Euro 2012 and the Battle of the Sports Brands

The Euro 2012 Football Championship, which kicks off in Poland and Ukraine on 8 June, will attract a live television audience of over one billion people across 220 countries. For the two most visible sports brands, Nike and adidas, the commercial stakes are high as both look for mid-season growth spikes to offset potentially lacklustre European sales over the second half of the year.

The popularity of the beautiful game

More than one billion people watched the 2008 UEFA European Football Championship (the tournament takes place every four years), with an average television audience of 150 million per match. Some 1.1 million watched the games live in stadiums while 4.2 million followed them on huge screens set up at official fan zones. Only the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics have attracted bigger cumulative sports audiences.

Given the rise of recession-driven household cocooning in Western Europe, television viewers for the 2012 European championship could break records. What is clear is that advertising activity will be ramped up across a raft of fast moving consumer goods over the weeks ahead as companies look to leverage guaranteed captive audiences. Official sponsors include brand heavyweights Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Carlsberg, Canon and adidas, for example.

Germany’s adidas, in particular, will be hoping that its recent run of success in football tournaments continues. In South Africa, two years ago, Spain won the football World Cup wearing the three stripes logo. And last month’s UEFA Champions League final between Chelsea and Bayern Munich, watched by an estimated 180 million people, was a 100% adidas branded affair.

How the brands line up

For Euro 2012, in its capacity as official sponsor and self-styled football expert, adidas is providing the new Tango 12 tournament ball, kitting out the match officials and volunteers and has high-profile branding across the stadia. The company will be hoping for better feedback on the match ball than at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, however, when players complained about performance (many thought the ball was over pressurised).

It will be the performance of adidas’ sponsored teams – and its sponsored players – that has the most significant bearing on post-tournament sales of its apparel and sports goods, however. The stadium branding and match ball will matter little if the Euro 2012 final is contested between Italy, wearing Puma, and France, wearing Nike. And that, of course, is in the lap of the gods.

Nike is not an official sponsor of the tournament but could emerge as the most visible brand. Four teams, Poland, Portugal, Croatia and France, will wear Nike’s iconic tick (or swoosh), while Umbro (owned by Nike although divestment plans have been announced) will be worn by England, Sweden and the Republic of Ireland. adidas has the edge in terms of participating teams, but an all Nike final is not beyond the realms of possibility, while Italy’s Puma is the dark horse.

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Source: Euromonitor International from company information

The art of ambush marketing

In modern football, players are brands in their own right. With that in mind, the commercial battleground for Nike and adidas is not simply between teams but between individual footballers. Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Andrés Iniesta will be wearing Nike’s new Clash (or Mercurial Vapor) collection of football boots, for example.

A successful tournament for any one of those players would have a huge commercial upside for Nike. In South Africa, Nike might have lost to adidas in the World Cup final, but its football boots were the most visible over the month-long tournament and stole some of the thunder from official adidas branding. This type of ambush marketing is entirely within the rules.

Indeed, while it is true that adidas has a stronger heritage in football than Nike, the latter is playing a good game of catch up. This can be traced back to 2002 when Brazil won the World Cup, wearing the ‘swoosh’ on their famous yellow shirts. From that juncture, Nike started to identify football as a key driver of its strategic expansion.

Brands put to the sword

Fast on the heels of Euro 2012 will be the Olympic Games. adidas is the official sportswear partner of the London Games and as such will be at the centre of the commercial activity. Nike is not an official sponsor but is rumoured to be making a bid for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games in 2016. That would mark a departure from recent strategy.

Nike will be highly visible in London through the US Olympic basketball team and US track and field athletes, of course. Nike also operates a huge retail store in the Westfield shopping mall, which is located on the edge of the Olympic Park. This will benefit from a potential surge in spectator footfall.

Both Euro 2012 and the London Olympic Games are enormously important marketing events for the world’s biggest sports brands. As belts tighten in austerity-hit Western Europe, there is evidence that the middle ground of consumer goods is getting squeezed, by economy branding on the one side and affordable luxury on the other. A big chunk of the portfolios of adidas, Nike and Puma sit within this middle ground, and are exposed to lacklustre spending patterns.

A successfully branded international sports event can create a spike in sales and make all the difference to end-of-year results. The problem, especially in football tournaments, is that so many variables can go wrong. For example, one or both of the host nations could exit the competition at the first stage, which would dampen the ‘live’ atmosphere. Or, one or more of the highest profile sponsored players could get injured, banned or simply underperform.

Sports marketing is not for the risk averse, nor for the feint hearted. There will be glory and there will be pain. Is taking part more important than winning or losing? From a commercial perspective, the jury is out on that one.