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Adidas wins World Cup race, but Nike kicks back at ground level

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When Sami Khedira suits up to defend Germany's World Cup title in Russia next summer, his jersey will bear the three-bar logo of Adidas AG, which sponsors the team.

[FRANKFURT] When Sami Khedira suits up to defend Germany's World Cup title in Russia next summer, his jersey will bear the three-bar logo of Adidas AG, which sponsors the team. But look at Khedira's feet, and you'll see Nike's swoosh on his Magista Obra II shoes.

The star midfielder is emblematic of a strategic shift in the decades-old sneaker wars: While Adidas has edged ahead in the branding sweepstakes, with 11 national squads slated to sport Adidas jerseys at the Russia competition versus 10 wearing Nike, the latter has fought back at ground level, signing far more shoe contracts with top players.

The 32 World Cup teams were sorted into eight groups Friday, though their lineups won't be finalized until next summer. But more than half the athletes in Russia's stadiums will likely be shod in Nike, researcher PR Marketing predicts.

Four years ago in Brazil, 52 per cent played in Nike footwear and 36 per cent wore Adidas, according to Peter Rohlmann, PR Marketing's founder.

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"This is by no means a lucky punch for Nike," Mr Rohlmann said. "Nike acted earlier and broader than Adidas did when it comes to private endorsements."

Adidas has long-running partnerships with national squads and club teams, and has had deals with the big global soccer associations since the 1970s, putting its logo on balls, referee jerseys and stadiums across the Continent.

In Europe alone, sportswear makers spend 800 million euros (S$1.28 billion) a year sponsoring clubs like Real Madrid or Manchester United and a further 500 million euros annually backing national squads, according to PR Marketing.

The manufacturers see sponsorships as key to boosting sales of shoes, jerseys and other equipment to consumers - a market valued at almost US$19 billion last year, more than double the level a decade ago. Nike and Adidas together control 89 per cent of that, PR Marketing estimates.

Lately, Adidas has managed to kick Nike out of the top spot where it really matters: in sales to people who play for fun. After trailing Nike for several years, since the 2014 European championship Adidas has regained the lead in shoe sales to amateurs, selling 42 million pairs versus Nike's 31 million last year, according to PR Marketing.

In the tit-for-tat competition between the two soccer-shoe giants, Nike has adopted what Rohlmann calls a "nuisance" strategy of picking a rival team's players for individual shoe contracts. For instance, when Khedira plays for his club team, Italy's Juventus, he dons an Adidas jersey and his Nike shoes. Ditto Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, ManU's Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Bayern Munich's Robert Lewandowski, who all wear Nike shoes while their teams - and jerseys - are in the Adidas camp.

"The focus is no longer on broad-based sponsoring, but on the top teams and players," says Volker Bosse, an analyst at Baader Bank AG. "The value lies in their global fame and followers."

The companies, or at least the players, aren't afraid to use guerrilla marketing tactics. In March, Borussia Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang dyed a red Nike swoosh into his hair even though Puma sponsors the squad. And after scoring against Schalke 04 in April, he celebrated by donning a mask shown in a Nike commercial. Local media reported Aubameyang earns about two million euros a year from Nike and gets extra payments if he mentions the company on social media.

In 2013, when midfielder Mario Goetze was introduced as the latest star player for Bayern Munich - an Adidas team - he wore a T-shirt with "Nike" written in a font bigger than the squad's name on his jersey. The same year, Goetze showed off Nike socks on a trip with the Adidas-sponsored German national team. After Goetze scored the only goal in the 2014 World Cup final, his shoes - Nikes - fetched two million euros at a charity auction.

Nike had no comment on the incidents, and provides scant detail on sponsorships. In its annual report, the company says it will spend US$1.1 billion annually on endorsement contracts in the next five years.

Of course, nuisance marketing can go both ways, with Adidas providing shoes to Divock Origi of Wolfsburg and perhaps the world's best player, Lionel Messi of Barcelona, whose squads sport Nike. And when Origi plays for his native Belgium and Messi suits up for Argentina, they're entirely clad in Adidas, which sponsors the national teams.

Macquarie analyst Andreas Inderst, meanwhile, says jerseys have become more important for casual fans, who place little importance on performance footwear. Nonetheless, he says shoe sales are a better indicator of a brand's overall health.

"People buy jerseys because they are fans of a team, not because of the sponsor's logo," Mr Inderst says. "People buy shoes because they are cool or comfortable. It's much harder for a brand to buy market share in shoes than it is in jerseys."

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