One of the greatest moments in sport, certainly for professional athletes, was the day that they realised that they were commercial commodities as well as supremely-talented individuals.
Amongst the first sponsorship deals ever penned by a sports star came in the late 1950s, when NFL ace Frank Gifford agreed to promote – incredibly by today’s standards – Lucky Strike cigarettes, and since then things have changed both in terms of what products/brands are deemed acceptable and also how much the athlete is paid.
In an ideal world, you want to pen a lifetime sponsorship deal, which is exactly as it sounds – a guaranteed payment every year for promoting a specific brand. That was how Skechers, the American footwear firm, managed to convince Harry Kane to become the face (and feet) of their debut football boot collection.
— Harry Kane (@HKane) August 17, 2023
It’s not known how much Skechers are paying the England striker, although you can bet your bottom dollar it’s a handsome amount – in return, Kane must wear their boots for the remainder of his career and act as a brand ambassador for decades to come; if you end up in the same retirement home as the Bayern Munich man, you can be assured he’ll be wearing Skechers for any garden kickabout.
Only a select few sports stars have been offered lifetime sponsorship deals thus far, but these really are the pinnacle of commercial partnerships for those seeking an ongoing payday of the highest order.
By our count, as of September 2023 there’s only six individuals who have confirmed lifetime sponsorship deals, more on those later…
What is a Lifetime Sponsorship Deal?
A lifetime sponsorship deal is exactly as the name suggests.
A brand will offer to pay a sportsman or woman a specific amount every year for the rest of their lives – a rather handsome earner, and appealing to many athletes who lose their sole income stream when their careers come to an end.
How Do Lifetime Sponsorship Deals Work?
We know what you’re thinking: why would a brand want to sponsor an individual after their sporting career is over?
Well, there’s two reasons why. The first is that the guaranteed lifetime income is one of the ways a firm can convince the most iconic sporting stars of today to sign a sponsorship deal with them – these deals can make them millions, if not billions, in merchandising revenue.
The second is that the most iconic sports stars remain marketable and en vogue even after their playing careers have ended, so their lifetime ambassadorial role will still retain value for the brand.
As an example of that, just take a look at Michael Jordan’s hook up with Nike. The first ever lifetime sponsorship deal in sport, the NBA legend’s Nike Air Jordan range is still in demand three decades after its launch – netting Nike £4 billion a year and the former Chicago Bulls ace a pretty penny into the bargain, years after he hung up his vest.
Who Has a Lifetime Sponsorship Deal?
At the time of writing, there are six confirmed lifetime sponsorship deals in sport and perhaps one another.
Athletes with Lifetime Sponsorship Deals
|Michael Jordan (Basketball)||Nike|
|Cristiano Ronaldo (Football)||Nike|
|LeBron James (Basketball)||Nike|
|Lionel Messi (Football)||Adidas|
|Stephen Curry (Basketball)||Under Armour|
|Kevin Durant (Basketball)||Nike|
|Harry Kane (Football)||Sketchers|
The slightly dubious one is the link-up between NBA star Steph Curry and Under Armour. Their agreement will last ‘beyond Curry’s playing days’, although it’s not confirmed if this is a lifetime deal.
We’ve learned about Kane’s Skechers deal and Jordan’s Nike contract already, with the latter also dishing out lifetime pacts to Cristiano Ronaldo, LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
Although the exact terms of these deals aren’t known, it’s thought that each could net the recipient up to $1 billion (£820 million) depending on, in rather morbid terms, how long they live for. James led the lucrative way for NBA shirt sales in 2022, with Nike thought to earn around £300 million a year via LeBron merchandise.
The last of the lifetime sponsorship deals was handed to Lionel Messi by Adidas. The terms of this agreement are rather more transparent – the brand will pay the Argentine £22 million a year until the contract comes to an end, one way or another.
Can a Lifetime Sponsorship Deal Be Scrapped?
We don’t have an answer to this question, given that – at the time of writing – none of the half-dozen sports stars with lifetime deals have lost them.
But you can be sure that brands will have implemented a ‘get out’ clause in case their sponsored athlete goes out and doesn’t something crazy – gross misconduct is always an easy out in the legal sphere.
Besides, there are precedents of sorts. Lance Armstrong lost around £100 million in sponsorship deals when he was outed as a drugs cheat, while Nike, Oakley and others dropped Oscar Pistorius when he was charged with murder.
So yes, it seems highly likely that a lifetime sponsorship deal could be scrapped when the individual’s behaviour determines as such.