HERZOGENAURACH, Germany — Nine days before the start of Europe’s quadrennial soccer championship, five stars of the powerhouse German national team accepted a dramatic delivery. Skydivers descended on their training camp bearing the Adidas AG cleats that Mesut Oezil, Thomas Mueller, Mats Hummels, Manuel Neuer and Bastian Schweinsteiger would wear during play in France.
Oezil, an attacking midfielder with 11 million followers on Twitter, quickly flashed video of the hand-off to his rabid fans. The same day, striker Mueller did the same to his 2.76 million followers.
“When we want to talk to the 17- and 18-year-old kid, they follow a club, but don't necessarily relate to the brand sponsoring the club,” said Markus Baumann, Adidas’s general manager of global soccer. “They are inspired by the individual player and his swagger. This is exactly what motivates them to hang out with their friends and play — and at a certain point buy new shoes.”
Adidas, Nike Inc. and Puma SE are relying more on individuals to sell cleats and jerseys during the monthlong Euro 2016 tournament, the year’s top event for the biggest sports-gear suppliers that starts on Friday. Adidas, roughly tied for market share with Nike in the $5 billion global soccer-gear market, is banking on top players’ ability to reach fans directly and shifting a larger part of its $2.7 billion annual marketing budget toward them compared with the big team sponsorships that defined its past.
Part of the reason is the rise of social media — getting soccer idols to recommend a brand’s cleats directly on Twitter and Instagram can grant more bang for the marketing buck than spiralling team sponsorships, which can top $1 billion. Campaigns built around individual stars also let the brands get their message to kids in a more controlled fashion than they can through decade-long club associations, at a time when fast-changing tastes mean kids want new colours and designs every couple of months.
In addition to the German stars, whose national team won the World Cup two summers ago, Adidas plans to promote France’s Paul Pogba, 23, during the Euros. The company last month ended its deal with English club Chelsea, worth about $438 million over a decade, six years ahead of time. Adidas has also exited sponsorships with German Bundesliga clubs in Leverkusen, Wolfsburg and Nuremberg.
To be sure, team sponsorships are still important marketing tools. Adidas benefits from its associations with Italy’s Juventus Football Club and perennial powerhouse Bayern Munich. FC Barcelona, a Nike team, boasts 17.7 million Twitter followers. And Adidas last year signed a seven-year deal to outfit the entire National Hockey League, which the company says helps its visibility in the key North American market.
While team sponsorships boost brand awareness, player deals are best for selling shoes. At a June 16 event in Paris, Adidas will give a forecast for sales of soccer shoes and gear compared with the 2.2 billion euros ($2.4 billion) it sold last year. Nike, which reports annual results on June 24, sold $2.2 billion of soccer gear last year. The U.S. company this month opened a space on the Seine river in Paris it’s dubbed the “Palais of Speed,” showcasing videos and exhibits built around stars including Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, whose 42.9 million Twitter followers are a key conduit for Nike to his fans.
Adidas and its rivals view the Euro tournament as the premier marketing event for sports brands this year, eclipsing the Copa America in the US, where Adidas’ Argentine star Lionel Messi has been sidelined with a back injury, and the Summer Olympics in Brazil, which is not seen as a big catalyst for jersey and sneaker sales.
“It’s the player behind the club who’s influencing the younger generation as to what they’re going to wear,” said John Guy, an analyst at MainFirst Bank AG. A “massive spike” in the cost of soccer sponsorship means Adidas is focusing spending on a select few clubs, he said. Individual deals are typically less expensive — Oezil’s Adidas contract is worth a reported $5 million annually.
Banking on big-name stars can backfire, though, as Nike experienced when Tiger Woods landed in tabloids six years ago over marital problems and an SUV crash. Adidas two years ago pulled ads using Luis Suarez after the Uruguayan was tossed from the World Cup for biting an opponent. More recently, Nike sued sprinter Boris Berian after he signed for competitor New Balance Inc.
Pink and Yellow
Germany’s Puma, far smaller than Adidas and Nike, is trying to stand out at the Euros by being a little bit different. Its cleats for the back-to-school season will be brash pink and yellow numbers and its “Play Loud” web campaign features European stars including France’s Oliver Giroud and Antoine Griezmann wreaking havoc in a hotel with soccer balls.
“The idea is if you’re the guy who plays in shoes that are two different colours you need to have a little bit of an attitude,” said chief executive officer Bjoern Gulden.
By: Aaron Ricadela; editors: Matthew Boyle and Paul Jarvis.