Bookshelf: On the field of play

The battle between two feuding brothers set the scene for modern-day sports marketing and turned it into an industry.

by Tim Delaney
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

The sub-head to Pitch Invasion reads: Adidas, Puma and the making of modern sport. This rather undersells a remarkable soap opera involving feuding brothers, corruption, the crashing of business empires and, strangest of all, a happy ending. Today, sport is big business and Adidas and Puma are two of the biggest global brands, paying stars, clubs and competitions to wear their label. This is the story of how the rivalry between two brothers turned sport into an industry. The Dassler brothers started a shoe business in a small German town in the 1920s. It was an instant success, but personal rivalries began to pull them apart, and by the end of the Second World War it was the rupture was complete.

But is the book a useful business read, or just a tabloid melodrama about the two warring founders - Adi Dassler of Adidas and Rudi Dassler of Puma? Fortunately for the reader, it's both and if the reader happens to be into sport and conspiracy, so much the better. In fact, it could be argued, somewhat churlishly, that the racy stuff should have had more influence, since the moral of the story from a business point of view would be the same: first, don't go into business with your brother and, second, if he storms out, make him sign a non-competition agreement in all areas of the business he's slammed the door on.

The book gives a fascinating insight into business life in small-town Nazi Germany and, better still, how the two brothers implicated each other as they attempted to wriggle free from the stigma of Nazi party membership after the war. It also demonstrates that in business, blood can exacerbate rather than heal problems. Then the wayward - some would say genius - son arrived on the scene. Horst, Adi's child, is in many respects the anti-hero of this book, for it's his ideas about growing Adidas that could be said to have created modern-day sport.

It was he, as a mere 20-year-old, who went to the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 and because it was illegal to pay athletes to wear spikes, came up with the simple but highly effective idea of giving shoes away for free, first to individuals and then, over the years, to whole federations. Everywhere you looked, on any field of play in the world, all you saw were the three stripes of Adidas.

And if the odd brown envelope found its way into an athlete's locker, well, why not? Everyone knew amateur wasn't really amateur. Of course, in the big-money world of sport, the envelopes soon turned in to hold-alls and the result was that Adidas's grip on sporting federations seemed unassailable.

Smit leads us towards the impending crash of both Adidas and Puma without missing a beat or a fact. For instance, did you know that Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands boycotted the Melbourne Olympics in protest at the Soviet invasion of Hungary? Or that they were joined by Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq in disapproval of the Franco-British expedition to the Suez Canal?

Like all good books, the drama continues to build as the stakes get higher and the villains get more colourful. For example, Bernard Tapie, who purchased Adidas in the 1980s, was a minister in Mitterand's government and even saw the inside of a jail cell for misdemeanours at his football club, Olympique de Marseilles.

The wrangling played out in the pages turns into an absorbing read, as the very survival of both brands is threatened on a daily basis. And here, once again, we must thank Smit for her eye for detail and her charm in getting the various protagonists to lift the lid on the whole affair.

The story concludes with a tale of three knights: Phil Knight, founder of Nike and possibly the true 'maker of modern sport'; business tycoon Robert Louis Dreyfus, brought in by the French banks, which wanted to get rid of their Adidas stock, in 1993 and who was the fourth CEO in six months (he floated Adidas in 1996 for $1.4 billion); and Jochen Zeitz, at 30 the youngest CEO to run a German listed company. Educated at the European Business School in London, Zeitz had enough self-belief to recreate Puma in an image that was for the first time not in direct competition with Adidas; it was to be a 'sports lifestyle' brand and it worked.

Both Puma and Adidas are now healthy again, in a market invented more by Nike than by the Dasslers. But that takes nothing away from the drama, the passion and the allure inherent in sport and its marketing, played out here in Smit's highly entertaining book.

Pitch Invasion: Adidas, Puma and the making of modern sport, Barbara Smit, Allen Lane, £14.99, ISBN 0-71399-888-1.

Tim Delaney is chairman of Leagas Delaney, Adidas's advertising agency from 1992 to 2001

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