The real battle going on behind the World Cup

Adidas may be an official corporate partner of the FIFA World Cup, but most of the host country’s national team players in Brazil are wearing Nike

This reality must sting for Adidas marketing types. Decades ago, the company launched the groundbreaking practice of paying athletes to wear its shoes, paying sports teams to wear its jerseys, and paying a league to use its ball, as Brendan Greeley reported recently in his Bloomberg BusinessWeek cover story.

But just like at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Nike has done it again. 

Although not an official corporate partner of the World Cup, the largest sportswear company in the world ($25 billion in annual revenue and a 17 percent market share) attracts as much – if not more – marketing buzz as Adidas does during World Cup games, even though the Germany-based rival has been the event’s official corporate partner since 1970. FIFA’s other major partners, which reportedly pay some $25-50 million per year for the privilege, are Coca-Cola, Emirates, Hyundai Motor Group, Sony and Visa.

Besides sponsoring individual elite athletes, Nike also sponsors the host country Brazil’s national team, and pays its most famous player Neymar Jr. $7 million a year.  This year, Nike will sponsor 10 national teams, more than ever before. That’s one more team than Adidas funds.

The reason Nike wants in on the global mania for soccer (I mean football, as the sport is known almost everywhere except here in North America) is of course the staggering number of fans worldwide. The in-home television coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, for example, reached over 3.2 billion people around the world. That’s 46.4% of the global population and an 8% rise on stats achieved at the 2006 event in Germany.

As Chris Smith reminded us in a recent Forbes column:

“Non-sponsors are free to air soccer-themed commercials.”

Very few companies take advantage of this reminder better than Nike does. You’ll rarely see as many high-priced soccer royalty together at the same time as you will, for example, in Nike’s Risk Everything TV ad campaign.

Watch the ad and see if you can pick out Cristiano Renaldo, Wayne Rooney, Neymar Jr., Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Gerard Piqué, Gonzalo Higuaín, Mario Götze, Eden Hazard, Thiaga Silva, Andrea Pirlo, David Luiz, Andrés Iniesta, Thibaut Courtois and Tim Howard. I dare you to count the number of Nike swooshes crammed into this spot.

And consider that Nike’s Risk Everything ad has already been viewed about 78 million times so far on YouTube. Greeley explained:

“Adidas backs athletes. Nike backs athletic celebrities.”

FIFA World Cup corporate partner Adidas, meanwhile, is no slouch in the TV ad creative department.  Greeley compares the two companies like this:

“Nike didn’t do soccer until 1994, when the World Cup came to the U.S. And even when Adidas lost its advantage in other sports, it held on to it in soccer. Adidas Herbert Hainer, the company’s CEO, likes to say that the game is ‘part of our DNA.’ Adidas relies more on the European market, where soccer is the only sport that matters.

“Nike wants soccer. Adidas needs it.”

Meanwhile, this entertaining House Match TV ad features Adidas-sponsored soccer legends David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane, Gareth Bale and Lucas Moura as they turn Beckingham Palace into their own personal football pitch.

But look carefully or you’ll miss the Adidas logos until the final All In Or Nothing tagline. Compared to non-partner Nike’s 78 million YouTube views, this official FIFA corporate partner Adidas ad has so far attracted barely 15 million views for its effort.

Jim Edwards once explained Nike’s overwhelming World Cup awareness success despite not paying a dime in FIFA partnership agreements in his MoneyWatch column in BNet:

“It’s yet more proof that marketers can ‘own’ even the world’s biggest sporting event without paying a red cent in contract fees — if you’re clever enough.”

Q: Why do you think Nike dominates World Cup online media despite not being a FIFA partner?

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