Has Luis Suarez Actually Damaged Liverpool's 'Brand'? Does It Matter?
In an ideal world, Luis Suarez would generate headlines solely for his game-changing skill and goal-scoring prowess.
Sadly, the Uruguayan has generated more media coverage for his controversial behaviour than anything he has ever done with a football at his feet. To many, he is a leopard whose spots are pockmarked with racism rows, biting incidents, accusations of diving and painfully gauche mercenary transfer tactics.
His latest media accusation has actually been levelled by his own club, with Liverpool managing director Ian Ayre telling a Sport Industry breakfast in London (via The Guardian) that his behaviour has been "damaging to the brand."
He added that the 26-year-old is a "street fighter," presumably in reference to his gritty and tenacious performances, rather than a tendency to play dirty.
While it is not unusual for Suarez to receive criticism from within his own camp—Brendan Rodgers has spoken out against his diving habit in the past—he has never before been blamed for ostensible damage to the club as a whole.
There is little doubt that Suarez has attracted negative publicity over the years, but has he actually damaged the club's brand? I would argue that he hasn't, and that it wouldn't even matter if he had.
In any other business, an employee biting someone or being charged with making racist comments would be very damaging. A law firm sporting a lawyer who openly cheats during cases might fail to win new clients. People might not shop at a supermarket if they knew a senior figure had said something racist about a rival supermarket executive.
Football, however, is unlike any other business. Will Liverpool's ability to build a worldwide fan base be hampered because of Suarez's antics? No, if anything, his goals will help increase their global popularity by improving their league position.
Will his negative publicity stop Liverpool attracting investors, or discourage fans on the other side of the globe from buying shirts? Ultimately, it's a no on both counts.
A Liverpool fan is going to be a Liverpool fan regardless of Suarez, and the club has enough power and history to be bigger than the misdeeds of a single player.
It's a sad state of affairs, but this is a business where a club will happily take on a player with horrendous personality flaws or a criminal past as long as they can perform on the field. This is why convicted rapists are able to find clubs after serving their sentence. This is why Lee Hughes has resumed his career after serving prison time for death by dangerous driving.
Evidently, a player's individual "brand" is irrelevant if they win games. The same is true of a football club.
Therefore, the only way in which Suarez may have damaged Liverpool's brand—their ability to make money and be seen as a high-achieving football club—is by ruling himself out of games through being banned.
The striker has served 19 matches' worth of bans at Liverpool: eight for the Evra racism incident, one for making obscene gestures and 10 for the Ivanovic bite. By not playing, and therefore not helping to win matches, Suarez has potentially lowered the club's league position, which in turn lowers income and brand-expansion potential.
Even if branding did matter in the grand scheme of things, Liverpool Football Club have arguably had bigger fires to put out than Luis Suarez. The awkward mess and David Brent-isms of Brendan Rodgers in Being Liverpool spring to mind. As does the director of communications who was fired for a confrontation with a Twitter user. And the Twitter post that mocked the Munich Air Disaster. Going back a few years, the hooliganism epidemic that led to English clubs being banned from Europe for five years was very damaging to the club's reputation.
This is not a defence of Luis Suarez, nor does it intend to trivialise his actions. The point is that a club's brand ultimately doesn't matter if they are putting points on the board and cash in the bank.
Suarez may make the Liverpool PR department work a little harder, but until he stops scoring goals, he'll be worth every penny.
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