Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, sponsored by Nike, tops a list of the best-known soccer stars, with almost 84 percent of people globally recognising the Real Madrid striker. Nike sponsors six of the top 10 in the Repucom table, while Adidas sponsors three, led by second-placed Lionel Messi with 76 percent recognition. Puma has one. Photo: Reuters

Emma Thomasson Berlin

US sportswear group Nike is banking on its sponsorship of more of the world’s best-known soccer stars than Adidas in its battle to overtake the German firm as the sport’s top-selling brand at the Fifa World Cup next month.

Nike has signed six of the 10 most marketable footballers in the world, to just three for Adidas and one for smaller German brand Puma, according to a new ranking by sports marketing research group Repucom published yesterday.

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, sponsored by Nike, tops the firm’s ranking, with almost 84 percent of people worldwide saying they recognise the Real Madrid striker, helping to sell over 1 million shirts bearing his name last year.

In second place is Lionel Messi of Argentina, front man for the Adidas campaign who scores 76 percent global awareness, according to Repucom. His marketability has barely been dented by a mixed run of form for Barcelona this season.

The appeal of the extrovert Ronaldo, who took the crown as the world’s best player from Messi in January, is helped by his use of Twitter, where he has 26 million followers to just 2 million for the more retiring Argentinian.

Ronaldo probably helps sell shirts even when he is not wearing one – he poses nude on the cover of the latest Spanish Vogue with his model girlfriend Irina Shayk – though the branding benefits are shared as Adidas sponsors Real Madrid.

“While it is primarily about performance on the pitch, a player’s appeal is about a whole range of variables. With a footballer, you see everything, on the pitch and off the pitch, week in, week out,” Repucom founder Paul Smith said.

“Athletes like Ronaldo have something unique that if you could bottle it and sell it, you would do nothing else.”

Nike tries to do just that with a glitzy ad featuring Ronaldo – and Shayk – in which boys playing football in the local park end up scoring a penalty in a huge stadium against their heroes, including others from the Repucom top 10 such as England’s Wayne Rooney and Brazil’s Neymar.

Adidas has retaliated with a new ad launched on Saturday which shows Messi dreaming about his rivals, such as Bastian Schweinsteiger of Germany, Luis Suarez of Uruguay and Dani Alves of Brazil, none of whom feature in the Repucom top 10.

Nike’s ad has attracted over 67 million views on YouTube since it was launched a month ago, while the Adidas spot was viewed almost 29 million times in its first three days.

Adidas, which has long dominated the market for soccer boots, shirts and balls, is facing a fierce challenge from Nike, the world’s biggest sportswear company that has been a serious player in soccer only for the past 20 years.

While Adidas has supplied the match ball for the World Cup since 1970 and has extended its sponsorship of the competition to 2030, Nike is for the first time kitting out more teams – 10 out of 32 finalists – including hosts Brazil.

“Nike’s sponsorship of the host’s national team alone gives it a massive competitive edge,” Euromonitor analyst Magdalena Kondej said, predicting it would allow the US firm to extend its share of the Brazilian sportswear market from 12.1 percent now, with Adidas currently only on 5.5 percent.

Adidas, which is supplying nine teams including reigning champions Spain, as well as Argentina and Germany, expects to make a record e2 billion (R29bn) from football this year, still exceeding Nike’s $2bn (R21bn) of soccer turnover.

Meanwhile, Puma, whose only player in the Repucom top 10 is former France striker Thierry Henry, is resorting to a stunt to attract attention: it has persuaded players such as Italy’s maverick Mario Balotelli, Marco Reus of Germany and Cesc Fabregas of Spain to wear one pink and one blue “Tricks” boot.

“It is exactly the reason why I chose to be with Puma, they dare to be different and everyone knows that I do as well,” Balotelli said. – Reuters