Nike Just Stole Adidas’ Most Treasured Partner. It’s About So Much More Than Shoes.

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Normally, a sports team switching uniform suppliers wouldn’t make front-page news or trigger a major public backlash. But Germany’s national soccer team isn’t any sports team, and its longtime sponsor Adidas isn’t just any sporting goods supplier.

And so the announcement last week that the German Football Association (DFB) had inked a deal to switch to American archrival Nike touched off something of a political firestorm in Germany. Adidas, the German sportswear giant headquartered in the Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach (population: 26,130), has for decades been deeply entwined in the big business of global soccer—and has been tied to the German national team for more than 70 years.

The switch came down to cold, hard cash, with Nike blowing away the German soccer bosses with the kind of offer they couldn’t refuse: reportedly around $110 million a year, about double what Adidas was paying, for a deal that will begin after 2026. The cash-strapped German Football Association has been wallowing under debts and court judgments over unpaid taxes; it could hardly afford to turn down the offer. Several top DFB officials suggested, in recent days, that doing otherwise might even be criminal.

But public fury erupted after the DFB delivered the news in a dry press release on Thursday that cited a “transparent and non-discriminatory tender” process and Nike’s superior bid.

“The national team plays in three stripes—that is as clear as the ball is round and the game lasts 90 minutes,” Bavaria’s conservative leader Markus Söder declared on X, bemoaning the breakup with Adidas as “incomprehensible.”

Also denouncing the move was Hessian State Premier Boris Rhein, who said that Adidas’ iconic three-stripe logo belongs right beside the four stars—one for each World Cup title—on the chest of the German men’s jerseys. Robert Habeck, Germany’s Green vice-chancellor, said he could “scarcely imagine the German uniforms without the three stripes” and suggested that flipping to the Nike swoosh was abandoning “a piece of German identity.”

Social Democratic Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, meanwhile, tweeted a picture of himself kicking a soccer ball while sporting an Adidas jacket and wrote: “I think it’s a wrong decision where commerce wipes out a tradition and a piece of the homeland.” Söder echoed Lauterbach’s comments, calling German soccer “pure homeland and not a pawn in international corporate battles.”

Never mind, of course, that international soccer is big business and Adidas itself has long been a major and aggressive competitor in the fierce world of sports sponsorships. Perhaps no other national symbols are as popular and potent in Germany as the national soccer teams, and Adidas—a homegrown family firm that rose to conquer foreign markets—in many ways embodies Germany’s postwar resurgence into a peaceful and prosperous economic power. It’s not exaggerating too much to suggest that sport and export are the twin pillars of national identity in a country otherwise uncomfortable with overt patriotism or national pride.

“I can understand every fan who is outraged—but the DFB had no choice, economically or legally,” former DFB President Theo Zwanziger told weekly newspaper Die Zeit in an interview earlier this week.

Zwanziger said that Nike made a previous bid to sponsor the German team in about 2007, offering more than five times what Adidas was then paying, but the old bonds held firm: “Adidas was difficult to question at the time at the DFB.”

Adidas is deeply bound up in German soccer lore, with legend crediting Adidas founder Adi Dassler’s innovative cleats with helping the West Germans win a comeback victory over the heavily favored powerhouse Hungarians in the 1954 World Cup final in Switzerland, known simply as the “Miracle of Bern.” The changeable studs on the wet turf supposedly helped the Germans gain an edge to knock off the defending champions in dramatic fashion. The victory arguably helped West Germany return to the international stage as a semi-normal country after World War II.

Since then, Adidas has maintained a continuous connection with German soccer, though not as tightly as the nostalgia of the past few days might suggest. The German men may have won the 1974 World Cup wearing (mostly) Adidas cleats—and signed up stars like Franz “the Kaiser” Beckenbauer to personal endorsement deals—but rival German sportswear brand ERIMA produced the jerseys.

The partnership’s benefits certainly ran in the other direction. The publicity the national team provided helped drive shoe sales for Adidas, which soon pushed abroad to cut sponsorship deals with top athletes and leading teams. Dassler managed to put star distance runner Emil Zátopek, the “Czech locomotive,” in Adidas shoes for his legendary performance at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, where he won gold medals in the 5K, the 10K, and the marathon.

Among Adidas’ major marketing coups was landing exclusive contracts with communist bloc countries in the 1970s, culminating in the iconic 1980 Adidas tracksuits for the Soviet Union’s Olympic teams (which helped touch off a major style craze across the Eastern Bloc that persists to this day).

Adidas traces its roots back to two Bavarian brothers: Rudolf and Adolf, known as Adi, who began peddling their own specialized sports shoes in the 1920s and cracked into prominence by outfitting Olympic athletes in the 1930s. Legendary American track athlete Jesse Owens, for instance, won gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin wearing Dassler shoes.

A bitter falling-out between the brothers in 1948 remains the stuff of legend and mystery. Just what prompted the split remains unclear, but they supposedly never spoke to each other again, each launching his own competing shoe empire. Adi started Adidas (short for Adi Dassler), while Rudolf originally called his firm Ruda (Rudolf Dassler) but switched to the similar-sounding Puma not long after. The stunning rise of both companies to international prominence—for many years they were the top competitors duking it out for dominance in international soccer and Olympic sports—in some ways embodies the mythos of the postwar boom years in West Germany, where the supposed “economic miracle” (Wirtschaftswunder) propelled the country from an occupied ruin to a mighty manufacturing—and sporting—powerhouse.

Adidas and Puma “came to embody, I think, a kind of German ‘Wirtschaftswunder’ mentality, the sort of grit and determination to be an ‘export world champion,’ not just as a football world champion,” said Kay Schiller, a historian at Durham University in the U.K. who specializes in German sports culture.

So to call the deal a coup for Nike in its heated rivalry with Adidas, a victory on Adidas’ home turf, is an understatement. For Adidas, which was reportedly blindsided by the news, the blow is a public embarrassment that caps a difficult past couple of years. “When Nike brings out our best, no one can beat us,” Nike CEO John Donahoe crowed hours after the agreement went public.

Earlier this month, Adidas announced its first annual loss in more than three decades. The fallout from Adidas’ aborted partnership with Kanye West continued to weigh heavily on the company, which was reportedly left with more than $1.3 billion in unsold Yeezy sneakers after pulling the plug on the deal back in October 2022.

Before the soccer team’s switcheroo, the Kanye clusterfuck once looked as if it would be the rivalry’s defining coup, a sterling one at that. Adidas lured the rapper and his uberhyped Yeezy sneaker line away from Nike in 2013, and for years the deals delivered massive profits. But things blew up in spectacular fashion in recent years as the increasingly unhinged West publicly spewed antisemitic bile.

That Nike would now swoop in and steal away the German national soccer teams looks like a broader humiliation at the hands of Adidas’ increasingly dominant American nemesis. In that sense, last week’s deal pokes at broader anxieties and an economic malaise that have taken hold in Germany.

Some of the outrage in Germany comes from nostalgia for a different era, when “Made in Germany” products were still conquering the world, with mass-produced Volkswagens powering prosperity at home and hefty Mercedes limousines chauffeuring around tin-pot dictators the world over. Adidas and Puma, family-owned firms from the same German town, dominated global sports apparel from boots to tracksuits, and football remained a simple game, in the famous words of England’s Gary Lineker, in which “22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”

Now Germany’s economy is sputtering, with its GDP shrinking last year, and its vaunted auto industry is struggling to shift toward an electric future. Volkswagen has been tarred with a diesel emissions scandal, while the country’s mighty chemical and steel industries are facing existential questions about their futures as energy and labor costs rise.

The political anger over the deal seems likely to fade, even if many fans remain fond of the long ties between the German team and the brand. German soccer officials hit back against the criticism this week, pointing to the massive gap between what Nike and Adidas were willing to pay: The offers were “not even remotely comparable,” DFB managing director Andreas Rettig told the DPA news agency. With the German economy sputtering, politicians have plenty of other pressing problems.

“The most important thing is that they shoot goals,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz quipped diplomatically last week when asked about the kerfuffle.

Adidas, though, will need to dig itself out of a lengthy slump and try to catch back up to its archrival without future help from the German home team. The Kanye catastrophe helped drive a multiyear U.S. sales slump for the brand, with chief executive Bjorn Gulden aiming for a bounce back in 2024. Nike’s big-dollar deal is the latest sign that Adidas has fallen behind in the global sneaker wars, but there are always more shoes to drop.

Rhein, one of the pissed-off politicians, fumed that the “world champion wears #Adidas. Always has.” That remains true, even if not in the way that Rhein meant it: Adidas outfits both the reigning World Cup champion Argentine men’s team and Spain’s World Cup–winning women.

On the soccer field, too, Germany has seen things take a disappointing turn over the past decade. The Germans blew away hosts Brazil 7–1 en route to winning the 2014 World Cup final over Lionel Messi’s Argentina, but things have gone downhill from there. In 2018 and 2022, the men’s national team was knocked out of the tournament in the first round.

Despite the low expectations, the German men’s team has shown some encouraging signs of life in its past couple of games, beating France 2–0 and the Netherlands 2–1 in warmup matches as they prepare for this summer’s UEFA EURO 2024 championships, hosted by Germany.

In just a couple of months, the German team will gather for training camp—at a specially built compound on the Adidas corporate campus in Herzogenaurach. The longtime partners still have a couple of years together before splitting up for good.