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How Jay-Z is getting his hands on European football

Roc Nation's reinterpretation of the American star system

How Jay-Z is getting his hands on European football Roc Nation's reinterpretation of the American star system

That Roc Nation was doing seriously also in the world of football was understood in 2018 when Romelu Lukaku decided to end his relationship with Mino Raiola to join the label which, since 2013, has managed some of the most famous athletes of the world: we are talking about an agency born in 2008 by the rapper Jay-Z with the aim of helping producers and musicians to develop their artistic projects, managing their relationships with the media and their branding strategies.

"Romelu has been a Jay-Z fan since he was 16 and he understood the vision of the company and wants to grow his brand in the world. He and Jay have a great relationship, for Romelu he is like a mentor" said a few months ago Michael Yormark, president of Roc Nation Sports Europe.

Having snatched one of its most recognizable athletes from one of the most important pros on the international scene, is the turning point of Roc Nation's experience in European football as well as the representation of the paradigm shift he intends to impose in the management of new generation professional sportsmen . Forget the prosecutor who only deals with the economic and contractual aspects of his client: the direction taken by Roc Nation is that of a sports management based on the creation of a real brand linked to the athlete's name, with the sports performances that pass almost in the background compared to the collateral activities when you do not have to be ''only'' great players but real generational icons. The mission is in fact to clear a new idea of footballer-celebrity closer to the American star system than to the European one.

And if for Lukaku, already in possession of the gimmick of the committed athlete, everything is much easier, the uniqueness of Roc Nation is touched by hand when it breaks down and reconstructs the image of its clients from scratch, going beyond the idea and the trivialization of success linked exclusively to the match event.

When it came to announcing the partnership with Federico Bernardeschi, for example, the agency published a video on its Instagram account in which the iconography of the Juventus player is linked to that of the architectural, artistic and cultural excellence of Italy . Accompanying him is a minimalist but impactful caption - ''Tuscany born, Italian made. Welcome to the family'' - and which reveals how the agency intends to present Bernardeschi as someone able to make his mark even off the pitch.

This is a non-random choice and regardless of the value of the player tout court: in the era in which a sportsman must also be a level entertainer on social media, Bernardeschi has a potential, a communicative and an instagrammability that stronger players they don't have him and that make him the ideal profile for Roc Nation regardless of what he does or doesn't do on a football pitch. As lawyer Darren Heitner told the BBC in 2015, "when we compare it to traditional prosecutor agencies, we immediately notice how Roc Nation is much more focused on marketing than on sports performance in the strict sense".

For this reason Marcus Rashford has decided to leave the management of the sports part to the brothers, leaving Roc Nation to take care of the image. For its part, the agency wanted to underline its great social commitment with a video collage of television reports and excerpts of interviews dedicated to the initiatives that the Manchester United striker has made for the community, not least the FareShare support, a association that fights food waste and malnutrition: thanks to its campaign on Twitter, 400,000 pounds were collected which allowed to supply three million meals to vulnerable people across the United Kingdom.

In fact what unify the players under contract with Roc Nation is that part of their cultural and personal background that brings them closer to Jay-Z: Jerome Boateng has attracted attention for being an inveterate sneakerhead and for the mural in the Berlin's Wedding district which portrays him alongside his brothers Kevin-Prince and George, Lukaku for his past of extreme poverty from which he managed to get out, Tyrone Mings for a very American history of late bloomer that led him to have a second big chance in the Premier League at 28 and for his investments in the world of fashion and design. To become a 'Roc Nation oriented' athlete, therefore, being cool is not enough: you need to have that particular magnetism as a pop icon capable of catching on your target audience, with great attention to the historical context and the message you intend to convey .

But there is also more: Jay-Z would have the credibility to think of attracting Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi on duty. In that case, however, his presence would end up becoming almost a collateral detail in the narrative of two personalities almost as bulky as his, if not more. Focusing on medium-high level players, on the other hand, guarantees Jay-Z the role of a primadonna that she does not seem to be able to do without. The moment a player is identified as a Roc Nation ''creature'', the normal relationship of power between representative and represented is reversed: it is not Roc Nation that is famous for being the agency of Boateng, Lukaku and Mings but it is Boateng, Lukaku and Mings who are famous for being Roc Nation players.

A new form of status symbol that with Ronaldo and Messi would not be possible and that would make more difficult that global expansion of its brand that Jay-Z has been pursuing for some time, beyond the declarations of the facade and the laudable initiatives at #morethananthlete. As Alessandro Cappelli wrote in Rivista Undici Roc Nation "does not work for charity or to transmit a message of solidarity, it is certainly not a non-profit organization. It is a profitable company, it is the company of the greatest entrepreneur from the world of hip-hop, the first rapper in history with a personal fortune of one billion dollars". In fact, Jay-Z's business sense, especially for those related to the world of sports entertainment, has few equals. The cynicism and the lucidity with which he manages to evaluate and identify the most profitable solution in the medium-long term are those of the experienced businessman and who is the first and best promoter of himself. Although this sometimes means partially denying some choices from the past.

In 2019, for example, the $ 15 billion contract signed with the NFL made a lot of noise thanks to which Roc Nation became a sort of "artistic director" for what concerns the musical entertainment of football league events . After years of building the image of an artist committed to fighting against the establishment and taking a clear position in the Kaepernick case, he casually signed one of the most divisive partnerships of the modern era that attracted numerous criticisms from the African American community, feeling betrayed the moment he passed the other side of the barricade: the one run by white and wealthy men, not at all inclined to deal with minority rights and social issues, and who will hardly let the man from Brooklyn change things from the inside as claimed during the press conference to present the agreement.

"I said no to the Super Bowl: you need me, I don't need you" Jay-Z sang just a year earlier in an Apeshit passage, reiterating that he willingly gave up on the Super Bowl halftime show.

But it doesn't end there. Also in 2018, Jay-Z was appointed to become the creative director of PUMA basketball, promoting the German brand's return to the signature shoe market in style, sponsoring DeAndre Ayton and Marvin Bagley - pick #1 and #2 at the Draft - and contracting DeMarcus Cousins, Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma and Marcus Smart. That the appointment came almost simultaneously with the signing of Lukaku with Roc Nation is no accident: the Belgian striker, as well as Axel Witsel and Eric Bailly (among the first to sign for Roc Nation) is one of PUMA's top players. That, therefore, has decided to take advantage of the influence of Shawn Carter and his label to try to undermine the Nike-adidas duopoly by changing the communication, size and perception of the athletes it represents and with the hope of attracting new ones with an increasingly specific weight relevant (but not too much) as Kevin De Bruyne. Because for Jay-Z the NBA, the NFL and the MLB are no longer enough.