After decades of market dominance, a chink in Nike's armor is being revealed, and Adidas is ready to strike. The company is capitalizing on a little luck and a lot of brilliance in its quest. As a result, Adidas can be expected to overtake its U.S. competitor as the No. 1 sneaker brand on the globe -- both in terms of sales and perception -- in the next three years. Industry watchers will be able to point to a series of moves that laid the foundation for Adidas' coup.
Reacting quickly when opportunity knocks
First, Nike saw nearly all of its high-profile teams and players make early exits from the 2014 World Cup. Adidas was right there to capitalize, with many shirts emblazoned with three stripes competing in the knock-out round. To be fair, Nike had no way of knowing Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney would not advance beyond the group stage. But credit the German sneaker maker with ensuring that no matter where the estimated 46% of the global population looked during those monumental games, viewers saw those iconic stripes.
Not afraid to spend big
Adidas is by no means a small shoe manufacturer, with $19.7 billion in revenue recorded in 2013. But it still comes up short of Nike's $25.3 billion generated in the same year.
So, with billions more dollars to spend, it seems curious that "the Swoosh" allowed its contract with Manchester United to expire. It's not hyperbole to say that Man U is one of the most famous, most successful franchises in one of the most famous, most successful leagues that play the world's most popular sport. Yet Nike decided it had become too expensive to continue being the exclusive manufacturer of United's apparel.
Enter Adidas, which shows up with more money than anyone has ever offered in the sport to take on that burden. The $1.29 billion deal is more than twice as large as the Nike agreement signed with Manchester in 2002, and it runs from the 2015-2016 season through the 2025-2026 season. That means that for the next decade, every time Manchester United takes the field, those familiar three stripes will be front and center. And Adidas gets a sizable cut from the sale of all officially licensed apparel.
The Man U contract adds to Adidas' already impressive resume of exclusive apparel deals. The company produces uniforms and official game-day apparel for the NBA, the United Kingdom's Olympic teams, and dozens of professional soccer teams, including international powers Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Whereas Nike's deals with high-profile NCAA teams like Duke, Alabama, and Ohio State garner regional and national attention, Adidas' sponsorships are with global brands.
Betting on youth
Adidas is not merely reacting to Nike's perceived missteps. It's launching a full-blown offensive. With soccer seemingly in the bag, Adidas is going after Nike's bread and butter: young basketball phenoms.
Nike built its empire largely on the success of athletes like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant defying gravity and personifying poetry with the company's kicks on their feet. But as the next generation of hardwood heroes enter the NBA, more of them are signing up with Adidas. Andrew Wiggins, the first player selected in the 2014 NBA draft, just signed a deal that is believed to be the largest ever for a rookie in the brand's history. Wiggins joins Dwight Howard, Derek Rose, and Iman Shumpert as the youthful faces of Adidas, while Nike continues to depend on aging stars like Bryant -- LeBron James and Kevin Durant notwithstanding.
Basketball isn't the only arena where Nike is experiencing a youth drought. In baseball, its subsidiary Jordan Brand is paying homage to the great Derek Jeter with a brilliant "Re2pect" campaign. But once the curtain drops on 2014, the Captain will join Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., and so many other high-profile Nike athletes who are no longer in the game.
The Nike brand feels old. It's not just that the company has been around for a while, but its faces and its footwear feel stale. Each new model Nike puts out feels like a slightly diminished version of the previous one. It's like making a photocopy of a photocopy, over and over again.
While only the most devout sneaker aficionados follow these companies' social media feeds and release dates, recent data shows that those aficionados represent a sizable portion of the sneaker-buying public. Forbes recently estimated that sneaker enthusiasts represent about 5% of the $22 billion retail sneaker market in the U.S. That may not seem huge, but it's good for roughly $1.1 billion in sales and untold capital in trend-setting brand awareness. When celebrities like Mark Wahlberg and Lily Allen step out in their limited-edition Air Jordans, millions of "regular" sneaker buyers start lining up to get a pair.
Another person Millenials love is Kanye West, and Adidas swooped in and inked the rap star to an exclusive deal to design a sneaker line after Nike let its deal with Yeezy expire.
Athletes, musicians, artists, and entire companies are all on board with Adidas. Whether it's through Nike refusing to sign on with brands, or those brands actively eschewing the Swoosh, the result is that Adidas is being presented an opportunity to seize. It seems unlikely that Nike is sitting on a master plan to thrust itself back into the zeitgeist, and it appears as though Adidas is correctly favoring the global market over any national or regional ones. If these companies remain on their respective courses, Adidas will emerge the victor, and the folks in Oregon will be wondering how it happened.