Goodbye to the golden boot

As demand for designer sportswear falls, sponsorship deals are being slashed

When Shaquille O'Neal joined the basketball team, the Orlando Magic, in 1992, he was feted as the new Michael Jordan. As America's leading clubs jostled to sign him up, an equally fierce contest was being fought out between the various sportswear manufacturers desperate to ensure that their kit would adorn his enormous physique. In the end, Reebok triumphed in a deal which would earn O'Neal $15m (pounds 9m) over the next six years.

O'Neal's contract, which ran out last year, has not been renewed, but he should not take this personally as the currency of American sportsmen with advertisers has been devalued. The story will be familiar to many of England's Premier League footballers who, unable to find a generous sponsor, are taking to the field this year in blacked-up boots. Even a regular international like Graeme Le Saux, who has since signed for Nike, played for parts of last season in unmarked boots.

The likes of Adidas and Nike used to hand out complimentary boots galore which the beneficiaries would black-up unless they received a fee. Today the balance has shifted and manufacturers insist that their logos are on view even when the players are receiving nothing for wearing their boots.

Yet it is only last year that Nike and Adidas were recruiting players on top whack to front the elaborate campaigns designed to sell their products to World Cup viewers. That, according to football agent Rachel Anderson, whose clients include Everton's Don Hutchison, is part of the problem.

"They shot themselves in the foot," she says. "They were signing up even very average players on five-year deals and now they can't afford to tie up anyone else. Some very average players are still on contracts worth as much as pounds 100,000."

Her words are echoed by Glenn Joyce, global product and marketing manager for Reebok International Football. "There was a change about 18 months ago," he points out. "Every company had a huge stable of players, but they suddenly found they weren't getting a return. So they have reduced their marketing spend."

Manufacturers are having to face up to the fact that trainers, tracksuits and the rest of their wares are no longer the "must-haves" they once were. In the US, sales of basketball shoes, always reliant on the fickle teenage market, have tailed off. In the UK, sales of trainers have barely budged since 1993. Nike's woes have been exacerbated by negative publicity about its alleged use of sweat-shop labour in its Asian factories. The plight of Nike and Reebok prompted them to slash the price of their trainers this summer - a move that drove smaller rivals like Hi-Tec into the red.

Jon Smith, chief executive of First Artists, whose clients include Arsenal's Nwankwo Kanu, explains: "Replica kits were a fashion icon but things that were fashionable go out of fashion. Manufacturers have also lost market share because other brands, such as DKNY, have brought in leisurewear which is just like sportswear."

Faced with a more competitive market, Smith believes that sponsors are less willing to pay up for today's stars because of the danger they will become tomorrow's has-beens. "With an individual you just have to hope that they perform, that they continue to be loved," he says. "That's why it's safer to sponsor big events. A footballer such as Michael Owen has immense exposure while he is young, clean and successful but if he doesn't score in the next two years, his value will plummet."

There is no doubt that sponsors have become more particular. In years gone by, they would be content to fund great swathes of players - almost regardless of their selling power - confident their image would benefit. Nowadays, they demand a tangible return which only the most marketable players can deliver. The trend has been imported from the US where, since 1995, Reebok has cut its team of sponsored basketball players from 130 to 20. In Europe, Reebok's stable of footballers has been streamlined from hundreds to a hardcore of four - Ryan Giggs, Dennis Bergkamp, Raul of Real Madrid and Fiorentina's Gabriel Batistuta. Joyce says: "The prevailing sports marketing policy now states that `less is more'."

Martin Prothero, head of marketing at Umbro, says: "Sports brands now realise that it is no longer sufficient to say that they have this number of players wearing `our product'. Having marginal players running round in your product just becomes wallpaper eventually. You need people with an emotional link with customers."

Adidas agrees, hence its recent deal with Michael Bridges, the young but very much up-and-coming Leeds United striker. Indeed, it is said that Adidas recently rejected David Ginola, the flying French winger whose flowing locks are deemed worthy of L'Oreal shampoo adverts, on the grounds that he was too old for the company's desired image. Nor is age the only ground for discrimination against sportsmen and women, according to David Burwood, sponsorship manager of the Lawn Tennis Association.

"Let's say you're a Dutch player ranked in tennis's top 50," he says. "Adidas might say he'd be a good spokesperson in Holland but does that market justify a high fee. Probably not, so an association with a top player from a much bigger market like the US is more likely."

This trend has had a double whammy effect on English football clubs which have already seen their income from merchandising fall, due in no small part to the perception that replica kits are a complete rip-off.

Sponsors are also becoming pickier about which club's shirts they wish their names to adorn. Leicester and Southampton, for example, which are among the less fashionable Premier League clubs, now sport own-brand kits.

Prothero of Umbro, which sponsors England, Manchester United, Chelsea and Everton, says: "Manufacturers want to associate with brands with reach which will travel. It makes perfect sense for smaller clubs to distribute their own kits because they will only sell within a close radius of their home."

But it is not just the Premier League's poor relations which are affected. Even the top clubs are finding that those players who cannot command lucrative sponsorship contracts are demanding the compensation of higher wages.

Meanwhile, the elite become ever more beholden to their beneficent, but demanding, sponsors.

The American basketball star Anfernee Hardaway, when asked whom his first loyalty was to, replied: "Nike".

Many of Britain's top footballers would be forgiven for answering in the same way.

THE TOP DEALS IN SPORT

Nike/Tiger Woods

The American golf star signed up for a five-year clothing contract deal with Nike worth pounds 55m this summer, doubling his last sponsorship fee and making the record books as the largest individual sponsorship deal with a sports star.

Woods has already unveiled the Nike Spring 2000 clothing range.

Nike/Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan signed up for his first pounds 1.8m deal with Nike in 1985 to promote the best-selling Air Jordan training shoe. Total earnings for sponsorship deals on his retirement from basketball earlier this year were estimated at pounds 44m.

On news of his retirement, shares in Nike dropped by 5 per cent.

Umbro/Michael Owen

The Liverpool and England striker has been a brand endorsee for Umbro since he was 15, a deal worth pounds 5m. As an "ambassador for the Umbro brandwear", he endorses footwear and clothing.

The deal is expected to last at least until the European Championships in 2004

Reebok/Ryan Giggs

The Manchester United and Wales winger is in a pounds 6.5m boot deal with Reebok.

Adidas/David Beckham

The highest-earning footballer in the UK, David Beckham is in a seven- year deal worth pounds 2.9m with Adidas to promote the Predator Accelerator boot.

Beckham wears a new pair of Accelerators every match. Adidas recently said it wanted to extend the deal for the whole of Beckham's career.

Admiral/Manchester United

Admiral recently signed up for a staggering pounds 75m clothing deal with Manchester United over five years, to start in 2001. Admiral will design a new MUFC clothing label. It previously designed the United kits in the 1970s.

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