HERZOGENAURACH, Germany/LONDON (Reuters) - U.S. market leader Nike and German rival Adidas are locked in their own Olympic battle to boost athletes' performance and squeeze maximum value out of next month's Games in London.
The Games provide a showcase for new fashions and advances in technology which sportswear suppliers hope will drive sales at a time of economic turmoil in many of their markets.
Unlike soccer's World Cup, Olympic venues carry no perimeter advertising, making the suppliers of kit and shoes the most visible brands when the eyes of the world are on the Games.
"This puts the likes of Nike, Adidas and Puma firmly in the spotlight in the most emotionally-charged moments," said Danny Townsend, president EMEA and South Asia at brand analysis company Repucom.
"Endorsement deals with athletes who are likely to gain substantial coverage, such as Usain Bolt or Jessica Ennis, pack an immense punch," he added.
"Our projections from the Beijing Games indicate around 3.6 billion people worldwide saw at least some TV coverage which gives a strong indicator to the power of this presence. This level of brand exposure is a potent force in driving sales."
Jamaican triple gold medallist Bolt is the poster boy for Germany's Puma, the third largest sporting goods company behind local rival Adidas.
"The Olympics is probably the biggest platform you can have as a sport brand. With Usain Bolt running the 100 metres, 200 metres and relays, the whole world will focus on that on TV," Puma CEO Franz Koch told Reuters.
Adidas has invested heavily to be the official sportswear partner of the Games, with tens of thousands of volunteers and Olympic officials to wear its familiar three-stripe outfits.
That comes on top of a long-standing deal to provide the kit for a British team which includes heptathlete medal hope Ennis, the photogenic face of the host nation's squad.
"We're kitting out 5,000 athletes and 84,000 volunteers with 3 million pieces of apparel," Adidas Olympics head Simon Cartwright told Reuters at the firm's headquarters in the small German town of Herzogenaurach, which is also home to Puma.
Adidas estimates the interest generated by the Games will bring it an extra 100 million pounds ($157 million) of sales in the UK, helping it on its way to overtake rival Nike as market leader there.
Cartwright says the situation is similar to that in Beijing, when the Games helped it to top the market there in 2008.
"Adidas has got its foot on the accelerator. They've thrown down the gauntlet to Nike because they want to take market leadership in the UK. Nike is more focused on Rio (2016)," said a manager in the sports sponsoring industry.
BIG TWO IN FORM
Based in Portland, Oregon, Nike remains the global market leader, with annual sales of almost $21 billion against $17 billion for Adidas. Puma, formed in 1948 after brothers fell out at Adidas, is a distant third with sales of $3.8 billion.
The top two seem to be pulling away despite the Bolt factor.
Nike's sales jumped 15 percent in the quarter to end-February, while Adidas reported a 14 percent rise in the first three months of the year. Puma managed only a six percent increase, trailing its larger rivals in Europe, China and the United States.
Nike, which sponsors the U.S. Olympic team, says the Games give it the chance to build a buzz around its products.
"Its like a concept car model - we get to debut these innovations on the world's best athletes, then commercialise the opportunity by providing those technologies to athletes everywhere," said Nike UK head of PR and communications Ryan Greenwood.
For its part, Adidas has made 41 different shoes that will be worn by athletes competing in 25 disciplines.
The one thing they all have in common is their weight, they are on average 25 percent lighter than the equivalent shoes worn in Beijing.
"Every 100 grams saved in weight is equivalent to 1 percent better performance," Cartwright said.
The group has also created what it calls the lightest ever sprint spike, at 99 grams.
"It's so advanced we can't make that many of them," Cartwright said.
Nike too is promoting ultra-light shoes and a running uniform featuring special patches which reduce the aerodynamic drag on an athlete, an idea taken from the dimples that help golf balls to fly further.
After exhaustive wind tunnel testing, it claims it can cut up to .023 seconds off times in the 100 metres - what it says can be the difference between winning a medal and missing out.
JOSTLING FOR POSITION
Behind Puma, Japan's Asics is the number four in the sector and positions itself as a supplier of premium products for everyone from elite marathon runners down to regular joggers.
The company plans to open a new flagship store on London's Oxford Street just before the Games begin on July 27.
Below those four are a cluster of smaller suppliers, including some from fast growing nations like Russia and China.
Russia's privately owned Bosco is the kit supplier to the Spanish team and has opened a store in the new shopping centre on the edge of the Olympic park.
China's Li Ning Co Ltd. came to prominence at Beijing in 2008 when its eponymous founder, a former Olympic gymnast, had the honour of lighting the Olympic cauldron.
However, growing competition from Nike and Adidas in China is squeezing it and other local producers.
Li Ning suffered a setback this month when it issued a profit warning and its shares fell to a 6-1/2 year low. China's ANTA Sports Products Ltd has also said it faces a challenging year because of rising costs and intense competition.
"It would take a monumental shift in the global sports apparel environment to impact on the dominance of Nike and Adidas," said Repucom's Townsend.
"I think where we could see the real jostling in the coming years is in the second tier, below the big two," he added.
The Games are not just about the performance, they are also about making sure athletes look good and the top brands have been working with big name designers for this year's Games.
By an odd coincidence, Adidas and Puma have opted for daughters of famous musicians.
Adidas has had a long partnership with Stella McCartney, whose father Paul McCartney is expected to perform at the opening ceremony. Cedella Marley, daughter of reggae icon Bob Marley, has designed the Jamaican kit for Puma.
"Each of our teams have a unique design," Cartwright said, explaining how Adidas has tried to incorporate national symbols into the kits for countries like Germany, France and Australia.
"The young Germans are a bit happier to wave the flag and be more patriotic so we have an eagle design."
While the Team GB kits has divided opinion in the UK, with some seeing them as too blue, Cartwright shrugs off the critics. "It was in the media for two days," indicating how any publicity is good publicity.
Puma meanwhile plundered the history books to draw inspiration for its running vests for the Jamaican team.
The yellow vests will feature the faces of Arthur Wint, who in London in 1948 became the first Jamaican to win a gold medal, and team mate Herb McKenley, who finished second behind him.
"We want to hear people say, 'Ooh, what's that?' We want to be different, unusual," Puma CEO Koch told Reuters.
($1 = 0.7947 euros) ($1 = 0.6368 British pounds)
(Additional reporting by Christian Kraemer; Editing by Peter Rutherford)