Adidas 'boot war' hits fever pitch in Germany

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The toe-to-toe rivalry between Adidas and Nike has spread to the soccer fields of Germany, with the country threatening to bar players with Nike contracts from competing in the World Cup-arguably the world's greatest sporting spectacle.

The "boot war" has infuriated an army of soccer fans in Germany, which will host the competition next summer, and could hurt the image of both brands.

The German dust-up isn't the only sponsor-related soccer flap. In the U.K., waves of protest began after American businessman Malcolm Glazer took control of England's famed Manchester United. In protest the "Reds," as Man U's supporters are known, are trying to organize a boycott of the club's three main sponsors: Nike, Vodafone and Audi. The London Times reported that Manchester United Supporters' Association claimed 30,000 Man U fans canceled cellphone contracts with Vodafone.

In Germany, Adidas pays $10 million a year to be the national team's exclusive apparel provider, meaning all players and coaches must wear Adidas apparel during any international competition, according to executives with knowledge of the contract.

But at least half the players likely to be selected to represent Germany in the 2006 World Cup have individual endorsement deals to wear Nike apparel and equipment while playing in their various leagues.

That led Juergen Klinsmann, manager of the Deutscher Fussball Bund, to declare that any player who refuses to wear Adidas apparel and soccer cleats will not play on the German national team that competes for the World Cup. Adidas and Nike declined to comment. A spokesman for DFB said, "We will honor our contract with Adidas," and reiterated that "players who refuse to wear Adidas shoes will be excluded from playing on the national team."

WORLD OF CONFLICT

Though fans are incredulous that star players would be omitted from the team due to a simple conflict in brands, there's nothing simple about multimillion-dollar sponsorships, which are coming more and more often into conflict around the world.

Last fall, Germany censured goalkeeper Jens Lehmann for wearing Nike gloves during a 2-0 win over Iran. France took it a step further. The French national team, also sponsored by Adidas in a $10 million annual deal, fined star player Robert Pires 50,000 euros, or about $63,000, for wearing a T-shirt with the Puma name and logo to a press conference. (Mr. Pires has an individual endorsement deal with Puma.) In both instances, the penalties came after Adidas complained to the respective national teams.

"Frankly, it's not boding well for Adidas," said David Jones, CEO of Havas' Euro RSCG, New York, who has worked with sneaker and apparel companies in the past and whose agency does business with some current World Cup sponsors. "It doesn't make them look good to take a hard-line stance. But the bottom line is how the brand is seen. If a top sports person wears a certain [brand], the consumer will want a part of that, too."

Don't expect either side to make a magnanimous gesture of goodwill. While Adidas trails Nike, Reebok and New Balance in U.S. shoe sales, it leads all companies globally in soccer apparel and equipment with a 35% share of the market, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. Nike is second with a 30% share.

Contributing: Dagmar Mussey

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