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World Cup Battle: Nike vs. Adidas


The World Cup begins tomorrow in Germany. In soccer, what the rest of the world knows, as football, team rivalries are intense. Equally intense is the soccer competition between the world's two biggest producers of sports apparel, Nike and Adidas.

As NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports, Nike, a relative newcomer to soccer, is gunning for the Germany company whose name is practically synonymous with the game.

WENDY KAUFMAN reporting:

For Nike, soccer has become the Holy Grail. Nike is bigger than Adidas, but as Nike sees it, to truly be the number one sports brand in the world, you have to be number one in the world's most popular sport.

(Soundbite of kids playing soccer)

At Adidas' North American headquarters near downtown Portland, serious play is part of the job. But mention Nike's ambitions here, and you'll get an earful from employees like Antonia Zaya(ph).

Adidas, he says, is number one in soccer. Always has been - always will be.

Mr. ANTONIA ZAYA (Adidas Employer): Soccer is the soul of Adidas. It's what the company was built on. And there's a little guy behind all of this. There was a shoemaker, and he wasn't somebody that was just putting shoes on people's feet. He was a person that was making shoes for athletes, and that's the spirit that lives with all of us. It's the passion of the game.

KAUFMAN: The passion for soccer permeates everything inside the edgy high-tech buildings here. A nine-foot replica of Adidas' new World Cup Ball dominates the lobby, along with a huge electronic clock, counting down the seconds till the start of the games.

More than two years ago, 200 Adidas employees were selected and given a task - create new technology superior products for the World Cup.

Mr. ZAYA: I was one of those people, actually. I built some of those products.

KAUFMAN: Antonia Zaya says the coolest thing was working on TUNIT, a new concept in soccer shoes, known in much of the rest of the world as football boots. Each pair comes with different choices for soles and studs, so it can be instantly customized.

Mr. ZAYA: The chassis is simply inserted into the upper of the product. It slides in, and then it's a simply screw-in system that you screw into the upper. TUNIT is the iPod of the industry.

KAUFMAN: But while Adidas invokes the iPod, much of the company's marketing strategy is very traditional. The company boasts that it has locked up all the official sponsorships. It's the only sports apparel company that can advertise inside or near the stadiums, and it's the only one that can run ads on most TV broadcasts.

With billions of fans expected to watch the games in person or on television, Adidas has a powerful marketing platform. But make no mistake: Nike has plans of its own.

On a recent afternoon at Nike's sprawling, 176-acre campus in suburban Portland, a top high school athlete is blasting balls into the net as part of a field test for a new Nike shoe.

(Soundbite of soccer)

The company has come a long way in soccer since 1994, when it first decided to get serious about the sport. The company's Dean Stoyer says, in the past 12 years Nike's soccer business has grown from $40 million to nearly $1.5 billion.

Mr. DEAN STOYER (Nike Spokesman): We have been striving to be the number one soccer brand in the world since we made that commitment in '94.

KAUFMAN: And Nike, he says, doesn't enter a fight unless it intends to win.

Paul Swangard, at the University of Oregon's Sports Marketing Program says, for Adidas, the challenge is to be hip and relevant while still paying homage to the past. Nike, he says, can focus solely on the future.

Mr. PAUL SWANGARD (Managing Director, University of Oregon Warsaw Sports Marketing Center): Nike has gone very hard at the next generation, this idea of soccer-crazed kids that are growing up in a new environment with a new media world, with new tastes in favorite teams and favorite athletes.

KAUFMAN: One of Nike's favorites is the superstar of the Brazilian National Team, Ronaldinho. According to Nike's Dean Stoyer, Ronaldinho embodies the company's marketing theme, Joga Benito. It means play beautifully in Portuguese.

Mr. STOYER: Ronaldinho is, by far, the most popular player. And most would say the most talented player in the world today. And he's very, very young. And he's incredible to watch.

KAUFMAN: In a Nike produced Internet-only ad that the company says has been downloaded 30 million times, Ronaldinho is seen doing spectacular shots. On his feet, Nike cleats with a huge golden swoosh. With exposure like this, Nike says, you don't need official World Cup sponsorships.

What happens most, of course, is what happens on the field, whose gear gets seen the most. Nike is banking on the Brazilians to win, while the Germany company, Adidas, is pulling for its home team.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wendy Kaufman