Why Nike Doesn’t Want Neymar

In September 2020, Neymar shook the football

world by announcing to leave his long time

sponsor Nike to join Puma.

After 15 years of working with Nike, this

came as quite a surprise.

Nike had signed Neymar already at age 13 when

he was still a child.

He developed into one of the key players of

the brand, had his own signature line and

was the face of many marketing campaigns.

He even had the honor to become the first

football player to feature the Jordan logo

on his boots.

His choice to leave the company that had believed

and invested in him for so long sparked quite

a debate in the football community.

Why did he leave Nike and why would Nike let

him go?

That debate was fueled when more high profile

Nike players were leaving the brand or were

seen in competitors’ boots: Raheem Sterling,

Sergio Ramos and even the Fifa Player of the

year Robert Lewandowski.

Why are all those players leaving Nike?

Is the biggest sportswear company in the world

no longer able to hold on to the best players?

Or is it all part of a bigger plan?

Before talking about individual players, let’s

have a look at the bigger picture.

Sports brands like Adidas and Nike pay professional

players to wear their boots, so they are seen

by millions of consumers on TV who then want

to buy and wear favourite players’ boots.

The five European leagues from England, Spain,

Italy, Germany and France are the most relevant

in terms of viewership and performance.

Therefore, they are also the most important

in terms of marketing and their players’ feet

are the most valuable billboards for brands.

In 2021, Nike has by far the biggest share

of players in the big five leagues.

More than every second player is playing in

Nike boots, followed by Adidas and Puma.

But it wasn’t always like that.

Adidas and Puma used to dominate the football

market.

Nike, historically a running company, was

late to the party.

After their founding, Nike first focused on

the American market where football, or soccer

as it’s called in the US, was less relevant

than for instance Basketball.

But when they were looking to expand to Europe,

there was no getting around football any longer.

In the early 90s Nike made a strong push into

the football business, making endorsement

deals with famous players such as Romario,

Eric Cantona or Edgar Davids.

The first big win in the battle for the best

players was when Nike signed the Brazilian

national team in ‘96 that went on to win

the world cup six years later.

Nike continued to grow in football by signing

more top players.

But still, Nike was lagging behind Adidas,

who had their roots in football and a much

superior network to clubs and officials.

Especially in strong Adidas countries like

France or Germany, Nike was having a hard

time to sign the best players.

Look at Germany for instance: the first real

high profile player that Nike had in Germany

was Miroslav Klose.

Ballack, Kahn, Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Müller,

Neuer.

All Adidas players.

So we can guess that Nike took a lot of money

and invested heavily wherever they could.

Not only in quality, but quantity.

The 53% of Nike players that we can see today

are most likely the result of a strategy that

focused not only on signing the best but the

most players.

The idea was probably that if half the league

is wearing Nike, the swoosh will be visible

all the time on TV.

So Nike would be established as an authentic

football brand.

The strategy worked and made them the market

leader in football.

Many of the sport’s biggest stars today are

Nike players, most prominently of course Cristiano

Ronaldo.

And Ronaldo’s successor at Nike was thought

to be Neymar.

So why did Nike let him go?

The simple answer is probably money.

Neymar wanted more than Nike was willing to

pay.

Another reason might be that he didn’t want

to be number two behind Ronaldo anymore.

As his move from Barcelona to Paris suggested,

Neymar does not like to play in the shadow

of anyone.

At PUMA he knew that he could be the main

man.

And with Messi at Adidas and Ronaldo at Nike,

Puma was probably glad to spend the money

for Neymar to join the club of super star

sponsors.

Nike probably looked at the financial implications,

combined with the fact that Neymar is not

getting any younger, and made their decision.

The fact that they let him go early although

he still had a contract running until 2022

shows that Nike did not fight very hard to

keep him – but rather saved some money.

Raheem Sterling is a more telling case.

He is younger than Neymar and just coming

into his prime.

He is also very marketable and has been leveraged

by Nike in marketing campaigns and as a spokesperson

regarding social topics, for example when

speaking out against racism.

But despite reports that he would sign a new

deal with Nike in the beginning, it now looks

like he will move to New Balance as he has

been spotted wearing their boots in training.

New Balance might have some spare money left

after ending their deal with Liverpool and

apparently Nike is not ready to pay Sterling

what New Balance is offering.

One reason might be that Nike already has

a similar player that is also a political

spokesperson: Marcus Rashford.

So maybe they would have liked to keep Sterling,

but are also sharpening their strategy and

rather invest in only one of the two.

It seems that Nike has become very careful

how to spend their money in football and is

no longer using their budget like a watering

can to sign every player out there.

That is underlined as well by the Robert Lewandowski

case.

Although he won the Fifa player of the year

award for his outstanding 2020 season, Nike

and Lewandowski are hesitating to continue

their relationship.

He hasn’t actually been confirmed as having

left Nike yet, but has been seen training

in blacked-out Puma boots.

A sign that he is considering to leave Nike

as well.

Neymar, Sterling, Lewandowski.

Add Ramos and more players to the list and

it becomes clear that we are looking at more

than just isolated, individual cases.

But what’s the reason for that extensive shift

of players?

The COVID-19 pandemic will most likely have

an impact.

The sportswear industry is hit hard, especially

with major events being postponed or cancelled

entirely, that are normally revenue drivers

for Adidas and Nike.

So the brands need to streamline their budgets

and save money wherever possible.

But the pandemic is probably only the accelerator

and not the cause for the change.

That becomes clear when looking at who Nike

is actually still signing and betting their

money on.

For example Erling Haaland.

He was one of the players promoting the Nike

Dream Speed boots recently and even showed

some individualized golden Nike boots on his

Instagram.

So while Nike seems to be OK to let Robert

Lewandowski, currently the best striker in

the world, move on, they are keen to keep

Haaland, who might become the world’s best

striker in the future.

Even more important for Nike is of course

the role of Kylian Mbappé.

It seems that the brand wants him to step

into Ronaldo’s footsteps, which might have

been one of the reasons to let Neymar go.

And Nike also has a great substitute for Raheem

Sterling.

We already mentioned Rashford, but lately

Jadon Sancho was brought more and more into

a prime position.

At age 20, he was the youngest player to ever

get his own signature line from Nike.

Haaland, Mbappé, Sancho.

We can easily continue the list with Ansu

Fati, Kai Havertz or Frenkie De Jong.

Apparently Nike is preparing for the future.

Sponsorship contracts with clubs or players

usually run several years and are therefore

long term investments for companies.

Unlike digital or event marketing budgets,

a sports marketing budget is planned for years

ahead and cannot be shifted around or reduced

quickly.

It’s all about foresight, predicting where

the players will be over the course of the

next five years.

That also puts into perspective why Nike let

established players move on.

It is a strategic move rather than just financial

pressure or broken relationships.

Therefore, it is likely that Nike already

had a plan to shift their strategy to the

new generation of football players.

The Covid19-crisis just accelerated the execution

of that strategy.

If anyone knows how much Neymar and Lewandowski

are really worth for a sportswear brand, it

is Nike, who used the players for commercials

for over a decade.

Nike has all the sales data and insights to

estimate their brand value.

So they probably would have matched any competitor’s

offer for Neymar – but didn’t think it’s

worth it.

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