Winning his first capocannoniere (literally, “head gunner”) as the leading goal scorer in Serie A this season, Juventus forward Cristiano Ronaldo became the first player to win scoring titles in top-flight soccer leagues in England, Spain and Italy. With one year left on his current contract, the global soccer icon’s long-term future with Juventus is still in question, but Ronaldo continues to score off the field with his unmatched social media following.
Ronaldo, 36, became the first person on the planet to pass a combined 500 million followers on social media platforms Instagram, Twitter and Facebook earlier this year. His postings delivered $75 million in value to sponsors in 2020 and are on track for $100 million this year, according to an analysis for Sportico by social media analytics firm Hookit.
The Portuguese footballer ranked third in Sportico’s ranking of the world’s highest-paid athletes, earning $120 million over the last 12 months, which includes $50 million off the pitch from endorsements. Sponsors flock to Ronaldo in part because of his unmatched social following. Longtime Ronaldo partners Nike, Clear, Herbalife and CR7 are always among the brands that earn the most value from his social networks. Nike, which pays Ronaldo an estimated $20 million a year, is the biggest benefactor annually.
But there are other ways to reach his half-a-billion followers, even without a Ronaldo endorsement. Jeep (jersey sponsor), Allianz (stadium naming rights) and chief Nike rival Adidas (kit partner) all extended their sponsor agreements with Juventus at hefty increases since Ronaldo joined the club in 2018. Ronaldo does not have direct relationships with any of them, but they each rank among the top eight brands for media value on Ronaldo’s social channels over the past 12 months because of the photos and videos in his Juve uniform and on the pitch in Turin. Adidas paid Juventus a special $17 million, one-time bonus under its renewal in late 2018, following the surge in global interest and jersey sales for the club after the Ronaldo signing.
“Marketers love to have a superstar of other brands on the team that they sponsor and get value from them,” said Hookit’s marketing head Roger Breum, who highlights the other side of the coin, with Adidas-endorsed Lionel Messi playing for Nike-sponsored club Barcelona. “It’s a tradeoff of what teams you’re able to sponsor versus what superstars.”
Hookit’s valuation model accounts for level of engagement (likes, shares, comments and views), engagement cost and promotional quality (how large and clearly a logo is displayed, for instance). Beyond the scale of followers, Ronaldo consistently rates highly in terms of how prominently his brands are featured, with an average promotional quality score of 35%, compared to 20% to 25% for the average athlete.
In almost all cases, Instagram features the highest levels of engagement for Ronaldo and other athletes. Witness Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappé, whose posts on the platform accounted for 94% of all his social channel interactions last month.
Soccer players are head-and-shoulders above the rest of the sports world in terms of social followers, reiterating the game’s global reach. The only athletes outside of soccer among the 15 most followed sports stars are Virat Kohli (No. 4, cricket) and LeBron James (No. 5, basketball).
But Ronaldo is in a league of his own, and the numbers are staggering. His follower count is 85% higher than PSG’s Neymar, who ranks second overall among athletes. Ronaldo has more followers than Major League Baseball, its teams and all of its athletes combined (315 million), and more than twice as many as the NHL, its teams and athletes (187 million), per Hookit. His social interactions have hovered around 1.8 billion in each of the past four years.
In December, Ronaldo posted a 30-second ad for one of his sponsors, mobile battle royale game Free Fire, which includes a Ronaldo character in the game. The video has been viewed 19.4 million times or more than twice the average viewership of the 2021 Grammy Awards. Hookit figures the media value for the Indian videogame maker was $240,000 for that single post.
Despite recent legal issues, including tax evasion (he was sentenced to probation and fined more than $20 million) and rape allegations (never formally charged but reportedly settled out of court with his accuser), Ronaldo’s profile has not suffered.
Ronaldo is truly a global phenomenon, with a fan base that reaches every corner of the planet. Brazil is the only country that accounts for as much as 10% of his followers and is trailed by the U.S. (8%), Indonesia (6%) and England (6%). Compare that to musician Justin Bieber, second among the most followed celebrities, albeit 78 million behind; he relies on the U.S. for one-quarter of his social media fan base.
“He’s created a massive media platform with limitless opportunities to continue his legacy,” said Hookit’s Breum, who points to the huge following and relevance David Beckham still enjoys in retirement. “This bodes well for Ronaldo to have a long-lasting influence with his fans.”