After four long years, the biggest sporting event on the planet is back.
While most of us are only interested in the actual football taking place at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, for brands it's a marketing behemoth that makes the Olympics and Super Bowl look small-time by comparison. Literally billions of people tune in worldwide, making it the perfect platform for companies to get their name in front of eyeballs. For context, Nike increased its marketing spend by 36 percent to $876 million ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
The tournament is organized by football’s international governing body, FIFA, which breaks its sponsorship by brands into three tiers: partners, which work with the organization year-round at all levels of the game and, as such, get prime billing at the World Cup; sponsors, which associate themselves with the World Cup and smaller Confederations Cup only; and regional sponsors, a slate of smaller organizations taken from different regions whenever a FIFA event is taking place.
This year’s event hasn’t been easy for the beleaguered organization. With the FIFA brand tarnished by continued allegations of corruption and bribery, the organization has found brands hesitant about taking up World Cup sponsorship deals, evidenced by the fact that some partner and sponsor slots were yet to be filled as of April 1. It’s the regional sponsors, however, that have proven hardest to lure. Of 20 available slots across international regions, just four European companies had signed on as of April 23, with no takers from elsewhere.
But brands’ reticence to put their names against the tournament runs deeper than that. Russia was a controversial choice as host country, in part due to logistics and the country’s 11 time zones. Geopolitical issues certainly haven’t helped, either. Russian involvement in conflicts in Syria and eastern Ukraine is an ongoing bone of contention for many countries, not to mention investigations into allegations that Russia hacked the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Socially, Russian football has yet to properly address its racism problem, while the Russian government’s anti-LGBT policies have caused anger internationally. For some marketers, this year’s World Cup is simply not worth the hassle — and with the even more controversial choice of Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, FIFA’s problems could yet get worse.
For sports companies, however, the World Cup is the ultimate shop window in which to display their multi-million-dollar endorsements and uniform supply deals. Visibility is everything, which is why brands are perpetually battling for club and national team contracts and player endorsements. Keeping up to date with the crazy world of football endorsements can be difficult, so we’ve summarized all you need to know about the big brands in Russia this summer.
Athletes: Lionel Messi, Paul Pogba, Mohamed Salah, Luis Suarez, Mesut Özil
Teams: Argentina, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Russia, Colombia, Mexico, Egypt, Japan, Morocco, Iran, Sweden
Official World Cup partner adidas leads the way on the tournament uniform supplier front, having signed up 12 teams to Nike’s 10. Pre-tournament favorites such as Germany, Spain, Argentina, and Belgium will all wear the Three Stripes, as will hosts Russia. Despite the launch of the hyped Gosha Rubchinskiy x adidas Football capsule last year, adidas’ marketing campaign for Russia 2018 has been quieter than its build-up for Brazil in 2014. That should change, however, as kick-off approaches. It should also be noted that while adidas provides Iran’s kits, it doesn't sponsor them, instead selling the uniforms at a steep discount.
“We see this as a brand-building event,” adidas CEO Kasper Rorsted told Marketing Week, while playing down Russia 2018’s financial importance. “The direct financing impact is limited and the football has over time, relative to the size of the company, become a small event from a financial standpoint — but not from a brand standpoint.” If anything else, Rorsted’s comments only highlight the size of the adidas operation, given the brand shifted more than $2.3 billion of football gear at the last World Cup.
Along with club giants Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich, the German national team is one of adidas’ crown jewels. Last year, the brand signed a deal with the German Football Association (DFB) worth approximately $57 million per year until 2022, making it the biggest national team deal in the world, surpassing the $50 million Nike pays the French national team.
If you believe reports, in negotiations adidas’ hand was forced after the Swoosh attempted to close to a deal with the current World Cup holders — a development that would have been a PR catastrophe for German brand adidas, whose relationship with the national team dates back to 1954. Nike targetting the DFB is no coincidence. It’s part of a supposed “nuisance” strategy, which sees Nike target players at clubs sponsored by rival brands. For example, Nike sponsors Cristiano Ronaldo of Madrid and Robert Lewandowski of Bayern, making marketing the players at club level tricky to pull off.
But where Nike has Ronaldo, adidas has Lionel Messi. In 2016, Ronaldo won the UEFA European Championship with Portugal, giving him an international championship to add to his insane haul of club titles. Such an achievement still evades Messi, who with his national team has only final defeats at the World Cup and Copa America to show for a glittering career. Messi turns 31 at the World Cup, meaning Russia is possibly his final shot at international glory. It goes without saying that adidas hopes this will be a career-defining tournament for the Argentine, who ESPN recently named the third most famous athlete in the world behind Ronaldo and LeBron James. As a player considered by many to be the greatest of all time, it seems odd to think he isn’t the most famous.
As well as Messi, adidas has also invested heavily in the talents of Paul Pogba, giving the Manchester United and France midfielder his own clothing line inspired by high-end fashion and street culture. With his flamboyant hairstyles, eye-catching playing style, and celebratory dance moves, Pogba is a marketer’s dream. That said, some analysts are yet to be convinced that his talent on the field is equal to the hype off it. Regardless, expect to see the Frenchman front and center of adidas’ forthcoming World Cup ad campaign, no doubt alongside stars plucked from the brand’s vast pool of influencers and entertainers.
Brazil 2014 was a dream for adidas, with Germany not only winning the tournament, but brand endorsers Messi and Colombia’s James Rodriguez scooping the golden ball (best player) and golden boot (top scorer) awards respectively. This year, the brand, which also provides the official tournament match ball, will be hoping for more of the same.
Athletes: Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Kylian Mbappé, Robert Lewandowski, Harry Kane
Teams: Brazil, France, Portugal, England, Nigeria, South Korea, Poland, Australia, Croatia, Saudi Arabia
Nike might not have Messi or Pogba, but it does have Ronaldo. And Neymar. And a secret style weapon in the Nigeria national team, whose stunning World Cup uniform apparently hit record-breaking jersey pre-order numbers of 3 million. (For context, Manchester United sold the most jerseys in the world in 2016 with 2.85 million sales.)
At the 2014 World Cup, Nike teams Brazil and the Netherlands lost out to Germany and Argentina in the semi-finals, making the final an all-adidas affair. Germany smashing Brazil 7-1 on home soil was a particular humiliation. Beaverton, then, has a point to prove, with France and a rejuvenated Brazil its two best chances of success.
That said, even if Nike sides falter, the Swoosh still has Ronaldo fighting its corner. With 127 million Instagram followers, the Portuguese is a one-man marketing juggernaut. To better appreciate CR7’s marketing value, look no further than the “Just Do It” sketch posted on his Instagram after Portugal won the European Championship in Paris. The post amassed over 1.7 million “likes” and more than 12,000 comments. That post alone equated to $5.8 million in media value for Nike. With clout like that, it’s no wonder the Swoosh signed CR7 up to a lifetime deal said to be worth close to $1 billion in 2016.
It would be wrong to label Nike a one-man band, however. Marketing executives at the company (and Brazil fans) have been holding their breath since Neymar, the world’s most expensive player, went down injured in a Ligue 1 match against Marseille in February. The Paris Saint-Germain forward had surgery on a broken foot, putting his participation in Russia in doubt. Thankfully, it appears he’ll be ready to play, although whether he’ll be at his best after more than three months out remains to be seen. Brazil’s poster boy remains of paramount importance to both his national side and Nike, with the Swoosh using his boyish charms to promote a more lifestyle-orientated image to millennials and Gen-Z.
Another key player for Nike could be Virgil Abloh, who looks set to drop a World Cup collection as the tournament kicks off. Abloh’s OFF-WHITE cleats were previewed at the tail-end of the season by PSG and France prodigy Kylian Mbappé, and it looks as if they, along with a set of goalkeeper gloves, could be worn by players at the finals.
Athletes: Antoine Griezmann, Marco Reus, Sergio Aguero, Olivier Giroud
Teams: Uruguay, Senegal, Serbia, Switzerland
PUMA has spent serious coin trying to catch adidas and Nike in recent years, having penned multi-million-dollar deals with European club giants such as Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund. According to reports, EPL champions Manchester City will soon follow suit, ditching Nike for a rumored $60 million per season deal with the German company. PUMA might not be of the same stature as Nike or adidas when it comes to soccer, but it’s certainly no minnow.
Still, football is a volatile game, and the qualification rounds for Russia 2018 weren’t kind to PUMA. Not only did three of its major African teams, Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Cameroon, fail to qualify, in Europe four-time World Cup winners Italy didn’t make the cut either. The Azzurri’s failure was a double whammy for the other Herzogenaurach brand, as it meant star endorsers such as veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and his heir apparent Gianluigi Donnarumma will both be absent from Russia. Italian enfant terrible Mario Balotelli is another PUMA athlete, although it’s doubtful he’d have made the final squad under former Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura. (He has since returned to the fold under new Azzurri coach Roberto Mancini.)
Still, although we won’t be seeing one of Balotelli’s iconic puffed-chest goal celebrations in Russia, adidas’ fraternal rival still has plenty of individual star power. Atletico Madrid marksman Antoine Griezmann, rumored to be Barcelona-bound, is key to France’s chances of success, while Borussia Dortmund and Germany schemer Marco Reus, a player who cruelly missed out on the last two major international tournaments due to injury, finally has the chance to show off his bewitching talents on the world stage. There will be no Hector Bellerin, however, as the style-conscious Arsenal full-back hasn’t made the cut with Spain.
PUMA will supply uniforms for four teams — down from eight at Brazil 2014 — having recently added Senegal and Serbia to its roster post-qualifiers. PUMA stalwarts Switzerland and Uruguay are the other two teams.
It says a lot about the power Nike, adidas, and to a lesser extent PUMA have in football that just 27 players are expected to wear cleats from outside of the big three. Uniform-wise, it’s a similar story, with New Balance (Costa Rica, Panama), Hummel (Denmark), Umbro (Peru), Erreà (Iceland), and Uhlsport (Tunisia) the only other labels to feature at the tournament.
In America, Under Armour has attempted to build its entire basketball footwear division around Steph Curry, with the relationship only starting to blossom after an awkward start. When it comes to football, the brand has yet to attract a player of that caliber. Arsenal’s Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka, Liverpool’s rookie England full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Bayer Leverkusen and Germany defender Jonathan Tah are its three notable representatives in Russia.
Yet, having spent recent years pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into securing outfitting deals with top college sports programs — as well as signing up gold-standard talent such as Tom Brady, British boxer Anthony Joshua, tennis star Andy Murray, and golfer Jordan Spieth — it’s probably only a matter of time before UA adds a superstar soccer player to its ranks. It might have lost the right to make uniforms for Tottenham Hotspur (Nike took over in 2017), but the brand seems intent on causing a splash in the game. Just last year, it tried to prize Real Madrid away from adidas, only walking away from a deal when Madrid demanded more than $170 million per season.
If Under Armour is a natural fit for football given its history in performance innovation and ties with other sports, seeing New Balance branding on a soccer shirt still feels slightly quaint. In 2012, the Boston brand’s subsidiary, Warrior, agreed to a $33 million-a-year sponsorship deal with this year’s Champions League runner-up Liverpool, before rebranding as New Balance in 2015. Since then, NB has added mid-level European clubs such as Porto and Sevilla to its portfolio, as well as players such as Australia veteran Tim Cahill and Liverpool’s Senegalese attacker Sadio Mané — both of whom will feature at the World Cup.
It’s not all been plain sailing for New Balance’s football operation, though. Last year, Manchester United’s combative Belgian midfielder Marouane Fellaini sued the sportswear company for £2 million (approximately $2.6 million) for supplying “defective” cleats, while Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany, Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey, and French midfielder Samir Nasri all ditched NB for adidas.
Lotto, Asics, Mizuno, Umbro, and Pirma are the other brands to have athlete endorsements at the World Cup.
Next up; who really won the fashion World Cup?