Image rights, we’ve all heard of them but what exactly are they? They refer to the commercial use of a player’s likeness, including their name, image, and signature.

The concept of image rights is crucial in the modern sports industry, allowing footballers and athletes to earn money from endorsements, merchandise, and other commercial activities.

In the early days of professional sports, footballers had minimal control over their image rights. They were contracted to a club and were primarily focused on their performance, often not considering the commercial potential of their likeness.

Clubs, leagues, and sponsors often used their images freely without providing any compensation.

All of that began to change when Babe Ruth became one of the first athletes to endorse products, but the structure of image rights was not well-defined.

Ruth’s endorsements in the 1920s included products like candy bars and tobacco, but these deals were relatively informal compared to modern standards.

At least Babe Ruth got paid. Others, such as Olympic legend Jesse Owens, saw little financial benefit from his image as its value was not yet recognised as a commercial asset.

Fast forward to the current day, and as we head into one of the biggest football tournaments in the world, you can be guaranteed that every single player who graces Euro 2024 will know the value of their image rights.

But how did they go from zero to millions, and who trail-blazed so that all who came after could control how their image is used?

Turning Point in the Late 20th Century

The late 20th century marked a significant change in the recognition and management of image rights, and several factors contributed to this shift.

The rise of television, media coverage, and, later the internet amplified athletes’ visibility, making their images more valuable.

But it was Michael Jordan’s partnership with Nike that proved to be a groundbreaking development in sports marketing.

The creation of the Air Jordan brand demonstrated the immense commercial potential of an athlete’s image, and by all accounts, at least if the movie of their partnership (Air) is to be believed, it was his mother who negotiated the deal on his behalf.

She requested that, as part of their contract, her son Michael Jordan, would get a percentage of every pair of Air Jordans sold.

It was a revolutionary concept but one that Nike was happy to take a chance on to sign Jordan to their label.

And, if you’re curious, in 2023, the Air Jordan brand generated $6.59 billion, which accounted for approximately 12.9% of Nike’s total revenue.

Michael Jordan receives about 5% of the revenue from Jordan Brand sales due to his licensing deal with Nike, and since the inception of the Air Jordan line in 1984, has earned more than $1.5 billion.

Jordan’s success encouraged other athletes to seek similar deals and greater control over their image rights.

How Much Are Footballers Image Rights Worth?

In the early days, few footballers ever saw a penny from their image rights. Thankfully, this has now changed, largely due to footballers including specific clauses in their contracts regarding the use of their image.

This provides them with greater control and ensures they receive compensation for commercial uses.

Many footballers also set up their own limited companies to manage their image rights. This allows them to handle endorsements and sponsorships more effectively and take advantage of tax benefits.

Soccer players like David Beckham, Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe, and Cristiano Ronaldo have all secured multimillion-dollar endorsement deals, highlighting the financial importance of image rights.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo is a prime example of a footballer earning substantial amounts from image rights.

During his time at Real Madrid, Ronaldo negotiated a deal where he retained 60% of his image rights while the club took 40%.

While at the club, it was estimated that his annual earnings from image rights alone were around €50 million (approximately $54 million).

His image rights deals contribute to his overall earnings from endorsements, including his long-term contracts with major brands like Nike, from which he earns approximately $20 million annually.

Additional endorsements include partnerships with brands like Herbalife, Clear, and TAG Heuer, which further add to his image rights earnings.

He also leverages his image for his own business ventures, including CR7-branded clothing, footwear, and fragrances.

Combined with his salaries from football clubs and other income sources, Ronaldo’s total earnings from endorsements and image rights were reported to be around $50 million annually in recent years.

Famous Image Rights Disputes

The legendary footballer Diego Maradona faced numerous issues regarding the unauthorised use of his image.

Maradona often sued companies that used his likeness without permission, winning several lawsuits.

Neymar Jr., the Brazilian footballer, had legal battles regarding his image rights.

In 2016, he faced issues with his former club, Santos, and the investment group DIS over the handling of his transfer to Barcelona and the associated image rights.

And, despite being a pioneer in image rights, Michael Jordan had to fight several legal battles to maintain control over his likeness.

For instance, he successfully sued a supermarket chain for using his name and number in an advertisement without permission.

Premier League Footballers With Limited Companies

Several Premier League footballers have established limited companies to manage and optimize their image rights, allowing them to earn substantial amounts from endorsements and sponsorships.

David Beckham

Through his company, Footwork Productions Ltd, David Beckham has been one of the pioneers in leveraging image rights.

He earned significant sums from his image rights during his career, particularly while playing for Manchester United and later Real Madrid.

Footwork Productions Ltd. was reported to have earned Beckham around £75 million from 2002 to 2014​.

His deals included endorsements with Adidas, Pepsi, and Gillette, among others. His image rights earnings often surpassed his football salary, especially during his time at Real Madrid and LA Galaxy.

Wayne Rooney

Wayne Rooney’s company, Stoneygate 48 Ltd., was set up to handle his image rights.

It was reported that Rooney earned over £10 million a year from endorsements at the peak of his career, with total earnings from image rights exceeding £40 million during his time at Manchester United.

Rooney’s endorsements included deals with Nike, Coca-Cola, and EA Sports.

Gareth Bale

Gareth Bale has used his company, Primesure Limited, to manage his image rights earnings, and it was reported that he earned approximately £10 million annually from endorsements​.

His major deals include endorsements with Adidas, EA Sports, and Lucozade, and his commercial earnings have been a substantial part of his total income, especially during his time at Real Madrid.

Harry Kane

Harry Kane set up his company, Harry Kane Limited, to manage his growing portfolio. In recent years, his earnings from endorsements have been estimated at around £5 million annually.​

Kane’s deals include endorsements with brands like Nike and Hugo Boss.

Raheem Sterling

Raheem Sterling has also set up a limited company, Raheem Sterling Promotions Limited to handle his endorsement deals.

His earnings from those are estimated to be around £5 million annually and include contracts with Nike, H&M, and Gillette.

By setting up limited companies, Premier League footballers can effectively manage and negotiate their image rights deals, ensuring they receive maximum benefits from endorsements.

This strategy not only helps in optimising their tax liabilities but also provides a structured approach to handling various income sources.

The examples of Beckham, Rooney, Bale, Kane, and Sterling highlight the substantial earnings that can be achieved through well-managed image rights.