FINANCIAL TIMES | VANESSA FRIEDMAN
There is no question that football can sell fashion – Louis Vuitton’s current heritage campaign, featuring legends Zinedine Zidane, Pelé and Diego Maradona playing table football in a Madrid bar, was chosen, according to the company, specifically because of the “universality” of the sport’s appeal. But can fashion sell football?
For the first time, Fifa, the sport’s governing body, is betting yes. This year it has licensed its imagery, including mascots and logos, to be transformed into a clothing brand, courtesy of Singapore-based Global Brands Group. In turn, the company, which also owns the rights to create and distribute products from the PGA golf tour, has licensed its products to 19 territories round the world – including the US, football’s most fan-challenged region. The theory is: if the sartorial strategy works there, it will work everywhere.
Janon Costley, chief executive of Total Apparel Group (Tag), the company charged with making this happen in the US, believes that consumerism could be the answer. “During the period around every World Cup, Fifa has huge sales – during the last one they did $2bn in merchandise globally – which then dwindles to basically zero over the next three years,” he says. “It became clear to Fifa that they needed to come up with a new form of outreach to consumers. When Global Brands approached them with the idea of creating a clothing brand, they decided it could be the answer.”
So, while Nike (sponsor of nine teams, including the US and Brazil) and Adidas (sponsor of 12 teams) project huge sales during South Africa’s event, Fifa is hoping that by entering the lifestyle market, it will not only keep interest alive between tournaments but may actually increase its audience in the US.
This is especially important in the US, where, Don Jones, Tag’s chairman, points out, there is the most room for expansion.
“The potential market is huge,” agrees Mike Principe, managing director of Blue Entertainment Sports Television (Best), an equity investor in Tag. He says there are now 18m registered football players in the US, a number that includes children playing in soccer leagues as well as adult weekend teams and official teams. Yet somehow all those players have never cohered into an identifiable and dedicated consumer fan base.
Of course, there have been previous efforts to turn football into a mainstream sport in the world’s biggest market. The US hosted the World Cup in 1994 and, five years later, when the US football team beat China in the finals of the women’s World Cup, pundits predicted that this would provide the breakthrough.
Even more famously, in 2007, David Beckham moved to Los Angeles to play for LA Galaxy and opened a football academy, saying “soccer is huge all around the world except in America, and that’s where I want to make a difference”. But earlier this year sponsor AEG closed Beckham’s California soccer academy.
Why do the backers of the Fifa clothing brand think they can succeed where others have failed?
Don Jones, Tag’s chairman, says the problem in the past was that the sport failed to cement its place in mainstream US culture. “Now, sport and fashion and entertainment are interchangeable, and you have to strategise with that in mind. Clothes put the sport squarely in front of people who might not see it any other way,” he says.
Mr Costley adds that “if you buy the product, you participate in the sport in some way, so the garment itself becomes an educational platform”.
The hypothesis works like this: a customer in search of a cool T-shirt sees one with, say, a cartoonish player on the front, or a faded, “aged” looking logo; he buys it and by wearing it, becomes both a walking advertisement for the sport and, perhaps, someone who starts kicking a ball around; he might then join a league, or at least turn on ESPN soccer, and football will then, like baseball or American football, become part of their identity.
But despite Tag’s bullishness, not everyone is convinced. According to Robert Burke, founder of Robert Burke Associates, a strategic brand consultancy, a clothing brand is unlikely to achieve what a World Cup, celebrities and sport stars have not. “As with any licensing deal, the success is gauged by the size of the audience,” he says.
“The Fifa brand could be interesting, with cool designs, but it would be very small compared to the American sports of football, basketball and [ice] hockey. With regards to the product helping influence the America interest in soccer, it is a long shot. The problem is that America. . . has not embraced soccer. I don’t think a fashion product will do the trick.”
Andrew Sacks, head of Agency Sacks, a luxury branding firm, agrees. “It’s hard to believe that audiences – American or in football-loving nations – will respond to merchandise from a league,” he says. “Passions are aligned with teams, not with corporations and bureaucracies. The only exception that I can think of may be Nascar, which is a movement in itself and is made up of individuals. In team sports, the team sells.”
Tag’s products have been specially selected to appeal to the US market – both men and women – with the company’s executives working with GBG’s design team in the Netherlands. Simon Hawkins, general manager of the Fifa Football Business Unit for GBG, says: “The collections have been engineered to garner an emotional connection with the consumer through the power and history of the Fifa brand.”
To wit: for the first time, former World Cup mascots have been used on current products, with many chosen to appeal to the US demographic. For example, “Juanito” from the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, is featured to appeal to the large number of Mexican-Americans.
There is also a separate “heritage” line that focuses on Fifa’s founding in 1904 on the Rue St Honoré in Paris, with the address embossed on the shirts not unlike the way Loewe, the Spanish luxury brand, has embossed its address on wallets, and Yves Saint Laurent has on clutches. “Before, football was seen as a European sport,” says Mr Costley. “And it was presented that way. We are trying to transform that perception.”
Still, the history of such forays into the garment world is that they have not been enormously successful. As Jeff Bliss, a former marketer at New Balance, the running shoe brand, and co-founder of consultancy Brand Ideology, pointed out in Sports Business Journal: “Fan passion follows teams and players – they do not get excited about a governing body.”
Yet Tag says that to worry about the meaning of Fifa is to miss the point, which is that whatever a consumer’s relationship with the governing body, the designs stand on their own. “Soccer isn’t just a game,” says Mr Principe. “It’s a fashion statement.” That’s the goal anyway.