Inside Story: The war of athletes' feet

Brand rivalry comes no more intense than in the multi-billion pound sportswear industry. And it just got even fiercer with Adidas's takeover of Reebok. As a new era begins for the Big Four, Richard Gillis looks at who's really scoring in the global market
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The Independent Online


With the Liverpool shirt going to Nike from next season, Reebok's presence in the Premiership lacks lustre, with Bolton, West Ham and Manchester City its only team kit-deals. Ryan Giggs (right) of Manchester United and Wales is the major player endorsement, in one of the longest commercial relationships in football. The Reebok Stadium, the home of Bolton Wanderers, is one of the UK's first and more successful naming-rights deals.

Football is where Adidas started, and it will have hurt the German-based company to see Nike overtake it in this market last year. But where Nike's strategy has been built around star players, Adidas has taken the more institutional approach - for example signing a £170m deal with football's world governing body, Fifa, that goes up to 2014, and becoming an "official partner" of this year's World Cup in Germany. It will mean a huge marketing effort to "own" the event, and to prevent Nike from ambushing it. Meanwhile Adidas paid Chelsea around £100m to secure the Premiership champions' shirt sponsorship for 10 years - buying out Umbro to the tune of £24m. With Adidas's David Beckham (left) in Spain for the foreseeable future, much of the brand's UK marketing activity focuses on the England stars Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole.

For the first time ever, Nike edged ahead of Adidas in sales of football boots last year, helped by endorsement deals with Thierry Henry (right), Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand. Its Nike 90 football strategy has been based around a huge media spend and iconic, inventive advertising campaigns. It is a past master at creating a presence around World Cups and Olympic Games without paying out for sponsor rights fees. Joga3 is a football skills tournament which will have a final at Highbury stadium in June, just in time to make a splash of Nike's roster of football assets, such as the players Ronaldinho and Ronaldo, and kit deals with Holland and Brazil. This will all be backed up by a huge football-themed advertising campaign - witness the Eric Cantona spot currently running.

Puma has retained a foothold in the Premiership through a new kit deal with Tottenham Hotspur from next season, and has also signed an innovative sponsorship deal with the Football League. For about £800,000, the company is supporting community and youth development programmes and providing free football boots to 1,100 apprentice players at the league's 72 professional clubs. Pele (right) has been signed as "official ambassador" for the World Cup, and 12 teams there will be wearing Puma clothing, more than any other manufacturer. It has signed a deal with the Italian national team as well as Inter Milan and it focused much of its effort on the African Nations Cup, when its striking all-in-one design for Cameroon garnered plenty of coverage.


A major factor of Reebok's strength in the US is a series of huge kit deals that have been signed with the major leagues of American football, baseball and basketball. Every team and star player in the NBA wears a Reebok jersey, with the company supplying the retailers with merchandise. This is augmented by a series of big-name endorsements, most notably Allen "The Answer" Iverson and Yao Ming, China's biggest sports star.

The new Kevin Garnett signature shoe, named after a popular American basketball player, is one of the products at the centre of an ongoing lawsuit filed by Nike. The company claims the shoe design infringes its own Shoxx technology, for which it claims to have 19 separate patents. The lack of penetration in the NBA is one reason for Adidas' purchase of Reebok.

The NBA is one of the key battlefields in the trainer wars, mainly because of basketball's enduring popularity with America's black urban population, the industry's key style-setting constituency. It is an arena that Nike has dominated since its axis with Michael Jordan in the 1990s changed the rules of sports marketing, forced Nike out of its track-and-field ghetto and gave rise to its dominance in the US. Now on version 17 of the Air Jordan trainer, Nike had sold more than $2.6bn worth of Jordan-related products. In 2003, Nike signed a $90m (£56m) deal with LeBron James, an 18-year-old prodigy who had never played a professional game.


Reebok continues to use athletics to maintain its sports performance credentials. The list of athletes on Reebok's roster is headed by the UK's double gold medallist at the Athens Olympics, Kelly Holmes (left), and Carolina Kluft, the charismatic Swedish World and Olympic heptathlon champion. Reebok sponsors the Ethiopian team and major events including the World Athletics Championships.

The London Marathon next month will witness a familiar Adidas-Nike stand-off. Adidas is an official partner and will have heavy branding around the course. But the television cameras will be following Britain's Paula Radcliffe (left), who will be wearing her new Nike shoes in the race. Adidas recently paid almost £50m to sponsor the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the Chinese Olympic team, leading chief executive Herbert Hainer to boast: "The Beijing Olympics will be an Adidas event."

Nike's annual Run London has grown into the biggest 10km race in Europe, attracting 30,000 runners in Battersea, Hyde and Victoria Parks. The "own brand" approach to running events gives complete control over how it is presented, gets the brand name in the title and puts the company in touch with hundreds of thousands of potential buyers of running shoes. Won big at the last Olympics when its shoes were worn by all three medallists in one of the most prestigious events, the men's 1500 metres.

Puma faces similar challenges to those of Reebok. It has grown into the must-have trainer of the Hoxton set, but there's danger in moving too far towards the fashion end of the shoe market. Reebok sponsors the Jamaican Olympic team, which showcases its research and development capability, and keeps them on the feet of the few who actually use trainers for running.


Reebok owns the Shark label, created by the Australian great Greg Norman (right) in the early 1990s. It's the purveyor of traditional golf garb in a range of bright primary colours, as worn by America's legion of country-club hackers. Ben Curtis, surprise winner of the Open Championship two years ago, is on the payroll.

Adidas bought in to golf via the sport's market leader TaylorMade, an established brand in a highly specialised sector notoriously tough to break into for mainstream brands. Adidas/TaylorMade uses leading players Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose and Mike Weir as its poster boys. One of the best young prospects in the American women's game, Paula Creamer, has been signed up to counter Nike's move for Wie.

Nike has built its own golf company around its $100m Tiger Woods (left) contract, moving from footwear and apparel into the difficult terrain of clubs and balls. Its market share remains stuck at about the 10 per cent mark. There is huge potential for growth in the women's game as golf shrugs off its middle-aged male image. Nike pursued the teen sensation Michelle Wie, signing her up as she turned pro on her 16th birthday.

Puma has identified golf as a major growth area and announced a new range of shoes, clothes and accessories. This is new ground for the brand. Expect the range to be aimed more at readers of the revolutionary golf mag Golf Punk than members of traditional golf clubs.


Having parted company with leading American Andy Roddick last year, Reebok has switched to building for the future. They believe it belongs to Nicole Vaidisova, who they signed as a 14-year-old and appears to be Maria Sharapova Mk 2.

Andre Agassi made his name with Nike before going over to the enemy later in his career. Tim Henman (left) has been the brand's only real British interest on court. The Belgian Justin Henin-Hardenne is being groomed to succeed Martina Hingis, who fronted Adidas's women's line and has never been genuinely replaced.

Nike chooses its tennis players well. Roger Federer, widely regarded as the best player ever, took over from the almost equally revered previous world No.1 and fellow Nike endorsee, Pete Sampras. It can also claim Russia's Maria Sharapova (right), Wimbledon champion at 17 in 2004 and arguably the most valuable woman athlete in the world. Her combination of looks and ability netting her around £15m a year in endorsements.

Serena Williams's (left) outfits have become more extravagant in correlation to her decline on-court. Highlights include winning the french Open wearing a sleeveless dress in support of the Cameroon football team at the World Cup, and winning the U.S. Open in a black leather-look catsuit.


Big-name hip-hop endorsements have helped position Reebok closer to the fashion end of the trainer spectrum than its major competitors. "Ninety per cent of our shoes are worn for the street, so we felt it appropriate to embrace that," says Andy Towne, Reebok's UK marketing head. However, there was controversy surrounding the role of 50 Cent (left) in Reebok's "I Am What I Am" campaign. A television advertisement that showed the rapper counting to nine - a reference to the number of times he was shot at on an occasion in 2000 - was pulled by Reebok after complaints.

The second collection of sportswear from Stella McCartney (who designed this outfit) is due this spring, while Yohji Yamamoto is giving the three stripes a fashion makeover, projecting the sports brand into the fashion glossies.

Nike led the way in morphing the worlds of sport, film and music into its groundbreaking advertising campaigns, originally starring Spike Lee and then directed by him. Jazz themes are to the fore, with recent offerings from the agency Wieden + Kennedy using a rising star of the NBA, Ray Allen.

The brand is a marginal player on sales, but is enjoying a renaissance as a result of its lifestyle positioning. Its fashion credentials were boosted by a tie-up with the designer Alexander McQueen, although Puma's image was dented when a survey at the time of the 2005 general election showed them to be a favourite with young Tory voters. Model Christy Turlington has designed a new Puma yoga line for women.