New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc. spent decades building its reputation as a maker of top-rated running shoes. Now it wants to become a truly global brand by challenging two sporting goods giants that dominate the lucrative business of selling soccer shoes around the world.
The Boston company is aiming for a piece of an $8 billion worldwide market. But Nike Inc. and Adidas AG control about 65 percent of that business. Both spend lavishly on sponsoring teams and the game’s brightest stars.
New Balance plans to introduce a full line of soccer cleats, clothing, and gear this summer. The shoemaker recently unveiled a sponsorship deal with Liverpool Football Club, reported to be worth up to $457 million. (John Henry, principal owner of the Liverpool club, also owns The Boston Globe.)
“We’re available globally, but there are still huge pockets of consumers who are not familiar with our brand,” Rob DeMartini, chief executive of New Balance, said in a recent interview. “We recognize that there’s no sport in the world bigger than soccer. We felt that being in that game was important to get our name out there.”
New Balance, which went into business 109 years ago making arch supports and orthopedic shoes, is already a strong competitor in the running market and has found an international audience for its casual kicks. It expects to post revenue of $3.3 billion for 2014.
The allure of the soccer shoe and apparel business is clear. More than 250 million people play soccer and a billion watch it, according to FIFA, the international governing body of the sport the rest of the world calls football.
“The biggest prize under the Christmas tree for a shoe company is dominance in the soccer market,” said John Fisher, an adjunct marketing lecturer at Boston College and former chief executive of Saucony. “As a result, the largest of companies spend enormous sums of money trying to impact the game. The price of admission to be significant in soccer is exorbitantly high.”
Nike recorded soccer-related sales of $2.3 billion in its latest fiscal year. Adidas reportedly notched $2.7 billion in revenue from soccer products last year. To defend that business, both companies spend many millions sponsoring teams and individual players.
Soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo earned $28 million last year in endorsements, most of which came from a major sponsorship deal with Nike, according to Forbes. He wears the brand’s cleats in games, but Adidas sponsors his team, Real Madrid, and its logo appears on his uniform.
Ronaldo’s famed rival, Lionel Messi, reportedly makes $23 million each year in sponsorships, which includes a multimillion-dollar deal with Adidas. But Nike sponsors his club, FC Barcelona.
New Balance has inked deals with nine prominent players in the sport, including Australian Tim Cahill and Vincent Kompany of Manchester City, as well as rising stars Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal Football Club and Belgium Adnan Januzaj of Manchester United.
But with Ronaldo and Messi spoken for, “no matter who New Balance gets, it’s going to be second fiddle,” said Mike Kelleher, chief operating officer of the sports management company Global Image Sports.
He said it made sense for the brand to target young, up-and-coming players like Ramsey and Januzaj, hoping to land the next star.
“They are looking for the next player to build a brand on,” Kelleher said. “That’s where they are putting their time and energy.”
Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst with NPD Group of New York, casts the New Balance deal with Liverpool as a mid-level sponsorship, in comparison to the money other brands have spent to land teams. The company is also sponsoring Stoke City FC, FC Porto, and Sevilla FC for undisclosed prices.
Powell said it was smart for New Balance to notch several sponsorship deals at once to draw attention to its entrance into soccer. “You have to be bold here,” he said. “It takes this kind of investment to really have an impact on the market.”
Powell said the move into soccer also allows New Balance to sell more expensive shoes. Soccer cleats can run as much as $300 a pair and the company intends to offer a premium product.
Despite the splashy promotion and new endorsement deals, New Balance isn’t exactly starting fresh in the soccer market.
The company owns Warrior Sports, a sporting goods brand based in Warren, Mich. In 2012, Warrior signed a $39 million a year deal to sponsor Liverpool for six years. New Balance essentially ended that deal to launch its own sponsorship earlier this month. Warrior will pull out of soccer entirely but continue to make hockey and lacrosse gear.
New Balance’s entry into the global soccer market can only be a battle for the third spot, because Nike and Adidas are so established in the field. But even in a quest for bronze, its soccer future is uncertain, according to Peter Rohlmann, a sports consultant in Germany.
He said many smaller companies, including Reebok and Fila, have tried to make it in the sport and failed. New entrants shouldn’t expect quick results.
“New Balance has to go a long and winding road to achieve their goals,” Rohlmann said. “On the other hand, there is no guarantee that big investments in a soccer club produce success.”