Emotions run high as Nike targets Adidas

When Emma Agger turned six, her father Simon, a die-hard European soccer fan, decided she was old enough to watch the game in its native habitat.

So last summer, they packed their bags in their home not far from Nike’s Beaverton headquarters and headed to Britain.

There, in his hometown of Leicester, Agger found that the landscape of this quintessentially European sport had changed and become more American.

“I couldn’t even buy a child’s version of a football ball without it having the [Nike] swoosh on it,” said Agger, resenting what he sees as a United States company’s intrusion into a European pastime.

For decades, Adidas, founded by the German cobbler Adi Dassler, was the unrivaled leader in European soccer merchandise sales. But Nike, the world’s largest manufacturer of athletic apparel, has been making aggressive inroads.

In 1994, when the Oregon company first began courting the soccer market, its global soccer sales were $45-million. Today, industry insiders say soccer sales

are hovering at around $1-billion.

Now, Britain’s top two teams—Manchester United and Arsenal—both wear the Nike uniform, as do 45 of Europe’s top clubs, compared to 41 for Adidas, the companies say.

At the European Championship in Portugal this summer, 49% of the winning goals were scored by players wearing the swooshed cleats, compared to only 31% for those clad in Adidas boots with their trademark three stripes.

And in the most surprising reversal, Nike recently announced it had become number one in soccer footwear sales in Europe, edging out Adidas in what analysts say is the most profitable category of soccer merchandise.

“For the first time ever in our history, we became the number one market share leader in football—or soccer—on the European continent,” said a beaming Charlie Denson, Nike’s co-president, at the company’s annual shareholders meeting in September.

While Nike declined to release sales figures to back up its claim, a study conducted by the market research firm NPD and cited in published reports confirmed that Nike had clinched 34% of the soccer footwear market in Europe last year, outdoing Adidas which is hovering at around 30%.

Adidas officials counter that worldwide, the German brand is the leader in the global market share.
The company says its annual global soccer merchandise sales are about $1,15-billion or 34,5% market share, compared to Nike’s $1-billion or roughly 29,8% market share.

“We know that the competition is very fierce in Europe, but when we look at the global picture we’re still the market leader,” said Guenter Weigl, Adidas’ global director for football in the company’s headquarters in Herzogenaurach, Germany.

And even in Europe, Adidas still leads the pack in soccer jerseys, shinguards, balls—everything but footwear, the two companies say.

Still, Nike’s gains in a sport that has long been Adidas’ birthright have caught people’s attention.

“It’s a reversal,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Centre at the University of Oregon. “All of the significant competitions in Europe last year were won by teams under the Nike banner—and that brings a lot of authenticity to their message.”

To many European cognoscenti, Nike’s challenge to Adidas on soccer pitches is nothing short of war.

“It ain’t over yet—and it won’t ever be over,” said London-based Dave Boyle, deputy director of Supporters Direct, an organisation for soccer fans. “Nike is American and Adidas is European. Europe is not going to let its sport—soccer, or

whatever you call it—roll over and go to an American company.”

While Nike was created by runners for runners, Adidas is a company whose history is inextricable from that of soccer.

In 1954, as rain pounded the pitch at the World Cup finals, Dassler pulled out a pair of screw-in studs for each player on the German national team. The studs, now commonplace, allow players to adjust the length of their spikes to accommodate a dry or muddy field. Sports historians say that gave Germany the edge it needed

to beat Hungary, the tournament favorite.

“Football is in our DNA,” said Kevin Ross, US soccer manager for Adidas.

Nike’s Global Brand Manager for Football Don Remlinger responds to the criticism of Adidas fans by pointing out that European consumers ultimately gave Nike its number one status on the continent—many of whom are too young to remember Adidas’ heyday.

“The fact of the matter is today’s teenagers in Europe have only known a world in which Nike is a leading football brand,” he said.

But even in the US, there are soccer fans who disapprove of Nike.

“Nike just doesn’t get soccer,” said Bruce Franklin (42) who played soccer for the University of South Florida in Tampa.

“The reality is it’s a running company that has branched out into other areas. Adidas has always had their head in the sport.”

Adidas executives stress that in key markets, they still have the leading soccer brand—even in the United States.

Adidas had 52% of the United States soccer footwear market last year, compared to 35% for Nike, according to data compiled by SportsScanINFO, a market research firm in West Palm Beach, Florida. And Adidas recently announced a 10-year $150-million sponsorship deal with the American Major League Soccer franchise. - Sapa-AP

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