter. A prudent brand owner might consider reserving its position on such a breach, or storing up the breach for a subsequent contract re-negotiation.  Not quite time for him to pick up the phone to another sports brand then, but certainly Mr. Suarez’s punishment is likely to extend beyond the 10 game ban in real terms, as he will have put Adidas sufficiently on notice to monitor his value as an asset. Whether this translates directly into further action remains to be seen, but the risk remains.

Similar to this is the effect on the Liverpool brand, and the carefully crafted market position that the Fenway Sports Group have been careful to nurture since the Suarez/Evra PR disaster. From a marketing perspective, the Liverpool response has been an interesting one to watch, and the value of their protests against Suarez’s ban from the FA has been unclear – given the blatant evidence against Suarez, a strategy of containment and contrition would have appeared more useful. Damage will have been done, and club commercial partners will be carefully watching their exposure as a result, a fact that will not have escaped the Liverpool owners.

To this end, the employer/employee relationship between the club and a star footballer is clearly an unusual one, and it is unlikely that Liverpool will be able to pass any of the financial elements of the commercial fall-out from Suarez’s actions directly onto the player himself, if indeed such elements are immediately quantifiable at all.  This leaves the club with the option of (i) forcing the player to make amends by upping his commitment to the club on the pitch; or (ii) selling the player at a time when his footballing prowess is arguably at its peak. Whether Suarez is sufficiently minded to knuckle down and repay Liverpool for its support remains to be seen – a playing ban until October is a long time sitting in the stands and it is not Suarez’s commitment or performances that have been called into question. The real test will be if an offer appears this summer – with the UEFA Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations looming, a bankable large sum of money for a problem player begins to look rather attractive.

As with all successful contractual relationships though, the key to resolving the issues between player and club will likely to be through effective relationship management. Curiously, how this will play out is unclear as neither side has a particularly strong bargaining position – Suarez’s actions have partially robbed him of the strength that comes with star player status, whilst Liverpool needs to tread carefully in how it treats a player who has been instrumental in any success that has come to the team on the pitch. So it may yet be that the two sides can find a way forward together, and there are certainly examples from the past where club and player have informally resolved their differences to emerge stronger for it.

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Charles Maurice

Charles Maurice

Charlie is a senior associate at Stevens & Bolton LLP and specialises in the sports, media and entertainment sectors. Charlie advises on a wide range of sporting issues and has particular experience in the motor racing and football industries. 

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