RIO DE JANEIRO – On the second floor of a plush Rio de Janeiro mall, Pelé flashed the smile that first captivated global audiences 50 years ago and cut a ribbon to open Swiss watchmaker Hublot’s first store in Latin America.
Without prompting, Pelé walked in, put his grinning face in a display window above a limited edition 45,000 reais ($19,230) watch and absorbed the attention of waiting photographers.
At 73, almost four decades since he played a game professionally, Pelé is taking what might be his last shot at profiting from his popularity. Brazil is hosting this year’s World Cup in less than three months, and Pelé is sweeping up endorsements as he did during his heyday.
“Thanks to God various generations have continued to follow me,” Pelé said after the photo opportunity. “Nobody is perfect, but I try my best to share positive messages.”
Pelé is the majority partner in Sport 10, a company created in 2012 to consolidate the rights to his brand that is named after his uniform number. Legends 10, a New York agency run by two Britons, including David Beckham’s former manager Terry Byrne, acts as exclusive agent for Sport 10 and has built up contracts with some of the world’s biggest companies.
In the past 18 months, Pelé signed agreements with Procter & Gamble, Volkswagen, Emirates Airlines and Subway Restaurants as well as an agreement with Coca-Cola to appear at locations with the World Cup trophy.
The Pelé brand will generate $25 million in revenue this year from appearances, licensed merchandise, endorsements and a movie about the icon’s life being made by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment. Paul Kemsley, chief executive officer of Legends 10, says that could go as high as $100 million by the time the Olympic Games leave Rio in 2016.
“It was no secret the World Cup and Olympics were going to be in Brazil, and Pelé is Brazil,” Kemsley, 46, said by telephone. “So the timing for this kind of transaction was right.”
Hublot CEO Ricardo Guadalupe said his company is paying about $500,000 to associate with Pelé.
In return, Geneva-based Hublot was allowed to create the limited-edition watch with a likeness of Pelé performing a bicycle kick. It was the model that Pelé posed with in the display window of the Hublot store in Rio de Janiero’s Fashion Mall. The company is also planning an advertising campaign and has an agreement for five days’ worth of contact time with Pelé.
“He was earning all his life, but not like today. So for him, it’s fantastic that still with his name and personality he can make some success, and he really deserves it,” Guadalupe said. “When he was playing, he was not making the money that players can make today.”
Pelé, whose real name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento, made his professional soccer debut at age 15. He spent most of his playing career with Santos in São Paulo.
While Pelé’s iconic status was forged in the stadiums of Sweden, Chile and Mexico, where he became the only player to win three World Cups, his popularity soared in the U.S. in the 1970s when he became the headline act for the New York Cosmos and the face of soccer’s first attempt at conquering the United States.
His biggest soccer contract was for the three seasons he spent with the New York Cosmos, which he joined in 1975 after turning 34. It was worth about $6 million over three years, according to Rose Ganguzza, Pelé’s manager during his time in the U.S. That would be worth about $23.2 million now based on inflation, about half of what fellow Brazilian Neymar is being paid after signing with Barcelona from Santos last year.
“For someone at the end of his career, it was a pretty big deal at the time,” Ganguzza said in a telephone interview from New York. “When we think of those numbers now, it feels like a pittance, but in those days it was a very rich contract.”
David Beckham, the English soccer star who followed in Pelé’s footsteps and moved to the U.S. to finish his career, earned 36 million euros ($50 million) in 2013, more than any other soccer player, according to France Football Magazine.
While Beckham was a magnet for endorsements, the now-retired midfielder achieved only a fraction of Pelé’s soccer success. In addition to being on three World Cup-winning teams, Pelé finished his career with 1,281 career goals in 1,363 games, according to FIFA, the sport’s worldwide governing body.
“He was such a phenomenal footballer, and his career as a celebrity endorser for companies is just as phenomenal,” said Tostao, who played on Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning team alongside Pelé before becoming a physician and now writes a newspaper column. “Companies love him.”
Pelé’s business success hasn’t always matched his on-field prowess. A sports marketing company bearing his name was closed following a scandal in 2001 involving one of his business partners and a charity game. A construction business also failed. Pelé has said he trusted the wrong people.
“Pelé should definitely be wealthier,” said Kemsley of Legends 10, which also has agreed to deals with French supermarket chain Carrefour and Spain’s Banco Santander.
Politically, Pelé also showed he was less adept than with a ball. While known as “O Rei,” or “The King,” in Brazil, some of his countrymen were critical of his comments during public demonstrations against the cost of living. He angered a group protesting the $11 billion price for hosting the World Cup by telling them to focus on supporting the Brazilian team.
Yet demand for Pelé’s time has rarely been higher. Three days before the Hublot launch, Pelé was in New York attending the Super Bowl and doing promotional work for Subway, the Milford, Conn.-based sandwich shop chain. The week after, he began trips to North Africa, Europe and Asia.
“I’m from a city called Three Hearts,” he told a room full of reporters last month after being asked about his stamina. “So I am the man of three hearts.”
Before Pelé arrived, the Cosmos were a hodgepodge of amateurs playing on a debris-strewn field in front of about 50 fans. By the time he played his last game in October 1977, the Cosmos became a fixture of the New York sports scene, drawing full houses of 77,000 to the newly opened Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
“My name is Ronald Reagan, I’m the president of the United States of America,” Reagan said during a meeting at the White House. “But you don’t need to introduce yourself, because everyone knows who Pelé is.”
Pelé has homes in São Paulo and New York, where he had deals with PepsiCo and MasterCard among others during his time with the Cosmos. Ganguzza credits the U.S. for waking Pelé up to his commercial opportunities.
“Even though the most brilliant part of his career was before he came to the United States, it’s coming to the United States that I think really stabilized his fortune,” she said. “It made him think a different way and he became a brand. He wasn’t a brand before the Americans made him into a brand.”
His appeal in the U.S. endures, according to Tony Pace, the marketing director at Subway. He said Pelé’s first event on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan drew scores of onlookers.
“There were so many people leaning on the building, standing on shoulders of others and taking videos on their phones,” Pace said.
Selling Pelé is a precise operation. Endorsement opportunities are split into three categories: global, regional and national. Dubai-based airline Emirates on Jan. 16 signed Pelé as a global brand ambassador, a month after the Brazil edition of Forbes magazine gave the former striker top spot on its list of 100 most-influential celebrities in Brazil.
After the World Cup, his marketability probably will wane, said Patrick Nally, a British entrepreneur who in 1976 brokered Coca-Cola’s first deal to sponsor soccer’s premier event.
“This is the final swansong for brand Pelé to make a significant impact,” Nally said. “I’d be absolutely shocked if he manages to keep it up after the tournament. It’s because of the World Cup he’s got this final boost.”
Back at the Hublot store on Feb. 5, the grinning, immaculately coiffured Pelé in his gray business suit and matching shirt and dark tie is finished. He’s given the throng of journalists and fans the photos they want. And with that, he’s off.
“I always pray that God gives me the conditions to pass good messages to children,” Pelé tells everyone. “And this is what I always look for when I enter into partnerships.”
© 2014, Bloomberg News