Liverpool’s Thiago Alcantara, PSG star Neymar, Real Madrid players Rafael Varan, Sergio Ramos and Marco Asensio, Manchester City winger Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Robert Lewandowski from Bayern have all ended their relationship with Nike. Why does the brand part ways with elite athletes so easily?
For the attentive football fan the 2020/21 season presented many surprises, and it is not only about empty stands, strange results and abnormally high percentage of away victories. The pandemic has pointed to another industry problem that makes players’ agents, clubs’ commercial departments and branding experts uncomfortable.
In the Champions League final, Alcantara conducted the centre of the pitch for Bayern in Nike Phantom Venom boots. In recent weeks at Munich he could be seen training in a pair from Japanese brand Mizuno, and at the start of the new season with Liverpool the Spaniard was training in all-black shoes or older models from Nike.
Players on personal contracts with the outfit don’t get such a fix and wear the manufacturer’s flagship product. Fans want to take inspiration from their idols, sports brands are boosting sales and athletes are earning a comfortable old age from sponsorship deals.
Thiago, who had a long-term medical after an injury against Everton at the start of the season, returned to the pitch wearing adidas boots – the German brand proudly endorsed Alcantara as its brand ambassador. In training, the midfielder sparkled in the Predator and Copa models – he opted for the latter and ends the season in them.
What does that matter to anyone who doesn’t consider themselves a football geek obsessed with merch? It’s not about a particular player. Thiago is one of many athletes who have ended their partnership with Nike over the past year. As The Athletic reports, citing industry insiders, the market is on the verge of a major restructuring – a market that for years brought players a lot of revenue and was taken for granted.
In many cases, Nike itself has terminated the partnership, but the source notes that the testimony of the parties often differs – with player representatives hinting at the desire of the athletes themselves to go to a competitor. Either way, a significant number of global stars have recently abandoned the Swoosh logo. Apart from Thiago, these include PSG star Neymar, the Real Madrid trio of Rafael Varan, Sergio Ramos and Marco Asensio, Manchester City winger Raheem Sterling, Arsenal striker Bukayo Saca, and Bayern players Leroy Sane and Robert Lewandowski – to name but a few.
Industry players cite different reasons for what is happening. The Athletic have suggested that many players have become frustrated with their role in the brand’s marketing campaign and the way the sponsor is working to develop their personal media exposure. Others argue that the financial constraints of the pandemic have forced Nike to reduce its risks and limit its budget for such deals. Adidas sales are down 90% in the first quarter of 2020, the postponement of the Euros and Olympics has had a negative impact on sporting goods manufacturers.
For many athletes, the changes in the market will be a serious blow to revenues. Brands like Nike, adidas, Puma and New Balance have an established pattern of relationships with elite athletes – usually players who regularly play for national teams and in the Champions League at club level.
In the best cases, such partnerships bring the athlete the equivalent of 10-15% of his club salary. The Athletic cite the example of an unnamed Premier League forward who earns around €1.75m a year from a sponsorship deal. Like a club contract, a branded contract is incentivised by bonuses for goals scored and team and personal trophies won. Such a contract usually lasts for four years to capture several international tournaments. Poor sporting performance will also have a knock-on effect on the payout – to a lesser extent. The athlete could also be fined for appearing in public wearing other brands’ clothing.
The exodus of players from Nike has only now attracted attention, but the trend has been going on for a couple of years. A source from the rival brand told The Athletic that the approach is not due to a pandemic, but to a change in company policy. The Americans have decided to focus on fewer elite athletes and to bet on young stars who care about the social agenda. Mbappe, Sancho, Rashford and Holann are ideal customers for the brand. In addition, Nike is a global empire with a huge investment in athletes from the US representing a variety of sports, less representation in European football would not be critical for the company.
Mbappe’s progress and a fat contract from Puma has forced Neymar to switch outfitters for the first time in his career, Raheem Sterling has conceded the role of Nike’s most promising customer to Rashford and has been playing all season in alternating all-black and white cleats. Lewandowski occasionally tries on Puma models in training and matches – the American brand does not seek to retain top players, and we will see many more upgrades on the star athletes in the near future.