Brazilian soccer phenom Neymar curled a shot inside the near post and leaped into the air. The goal that helped his Santos team win the 2011 South American club championship wowed five executives from Japanese video game company Konami Corp., who were in the stands.
“The way that the crowd was reacting and the next couple days all the media talking about how great Neymar was, he reminded us of Messi when he was a lot younger,” said Erik Bladinieres, Konami’s director for Latin America, referring to FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, the three-time top world player of the year. “That’s when we decided we wanted to have him.”
Konami struck a deal to put Neymar da Silva Santos Jr. and his signature Mohawk on the cover of its Pro Evolution Soccer game throughout the region, joining a parade of multinationals including Nike Inc., Volkswagen AG and Unilever NV that have signed the 20-year-old star. Eike Batista, Brazil’s richest man, recruited Neymar for his venture with IMG Worldwide Inc. that will steer his career in Brazil and beyond.
It’s the beyond part that could prove tricky. While Neymar is the top-paid player in Brazil -- the host country of the 2014 World Cup -- he’s yet to prove himself against the world’s top talent, so a premature move to Europe could jeopardize his money machine, said Stephen Greyser, a Harvard Business School marketing professor specializing in sports business.
Neymar has already had a taste of the perils involved. He failed to score in the 2012 Olympics semifinals and final, which Brazil lost to underdog Mexico. In the Tokyo final of the 2011 Club World Cup, Neymar’s team went scoreless, while Messi had two goals in Barcelona’s 4-0 win.
“Why would he want to risk going to Europe now and potentially demystifying the mystique?” Greyser said in an interview last month in Boston.
Neymar was born in Mogi das Cruzes, a factory city outside Sao Paulo, with soccer in his veins. His father, a former lower-division player, worked several jobs simultaneously while teaching his son the game. He enrolled in the academy at Santos, making his debut for the club made famous by Pele, one of his role models, at the age of 17. On Oct. 17, he played his 200th game for the club, scoring his 119th career goal.
He is well-positioned in Brazil, which for the second straight year topped consulting firm A.T. Kearney’s ranking of the hottest emerging retail markets. Last season he made an estimated 13.8 million euros ($18 million) a year in salary and endorsements, according to France Football magazine, making him the 13th best-paid soccer player in the world. The 25-year-old Messi tops the list at 33 million euros, yet London-based SportsPro magazine picked Neymar as the world’s most marketable athlete in 2012.
Last month, the London-based newspaper The Sun said Manchester United of the English Premier League was the latest top European club to make an offer for Neymar, at 38 million pounds ($60 million). Santos denied the report, and Neymar said it’s too early for him to follow the path of almost every Brazilian star and transfer to a European club.
“Why didn’t you go to Europe, dude?” a friend asks the shirtless Neymar on a beach in an ad that ran this year for Guarana Antarctica, a soft drink made by Cia. de Bebidas das Americas. It then cuts to Neymar in thick winter wear struggling to perform his fancy footwork in a snowstorm and losing the ball. Then back to the beach, where a grinning Neymar responds “Not now” before boogieing with bikini-clad Brazilians.
Neymar’s managers point out that Europe is suffering an economic crisis that could hurt his immediate earning prospects. Brazil in contrast has overtaken Italy and the U.K. to become the world’s sixth-largest economy. While growth has slowed since 2010, when gross domestic product expanded by 7.5 percent, the economy is picking up again and analysts surveyed by the central bank expect a 4 percent expansion next year.
“It’s a difficult economic moment in Europe,” said Alan Adler, chief executive officer for IMX Talent, Batista’s joint venture with New York-based IMG. “Brazil is still growing, strongly or not.”
In Brazil, where his image pops up on billboards, subway posters and magazine ads as well as TV, Neymar faces a different risk: overexposure.
“Neymar today is oversold” in his homeland, Adler said in an interview in Rio de Janeiro. “We have to wait for some contracts to end to be able to start looking for new partnerships, more planned partnerships that add value.”
While sponsorships were a factor, the main driver behind his decision to stay at Santos was his contract that goes through the World Cup, Eduardo Musa, the player’s career manager at the club, said in a telephone interview.
Musa dismissed concerns Neymar’s brand was oversold, adding that new endorsement contracts are always possible and the player hasn’t received any interesting proposals.
A strong performance as the homegrown hero in the World Cup “has the potential to promote him to a much larger stage,” Don Garber, commissioner of Major League Soccer, the main professional division in the U.S., said in a Sept. 6 interview at Bloomberg’s Sports Business Summit in New York. “There’s no reason to rush it. When he’s ready, when the market’s ready to adopt him as one of the next world greats, he’ll make a move.”
Neymar wasn’t available to be interviewed due to game schedules, according to an official who handles media inquiries for him at Santos and who declined to be identified in line with the club’s policy.
Neymar’s 143-pound (65-kilogram) frame is slight for a star striker. That didn’t stop Araraquara, Brazil-based Lupo SA from featuring him in underwear ads. His physique is an asset for marketers seeking to lure young consumers with a figure they can look up to, said Jefferson Slack, senior vice president for global football at IMG. While Neymar recently changed his hairstyle, young men all over Brazil still sport Mohawks imitating his famous cut.
“He’s got everything that you want: He’s a scorer, he’s exciting, kids relate to him,” Slack, who is also a former CEO of the Italian soccer club Inter Milan, said by telephone from London. “Why was Michael Jordan so marketable? Because kids wanted to fly and Michael said he could fly, and he was not big for a basketball player.”
Neymar also provides a runway for companies trying to reach Brazil’s booming consumer market, said Kenneth Shropshire, faculty director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Sports Business Initiative.
“What he brings with him is not just an 18-to-35 male kind of demographic,” Shropshire said by phone from Philadelphia. “He brings Brazil with him; that’s where you see the value” to multinational retailers.
Among those seeking to benefit from his golden touch is America Movil SAB, the mobile phone operator owned by Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man. On Sept. 13, Neymar wrote to his more than 5 million Twitter followers, “Now I know a ton about 4G,” linking his endorsement to a website run by America Movil’s local unit, Claro SA.
Neymar also lends his name to smaller sponsors, hawking everything from dandruff shampoo to car batteries. In one ad, he juggles a can of Tenys Pe foot deodorant spray through the aisles of a supermarket with a cartoon frog.
Such deal making in Brazil may continue a while longer. A prodigy like Neymar no longer needs to seek the fast buck in Europe and can have a satisfying career in any market he chooses, said Mark Pannes, CEO of the Italian club AS Roma.
“That decision-making process speaks to the empowerment of athletes that hasn’t existed up until the last 10 years or so,” Pannes said in an interview at the Sports Business Summit. “Guys are now calling their own shots.”