Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Smart Bit Of Business

Here's a very quick trivia question for you: what one thing did the England 1966 World Cup winning team, the Liverpool team that won European Cups in 1978, 1981 and 1984, the Brazil team that won the World Cup in 1994 and the Manchester United team that won the 1999 European Cup all have in common? Give up? They all wore kits manufactured by Umbro, the Manchester-based football kit and sportswear manufacturers. There are barely any English or Scottish teams of note that haven't worn an Umbro kit at some point or another, and the company's success han't been limited to the UK - Flamengo, Lazio, Club Bolivar, Cruz Azul, Botafogo, C.A.Independiente, Finn Harps, Deportivo La Coruña, Olympique Lyonnais, La Universidad de Chile, Colo-Colo, Santos, Vasco da Gama, Atlético Nacional, Internazionale, Ajax, Celta Vigo, FC Twente, Málaga, CSKA Moscow, Hajduk Split, Dynamo Moscow, Torpedo Moscow, and Wisła Kraków (amongst others) have all worn the famous diamond at some point in the past.

I mention this now because (and this seems to have slipped under the radar of most blogs and web sites) a take-over of Umbro was agreed last week by Nike, the American giants. From a business perspective, it is a decision that would appear to make sense for both parties. Umbro, one rather suspects, have been punching above their weight for some time, and their fortunes have been on the wane over the last decade or so, as Adidas and Nike themselves have marketed themselves more aggressively across the football world. They lost United to Nike, Spurs to Pony (who made a spectacularly bad job of replacing them) and many more besides. They have, however, managed to hold onto the England contract, which is one of the most lucrative in world football. Meanwhile, Nike (who made their UK football kit debut in 1984, at Sunderland, of all places) have made inroads into the UK market (Arsenal and Manchester United both wear the Nike logo today, as well as producing the official Premier League match ball), but haven't got the sort of market share that their wider dominance in the leisure wear might suggest that they should have. Internationally, they are more successful - Brazil, Barcelona, Juventus and Inter all wear Nike - but they are still losers on the international stage to Adidas, who have had the all-important exclusive FIFA contract for nearly forty years. However, the Premier League is the current flavour of the month in global terms - a stronger market presence in the UK gives them a spot in the global marketplace.

From a design standpoint, it might not be such a bad thing. Umbro have produced some wretched designs over the years, and many of the current crop (as sported by the likes of West Ham United, Birmingham City and Blackburn Rovers) are uninspired affairs, blighted by over-use of the Umbro logo. Compared to this, some of Nike's recent designs (such as their current Fulham shirt, which nods heavily towards the shirt worn by them in the 1975 FA Cup Final) have demonstrated a sensitivity towards tradition not usually noted in American multi-national companies. A good comparison to make between the two companies would be the current USA shirt (which is loosely based on their 1950 World Cup design) and the dog's breakfast that England almost certainly won't be wearing at next year's European Championship finals. One is tasteful and relatively understated, whilst the other is covered in smears and pointless, unnecessary stripes.

It might also make a difference on the pitch. Nike have been criticised for the amount of control that they hold over the Brazil team (those rumours concerning Ronaldo and the 1998 World Cup final just won't go away), and there is a case to be made that the kit manufacturers have a degree of control over which players go to which clubs. Ronaldinho is Ronaldinho of Barcelona, Brazil and Nike. Wayne Rooney is Wayne Rooney of Manchester United, England and Nike. I've heard it said that Oliver Bierhoff went to Milan some years ago primarily because Opel Cars and Adidas (Milan's kit manufacturer) wanted a German player in the Milan team to boost the club's profile in Germany. In the modern environment, in which sponsors wield incredible power, such decisions are very possible indeed. Such things are largely conjecture, of course. No sponsor would be stupid enough to be explicit about holding such a motive behind a transfer, but to assume that this sort of thing is impossible is to misunderstand the nature of the modern game.

Ballhype: hype it up!


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