If there is any one book to be reading during the World it is not about Diego Maradona or David Beckham, not even about Wayne Rooney. No it is the one about Adidas and Puma. Pitch Invasion, Adidas, Puma and the Making of Modern Sport by Barbara Smit is without question the book to read right now. If there is any one book I would like to have written this is it. Thoroughly researched and very well presented this is the story of a family, two companies, one small town and a global industry over nearly a century of quite exceptional development and turmoil.
Read it with a bit of paper along side on which you can draw out a timeline structured around every Olympics and Soccer World Cup since 1920, the year in which Adolf Dassler first decided to go into making specialist sports footwear. It was July 1, 1924 when the brothers Adolf and Rudolf put together Gebrüder Dassler, Sportshufabrik in Herzogenaurash. Adolf was 24 and Rudolf 26. They were to focus on running spikes and football boots with leather studs. The Antwerp Olympic games in 1920 noted for the Finnish running shoes with spikes and stripes from Karhu and the 1924 Paris Games was when Foster's spikes shot to fame. Do you get the picture? Foster was originally a Nottingham shoe making business and in 1862 they had decided to add a line of cricket shoes with spikes. Later the family moved to Bolton and started to make running spikes. It was in the 1950s that Foster's heirs set up Reebok and in 1979 that Paul Fireman acquired the US rights.
So before you even get in to thinking about Adidas and Puma you see at once that this complex tale is going to intertwine all the sports companies you ever knew and followed and for anyone with even the slightest contact with the industry over the last few decades lots of individuals with whom one has worked, shared a drink or a taxi.
Because here we are not just talking Adidas and Puma, but Pony, Umbro, Le Coq Sportif, Arena, Nike, Alfred Reader, Reebok and on into FIFA and IOC. This is a story about the very beginnings of sports marketing, about celebrity, about product placement, and the end of the amateur. It pits product quality against celebrity endorsement and the wholly owned traditional supply chains against the more flexible virtual model pioneered by Nike. And in the way Adidas blithely ignored the development of jogging that made Nike and of aerobics which made Reebok shows good examples of what we now call disruptive innovation. Adidas dismissed aerobics "as a bunch of fat ladies dancing to music" and Barbara Smit graphically describes how the shoes were ignored and thrown over the shoulders like a chicken bone at a feast.
What is really astonishing in all this is not so much that the brothers separated into two great companies but that each family was in itself so dysfunctional. How could Adidas create an environment that exiled their brightest son to France and lead him to create such a huge clandestine entity? And for Puma to be arguing about inheritances and control almost the entire time.
One thing that stands out is that despite all the power and manipulation both companies rode the development of sport really well and made a lot of money; and yet both managed to lose momentum and direction in the late seventies. Both are great companies today but the muddles they each got into are quite extraordinary.
At least in soccer and most other sports footwear remains defined as technical footwear and while the money is big for the players they are not just a commodity. It is a shame that Adidas took the World Cup ball away from the host nation into a highly commercial, highly profitable article to be fought over by the big brands. The 2010 ball for all its high technology has been a failure and it takes three weeks of the competition for the players to be able to manage it. So where is the leather in the ball anyway? The took it out in 1986 and the industry needs to fight to get it back. The problems of losing shape and getting heavy through water uptake can now be overcome.
In one UK garden at least it will be leather balls only from now on. Goodbye Jabulani!