The Beautiful Game: Luxury brands are increasingly connecting with sports stars to further the ambition of both sides

By Neil Dolby
Feb 20, 2024

Elite sports stars have long held an irresistible attraction for adoring fans, who admire the physical prowess and mental toughness that sees athletes conquer adversity and remain at the pinnacle of their sporting endeavour. The very best are courted by the top global brands wanting to connect their product with the excellence of their sporting ambassadors.

Just last month, German fashion house Hugo Boss looked to two upcoming tennis players from the country, Noma Noha Akugue and Ella Seidel, to spearhead a push into women’s tennis wear. During the qualification rounds of the Australian Open, the young stars wore Boss black and cream sportswear, including plisse-hem dresses or skirts, technical tops and layered shorts complete with logos.

Seidel, an 18-year-old known for her powerful play from the baseline, was certainly happy to join Boss as a brand ambassador, commenting on the win-win deal: “It is a real pleasure to enter this partnership with Boss at this exciting point in my career. I admire the brand’s continuous support for tennis – and sports in general – and am looking forward to channelling Boss energy, confidence and courage into my games.”

Akugue, two years her senior, also expressed delight in the association, opining the opportunity would put women’s tennis firmly in the spotlight and help her “forge a deeper connection with my fans”. Boss’s other tennis ambassador, Italian Matteo Berrettini, was due to sport new designs from the men’s tennis capsule collection he co-created but was forced to withdraw from the tournament due to injury.

Other fashion brands are attracted by the allure and athleticism of tennis players, with Gucci recently signing Jannick Sinner to its stable. The Italian, who carries his gear in a customised Gucci monogram duffel bag, appears in a poetic mood on the Gucci website, musing as he holds a book entitled Sinner by Sinner: “Jannick Sinner is humble. He’s aiming for perfection, and he’s not scared of doing things. … If I could have one superpower, it would be playing tennis forever. My journey is only just beginning!”

China draw

Luxury brands seeking to boost their influence with China’s youth are also offering endorsement contracts to the mainland’s top athletes.

Prada has signed tennis player Wang Qiang, whilst Dior has taken on basketball player Guo Ailun. Both luxury titans view these associations as a powerful means to nurture growth and brand loyalty in a growing market segment. Some analysts believe Chinese sports stars offer a more wholesome image than their peers in pop music or film.

Flying the French flag

Fashion brands are also maximising the opportunity presented by this summer’s Paris Olympics to score more points in the sporting arena. Luxury giant LVMH, whose maisons have created trophies or designed trophy trunks for high-level competitions for years, has struck a deal to sponsor the Games and appointed a trio of French talents as Louis Vuitton Paris Olympics ambassadors – swimmer Léon Marchand, artistic gymnast Mélanie de Jesus dos Santos and fencer Enzo Lefort. Jeweller Chaumet, meanwhile, is crafting the medals.

Marvellous Messi

Part of the excitement of top-tier sport for fans is the narrow margin between success and failure; it could be the width of a post or the toe of a goalkeeper that separates winning from losing. So it proved in the 2022 World Cup Final when the outstretched leg of the Argentine goalkeeper stopped a certain winning goal in the closing stages of that epic game. The eventual victory for Argentina cemented Lionel Messi’s reputation as probably the best player to have ever graced the game of football. His mesmerising dribbling ability, low centre of gravity and perfect spatial awareness left the global audience spellbound. He is quite simply unique, a once-in-a-generation footballer.

Ranked by Forbes as the second highest-paid athlete in 2023 (behind that other international soccer icon, Cristiano Ronaldo), and in the top three in the revenue stakes for eight years running, Messi’s wide appeal is a godsend for brands with big bucks at their disposal. He tops SportsPro’s list of the world’s 50 Most Marketable Athletes.

His star attraction is such that his Instagram account is just shy of 500 million followers. After his departure from Paris Saint-Germain last year, his next club, Inter Miami, had a massive uplift in their following. The Miami side, and potentially the maestro himself, are due in Hong Kong this month for an exhibition match.

Football fever

Messi mania is why Louis Vuitton was so keen to feature him alongside Ronaldo in its advertising campaign prior to the 2022 World Cup. The duo’s combined allure meant the ad went instantly viral. A dozen years earlier, the house had employed the services of a trio of footballing greats – Pelé, Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane – in an advert.

Another footballing superstar, David Beckham, has become something of a fashion icon, and in 2015 secured a five-year multimillion-dollar deal with Kent & Curwen, the British menswear outfit offering heritage sporting style. Formerly owned by Hong Kong- based Trinity Group, Kent & Curwen previously had Beckham’s ex-England and Real Madrid teammate Michael Owen on its books.

Passion and risk

High-profile sport whips up a frenzy of passion and emotions, which brings rewards as well as risks for athletes and brands alike. Fans are desperate for success and competitors sometimes take risks, knowingly or unknowingly, that may cross the boundaries of lawful or ethical behaviour, posing huge challenges for their sponsors. Maradona, for instance, experienced a spectacular fall from grace at the 1994 World Cup after failing a drugs test. In 2016, when tennis ace Maria Sharapova tested positive for meldonium, a drug which can boost stamina and performance, sponsors Nike, Tag Heuer and Porsche quickly distanced themselves from the Russian star.

Interestingly, Nike stood by Tiger Woods in 2009 after lurid details of his extra-marital affairs were revealed to a titillated public eager for scandal. Other major brands dropped their endorsement deals with the champion golfer, but not the US sneaker and sports apparel giant. Woods had been with Nike for two decades and the deal they signed in 2000 was thought to be worth US$100 million. Despite the Woods’ sponsorship, sales of golf equipment never reached the levels of others like football, running or basketball, and Nike discontinued its golf range in 2016.

Woods is known to have a close personal relationship with Nike co-founder Phil Knight and both paid emotional tributes upon their professional parting of ways. Such are the bonds forged over sport, its power to shape minds, and the desire of brands to tap into the glory.