The battle of the brands

21:24, Oct 13 2012
The All Whites at training in their Nike sponsored gear.
The All Whites at training in their Nike sponsored gear.

The All Blacks and the All Whites may intermingle if Richie McCaw and his rugby mates accept an invite to watch Ryan Nelsen and his team play Tahiti in Tuesday's World Cup football qualifier at AMI Stadium.

But there's fat chance of their chief sponsors, adidas, who back the All Blacks, and Nike, whose trademark swoosh adorns the All Whites shirts, sharing the footballers' fraternity.

As one sports marketing and sponsorship insider quipped this week: 'There's more chance of [US Republican presidential candidate] Mitt Romney taking a family holiday in Tehran than there is of Nike and adidas having a joint promotion."

The All Blacks Adidas sponsored gear.
The All Blacks Adidas sponsored gear.

Twenty years ago, this story wouldn't have seen the light of day in a metropolitan newspaper's sports pages. Professional sport back then was something played almost exclusively overseas, save a few pin money payments for pints, petrol, pies and chips.

The sports media would have resiled or revolted at anything remotely resembling commercial promotion. Rugby, football, cricket, rugby league, track and field and even netball is now as much about business and entertainment as sport.

However, already this week, we've seen world sport's greatest superstar, Jamaica's six-time Olympic Games sprint gold medallist Usain Bolt flash into Auckland for a couple of Gatorade promotions.


Television networks and newspapers fell over themselves to run fawning footage of Bolt hamming it up with basketball's Breakers and coaching a clutch of Kiwi track tyros with Gatorade's garish big G splashed across their T-shirts.

Elsewhere in Auckland, motor car makers Audi got great mileage when the Giltrap Motors dealership and sponsor Banklink gave away new vehicles to New Zealand Olympic gold medallists.

Bolt's visit was more about promoting sports drinks than an altruistic desire to boost Kiwi athletics.

But the kids hand-picked for his "coaching" clinic probably couldn't care less how he got here.

Purists once would have coughed into their pints at such sycophantic coverage. Old Journalists Union chapel 'fathers"would have flipped off their green eye-shades and shouted 'Stop-work meeting" at fellow ink-stained newsroom wretches.

Back in the pre- professional sport era, companies cashing in on sporting achievers' coat-tails had to pay for an advertisement. Leverage meant dexterously prising off a bottle cap to get at the after- match ale.

How times change. A former New Zealand prime minister once noted politicians and journalists had the same sort of symbiotic relationship as a dog and a lamp-post.

Sport and business need each other. Without punters buying Sky Television subscriptions and big backers like adidas swelling New Zealand Rugby Union coffers, our top All Blacks might not be playing rugby in New Zealand.

Ryan Nelsen might not have had an opportunity to play premier league football without the commercial clout English clubs get from their multi-billion dollar television rights deals.

And if Nelsen hadn't played in the premier league, would the All Whites have got to the 2010 World Cup finals and earned a near-$10 million bonanza?

Conversely (no pun intended), sponsors benefit from reflected glory. Adidas might not shift as much sportswear in New Zealand if the All Blacks weren't World Cup champions. Nike sold out of All Whites shirts when Nelsen's men made the trek to South Africa.

The numbers are dizzying. No sports body worth its salt ever divulges individual sponsorship values.

But the New Zealand Rugby Union received close to $80m in commercial income in the 2011 financial year - out of a total revenue of about $100m.

New Zealand Football is a much smaller player (the All Whites clearly don't have the clout the All Blacks do, internationally) with sponsorship and grants totalling $4.4m from a total revenue base of almost $10m.

But there may be some symmetry between the All Blacks and All Whites. All Blacks manager Darren Shand says "some of the boys are big soccer fans". "Conrad Smith's a [Wellington] Phoenix nutter. He will be down there with the Yellow Fever."

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen won't mind us revealing that back in his coaching career in Cardiff he used to avidly watch World Cup football qualifiers featuring a Welsh team coached by Mark Hughes, Nelsen's Blackburn Rovers and Queen's Park Rangers gaffer.

All Whites and Phoenix defender Ben Sigmund had a mid-career pause playing senior rugby for Sumner in Christchurch and Nelsen once flirted with first XV footy at St Thomas of Canterbury College.

Shand says the All Blacks, who are training in Christchurch before next Saturday's Bledisloe Cup test in Brisbane, have "had an invite" to the All Whites' game. They are considering if they can fit it in around their own preparations. "We haven't made a decision yet," Shand said, 'but we've always been pretty supportive of other national teams."

Olympic rowing champion Mahe Drysdale travelled with the All Blacks to Argentina last month and team members watched a New Zealand Breakers pre-season basketball game while they were in Dunedin for the Springboks test.

So the players may rub shoulders, but their backers, Nike and adidas, are as bitter rivals internationally as the All Blacks and Springboks, the All Whites and Socceroos and, er, the Black Caps and Bangladesh.

Rarely the twain shall meet.

Clark Todd is a director of The Roar Group, a sports marketing and sponsorship agency which has Nelsen as a business partner. He spent 14 years with Nike NZ, rising to chief executive.

"It's very territorial, there's not a lot of love lost between Nike and adidas," he says.

Adidas became big players in the international rugby market in the late 1990s and Nike has established itself as a football force. Nelsen appeared in all-star lineup of English premier league players from 2010 World Cup finalist nations sporting Nike apparel.

Nike sponsors top nations like Brazil and France and the Netherlands as well as the New Zealands and New Caledonias and some of Europe's leading club teams, including Manchester United, Arsenal, Barcelona and Inter Milan.

Nelsen is part of their individual athlete stable with Carlos Tevez (Argentina), Andres Iniesta (Spain), England's Wayne Rooney and a bevy of Brazilians.

Adidas has the biggest drawcards in world rugby, namely the All Blacks, including McCaw, Dan Carter and Sonny Bill Williams. The All Blacks are so important to adidas that the sportsgear giant generally has a representative with the team on major tours.

But brands have made some incursions into the other's field of dominance. Adidas has an association with the Wellington Phoenix. The worldwide company has provided the balls for World Cup and European Champions League tournaments for the last 40 years and outfits world and European champions Spain, Chelsea, Real Madrid and A-League aristocrats Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC as well as superstars like Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas and Liverpool's England captain Steven Gerrard.

Adidas has "exclusivity" when the players are on All Blacks duty. But Todd says some New Zealand rugby players wear Nike boots in Super 15 matches. He says there's been a big push by players in all codes, but football in particular, toward 'player choice" in selecting the best boots to suit each individual.

Todd says there wouldn't be much chance of the "two brands getting together to cross-promote". Hence the analogy to Mitt Romney, an American Mormon politician, vacationing in Muslim Iran.

But he says the battle for sportswear supremacy is probably 'a little less intense individually" among New Zealand sales representatives bumping into each other in retail outlets.

New Zealand Football chief executive Grant McKavanagh agrees.

In a former life McKavanagh was chief executive of Radiola Corporation, the New Zealand distributor or Samsung products.

He doesn't think rival companies or sports sponsored by competing brands are at each other's throats here.

'No, I think everybody in New Zealand is a bit bigger than that."

McKavanagh says sports try to maximise exposure for themselves and their sponsors. "You want to get the biggest bang for your buck".

But he doubts one code would look to trump another's promotion by staging their own event at the same time and location.

New Zealand Football took "a low profile" when the NZRU had its months in the sun during last year's World Cup.

Todd, looking from the outside in, believes there's a relatively good rapport between New Zealand's rugby and football codes.

It's not only the sports and players who benefit from sponsors' largesse.

Christchurch will get a permanent small-sided futsal court on a Gap Filler project site in Hereford St, courtesy of Nike, as a legacy of the All Whites' visit.

A whole generation of budding Kiwi rugby players are still buzzing from the All Blacks' recent Mastercard Rugby Roadshow where kids rubbed shoulders with current All Blacks.

No-one understands the need to balance sporting and promotional duties better than Shand, the All Blacks manager since 2004.

Next week isn't a typical schedule for the All Blacks, who are in Christchurch from Sunday to Thursday to prepare for Saturday's Bledisloe Cup test in Brisbane. Shand says their two major promotional appearances will be held in Brisbane to support adidas and Telecom.

He says while the All Blacks are overseas they generally "work for our sponsors" who have international profiles. "If we're in the UK, it's usually Air New Zealand, Steinlager and adidas."

But in domestic test weeks, the All Blacks could have several promotional commitments right up to the day before a test.

"We always thought we couldn't do [promotional work] on Thursdays and Fridays because it was too close to the game.

"But the players are much better these days at knowing when to turn the switch and focus on playing.

"We have a saying in the camp, 'you are an All Black 24-7'."

But Shand says training and strength and conditioning work always take precedence. McKavanagh says it's the same for the All Whites even though New Zealand Football rarely has its squad, mostly based overseas, back together long. They generally play two games in the Fifa international 'window" before returning to their clubs.

The All Whites arrive in Christchurch tomorrow evening and will train on Monday morning. Three players will take part in the 'Fill The Gap" pitch dedication ceremony on Monday afternoon while others will do an in-store promotion for Nike at Rebel Sport in Riccarton Mall.

McKavanagh says "game preparation" is top of the All Whites' 'hierarchy" of needs followed by "a small amount of sponsor promotion" and media commitments.

But, first things first. As Shand says, performance is always paramount. Or as one of the abovementioned brands likes to say: "Just Do It." ABs' jersey

Fairfax Media