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Nike’s football strategy ­– football stars or social icons?

Posted by Charlie Apsey on 1st April 2022

Last summer was a dramatic time for football fans. People around the country had their hopes raised and dreams dashed over a month-long, drama-ridden Euros tournament.

With a cumulative worldwide audience of five billion, averaging over 100 million fans a match, the viewing figures were incredible – going as far as to beat the Olympics, the world’s pinnacle sporting event.

Given the global attention and money involved, it is no surprise that many organisations invested so heavily in the Euros. It’s not simply a battle between 24 teams, but a war between some of the world’s biggest sporting brands.

A heated history

Historically, many organisations have thrown their hat into the football ring.

Brands from every industry have had a go at shirt sponsoring – from Angry Birds to Doritos, they all want the publicity associated with football.

However, it is the major kit manufacturers that garner the most attention. Battling over teams and players constantly, the top brands are in a constant tug of war to secure the top sporting figures so they can generate maximum exposure and attention.

While there are many kit manufacturers, historically Nike has been king, boasting a total revenue of almost $40 million in 2018, which is almost twice that of fierce rival Adidas. These two brands are in a constant wrestle for the most lucrative players and teams in an effort to boost their marketing and sales.

A double-edged sword

However, while sponsorship deals can prove massively beneficial to a manufacturer’s reputation and revenue, it can be a double-edged sword.

The recent example of Ronaldo and Coca-Cola during the Euros showcases just how much these superstars can damage brands. Ronaldo’s simple act of moving a coke bottle away from camera and saying “drink water” saw Coca-Cola’s stock price drop by five billion dollars.

This one instance highlights the risk organisations run when they piggyback their brands onto individuals or other organisations. Bad kits, team performances or individual player scandals can all have an impact on sales and revenue. In football, a fan’s perception of a brand can change in an instant.

Nike’s developing strategy

Historically, the majority of sports brands tended to use a scattergun approach to sponsorship, acquiring as many topflight brands and players as possible. This was effective pre-internet, when football players were all super stars and if you played for a club you were a role model to fans worldwide.

But times have changed and perceptions have shifted. Today, footballers have to do more than play to be popular. They are expected to be visible throughout social media, exposing themselves to the public in a way that they never had to do traditionally.

Footballers are no longer immortal heroes — they are people, and they have flaws.

Not all publicity is good publicity 

An approach that targets as many people as possible no longer works either. It not only increases the likelihood of negative publicity, it lessens the prestige of a sponsorship. People are looking for more in a role model now. They don’t just want an athlete, they demand individuals whose influence spreads beyond football.

Realising this change in demand, the last few years have seen Nike adapt its approach. The brand has evolved its policy and cut back on the number of athletes, focusing on quality rather than quantity and concentrating on the crème de la crème of the footballing social world.

This new approach doesn’t just focus on talent, as Nike has dropped the likes of Neymar and Thiago, but instead looks to players who match their desired position and image. The roster now boasts a combination of football’s most talented individuals and vocal social warriors, with the likes of Mbappe and Rashford being prime stars.

And it’s not just Nike. Even non-sports brands are adopting this strategy. Google’s recent partnership with Rashford and H&M’s clothing launch with Hector Bellerin are two examples of brands making environmentally and socially conscious decisions.

A feeding frenzy

Of course, not all brands are as dominant as Nike and can afford to put their eggs in a few baskets. The likes of New Balance, Puma and Umbro are all battling for the top athletes left behind by Nike, hoping to raise their portfolios.

Puma has pounced on the big names, like Neymar, while New Balance is tying down the top premier league athletes, recently securing Saka and Mane, among others.


Only time will tell which brand strategy wins, but early indicators suggest that Nike may be onto a winner.

Being sponsored by Nike has once again become a status symbol in sport – not just something handed out to any and every footballer. Only the most prestigious players and social icons now represent the brand and, while putting all their eggs in a handful of baskets may be a risk, the benefits could be gargantuan.


Charlie Apsey