Who knew that the athletic shoe dynasties of Adidas and Puma were founded in a tiny Bavarian town during the late 1940s by a pair of German brothers who hated each other. While I knew that Adidas was a German brand, I had no idea that Puma, too, was German and I had no knowledge of the companies’ intertwined lineage. Quite by accident, I recently stumbled across the fascinating chronicle of their story: Sneaker Wars—the enemy brothers who founded Adidas and Puma and the family feud that forever changed the business of sport by Barbara Smit.
Adolf Dassler and Rudolf Dassler jointly ran a successful athletic shoe company in the 1930s, turning out renowned soccer shoes and track spikes (despite their Nazi party affiliation, they outfitted Jesse Owens with track spikes for the 1936 Olympics). Adolf was the introverted technical genius responsible for the design of their footwear while Rudolf was the extrovert central to the sales and marketing of their products. Family drama, culminating with accusations that Adolf was responsible for Rudolf being arrested by Allied forces following WWII due to ties to Nazi intelligence and secret police forces, led the brothers to split their company into separate, rival businesses in 1948. The name Adidas comes from its founder’s name Adolf “Adi” Dassler (ADI + DASsler=Adidas) while Puma was originally called Ruda, derived from Rudolf Dassler’s nickname. Ruda was rightly deemed a wee bit clunky, and the more svelte, marketable Puma soon replaced the company’s first name. Sports as we know it today—a colossal global business and marketing endeavor—has its roots in the Dassler brothers and their children’s dealings (most notably Adi’s only son Horst Dassler’s stewardship of Adidas) from the 1950s through the 1980s. It was Adidas’s and Puma’s rivalries and spy vs. spy shenanigans of trying to outdo each other’s presence on prominent athletes’ feet which ultimately led to huge salaries, huge endorsement deals, the professionalization of the Olympics, the frequent, unseemly corruption which occurs with so much money at stake, and the blinders which enabled upstart Nike to kick their collective asses. It’s quite an amazing journey of the forces behind many of the most memorable sporting events of the latter 20th century.
It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that cycling was not at all mentioned in Smit’s book, despite the Eddy Merckx/Adidas connection. Eddy Merckx is every bit the sporting juggernaut as other Adidas-clad athletes of his generation, but professional cycling did not line Adidas’s coffers. However, despite the focus on marquee sports like soccer, track & field, basketball, and tennis, a pair of characters with a cycling connection do make an appearance in Smit’s book.
First, Dick Pound is mentioned for his behind the scenes arm-twisting of National Olympic Committees (NOCs) in the early 1980s. Pound, tightly connected to IOC chair Juan Antonio Samaranch, made the rounds of the world’s NOCs in order to convince them to give up their marketing rights and sell them back to the IOC home office in Switzerland. The end result was that the Olympics could then have a single, global marketing campaign and the beneficiary of this was Adidas’s Horst Dassler. Surprise, surprise…Dassler was a major force in getting Samaranch elected as IOC head, and as a payback Samaranch would contract Dassler’s shadow sports marketing firm to handle the Olympic marketing campaign.
Next up is none other than Bernard Tapie, best known in cycling circles for his 1980s powerhouse La Vie Claire squad. Tapie’s personal fortune came from his knack for rescuing floundering corporations, and in 1989 the French industrialist purchased Adidas. His revitalization efforts were not quite successful. Tapie’s financial house of cards propping up Adidas crumbled in 1992 when he was unable to pay the interest on his loans used to purchase the company and he was soon forced to turn it over to the bank Crédit Lyonnais.
To the best of my knowledge, Eddy Merckx sported Adidas cycling shoes from 1971 through his retirement in 1978. Peruse the photos of his most legendary triumphs—the Mexico City hour record, the 1974 Triple Crown, along with numerous Classics and Grand Tour stages—and you’ll see the distinctive three-striped Adidas design on the side of his shoes. It’s only natural that Merckx, professional cycling’s most dominant athlete, would attract the attention of Adidas, a company determined to provide the best-engineered footwear to the most visible athletes of any and every sporting discipline. I’ve never heard about the specifics of Merckx’s Adidas endorsement—how it came about and the finances involved. For comparison’s sake, a contemporary of Merckx in the early ‘70s, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, became Adidas’s first contracted NBA player for the sum of $25,000 per year (which sounds like such a absolutely ridiculously low sum when compared to what star athletes pull down these days). For all I know, the extent of the deal simply was that Eddy and his teammates received a pipeline of free shoes (you can see photos of Eddy’s Molteni teammates sporting Adidas, too). I wonder if all Adidas cycling shoes of this era sported the Eddy Merckx label. A comical moment in Smit’s book concerned another Adidas icon: the Stan Smith tennis shoe. The American tennis pro Stan Smith enjoyed a solid career in the ‘70s, but he began to get a bit miffed when he started losing to guys also sporting his Stan Smith edition shoes. Perhaps Merckx experienced a similar comeuppance in the Euro pro peloton.
The advertisement itself seems almost comical in its black and white blandness, although it was assuredly par for the course advertising-wise in 1973. And not only is this ad visually uninspiring, the irksome misplaced apostrophe rears its ugly head in the copy. There’s so little text to proof and yet Distributor’s still slipped through uncorrected. D’oh!
One point brought up by Barbara Smits in her book was that Adidas executives were exceptionally parsimonious and conservative when it came to advertising. When Adidas was trying to gain back some market share in the mid ‘80s after being totally wiped off the face of the athletic shoe map by marketing-savvy Nike, Adidas’s newly hired ad agency for their revamped global campaign were stupefied to discover that Adidas’s annual global ad budget was less than what Ford spent in Germany alone in a year. Adidas was run by engineers who believed that quality products sold themselves. They were so fixated on providing footwear to be used by professional athletes that they totally missed out on the leisure market for their products, a void in their psyche which Nike utterly pummeled them for first in the United States and then the rest of the world.