When the World Cup final kicks off this Sunday, futbol fans everywhere will be watching the Netherlands play Spain for soccer supremacy. But in the world of sports marketing, only one competition matters: the battle of stripes versus swoosh.
The Dutch team is one of 10 countries wearing Nike-branded uniforms for the duration of the World Cup, while Spain is on Team adidas, the most successful of the 12 countries that the legendary soccer brand has outfitted. But the championship match that will pit logo against logo is just the final phase of a tournament that has seen the two Goliath sports brands vying for exposure on the world stage with the world's game.
The score so far? Nike grabbed the early lead with a star-studded, three-minute World Cup ad, created by Mexican film director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, that helped it to steal buzz before the tournament launched. But then it stumbled when several of those stars, such as English superstar Wayne Rooney, disappointed and their teams were knocked out early.
Adidas, meanwhile, which has shelled out huge sums to be the official sponsor of the World Cup among sports apparel companies, has gained momentum as the tournament progressed, dominating the pitch with its billboards and controversial, but stylish, Jabulani ball, which has sold 13 million since the design launched.
"As for the final … I would call it a draw," said Rob Tuchman, the executive vice-president of marketing firm Premiere Global Sports, adding that each company will be hoping that its side wins this weekend to get the most goal celebration and post-event exposure."
Adidas and Nike are the Coke and Pepsi of the soccer realm.
Just as Coke has paid dearly to ensure that a Pepsi billboard never appears at the Olympics, adidas has long held a lock on its relationship with FIFA, soccer's governing body, for sponsorship of the sport's signature event.
But that doesn't mean Beaverton, Ore.-based Nike, a relative upstart in the sport compared to its German competitor, hasn't tried to break through. In addition to the deals it has made to outfit teams, it struck individual agreements with players to wear Nike cleats (footwear is not part of the team outfit arrangement). The company says nearly 50 per cent of the players on the field laced up their shoes.
For this World Cup, it also launched campaigns including a search for undiscovered soccer players to attend a Nike academy and donated a facility in Soweto that offers sports fields, HIV testing and education.
And then there was that epic television ad, which has racked up more than 18 million views on YouTube.
"It created great momentum right out of the gate. It had such a great response," Nike spokesperson Derek Kent said. Research firm NM Incite noted that the campaign had an ambush marketing effect, taking attention away from adidas - though that was reversed once the tournament began.
Of course, the Nike campaign wasn't helped by the fact that among the seven superstars featured in the spot, only one scored a goal, and all have now been eliminated from the tournament.
Jeff Cooper, director of marketing communications at adidas Canada, was coy about whether the "Nike curse," as it has been dubbed, has caused some schadenfreude in the adidas camp. But he said the company was always comfortable relying on the power of its official FIFA partnership.
"They had tremendous success with that creative," Mr. Cooper said. "But we were counting that when the show starts, it's adidas. … That story was written because we sponsor, and we invest our dollars, in the World Cup."
And it has for some time: Adidas has created the last 10 World Cup balls, and has been an official sponsor for more than 40 years. In soccer branding terms, Nike is a relative upstart: Adidas is the heritage brand, going all the way back to a match in Bern, Switzerland, in 1954, when founder Adi Dassler had the idea to give the German National Soccer team screw-in studs on their shoes, helping them keep their footing in inclement weather and win against Hungary.
That heritage also means some well-established business relationships. Industry rumours had it that Nike offered the German team double what adidas was paying to convince it to switch its contract and wear Nike uniforms - to no avail.
"The history there, it would be like buying the propeller logo away from BMW," said Mark Harrison, president of Toronto-based marketing firm TrojanOne Ltd., which counts Nike and Coca-Cola among its clients.
Nike may have been smart to save the money it would have paid for the FIFA partnership, spending it instead on viral marketing - even if the ad started rumours of a curse, said Mr. Tuchman, the marketing executive.
Any brand that can tie itself to the tournament stands to benefit immensely. With all eyes on the world's most popular game, every player is a billboard with a global reach.
"You get major marketers taking it to a different level," Mr. Harrison said. "The World Cup is the greatest sporting event in the world. It's greater than the Olympics."
Uniformly visible: Nike and adidas have dressed most of the World Cup teams
Adidas may have its name all over the soccer pitch, thanks to its official partnership with FIFA; but both the soccer giant and its rival, Nike, have spread the money around to outfit 22 of the 32 teams with uniforms - turning every player into a marketing opportunity.
Eliminated Goals scored
The Netherlands* 12
Brazil quarter-final 9
Portugal second round 7
USA second round 5
South Korea second round 6
Australia first round 3
New Zealand first round 2
Serbia first round 2
Slovenia first round 3
England** second round 3
Germany semi-final 13
Argentina quarter-final 10
France first round 1
Mexico second round 4
Paraguay quarter-final 3
Slovakia second round 5
Japan second round 4
Greece first round 2
Nigeria first round 3
South Africa first round 3
Denmark first round 3
*The Netherlands and Spain are in the final on Sunday.
**England's uniform is manufactured by Umbro, which was bought out by Nike in 2007.