RBR Interview: Spencer Nel, Head of Global Sports Mktg, Running/T&F & Federations, adidas, by Larry Eder


Spencer Nel is the Head of Global Sports Marketing: Running/Track & Field and Federation sat adidas. In that position, like John Capriotti at Nike, Todd Klein at Reebok, Ben Cesar at ASICS, Matt Taylor at PUMA and their counterparts at New Balance, Mizuno, Brooks, these men and women influence our sport.

Spencer Nel, from Id photo.

adidas invented sports marketing under the late Horst Dassler, the enfante terrible of the adidas clan. By the time of his unfortunate death in 1986, Dassler had changed sports marketing forever, influencing some of the greatest deals and mentoring many of the great sport marketers of his day, and also, by having existed, influencing others. Nike took Dasslers' world of erudite deal makers and dropped it on its head.

In the world today, adidas and Nike battle for much of the sports marketing landscape. The companies could not be more different. In the current economic climate, both companies have taken their hits, but they have also made some strong strategic changes in their approach to the sports world.

RBR asked Spencer Nel for his thoughts on ten questions revolving around the busines of sport. One can tell a lot from an interview. Spencer is a keen observer of the sport. He is a South African by birth and a global villager by profession. Evenings spent with Spencer and friends after a sports outing are fun, lively and quite late, always with some challenges on who the best athlete is, who the best team is ( Manchester United). In the end though, Spence's heart is with adidas. He bleeds three stripes.

RBR was lucky enough to watch him in action in Beijing. The adidas centre was professional and well done, as well as centrally located. And to understand how quickly adidas had to change their promotion plans in Beijing is an entire other interview......

Haile Gebrselassie, the litte Emperor: this was a promo used by adidas before the Athens Olympics, courtesy of adidas communications

RBR, #1: . Tell us about the ICON program that adidas uses with its top athletes?

Spencer: When I joined the International office in Amsterdam from the South African subsidiary, my focus had been to start out with “the next generation” as had been the case in SA – where I was responsible for signing Hestrie Cloete and Llewellyn Herbert. We went about our business and identified Isinbayeva, Campbell, Wariner, Gay etc as athletes whom would be the next ones in their category – naturally, many more didn't go on to achieve what we had hoped. In an effort to re-enrgise the category internally, we set about trying to encourage the various entities within adidas to use the athletes in communication, and it became very evident that they were not known within the company, let alone in the outside world. So we came up with a collective name for our top athletes: The Super 7.

Blanka Vlasic, high jump, courtesy of Photorun.net

Initially that meant: Gay, Campbell, Wariner, Allyson Felix, Felix Limo, Isinbayeva and Gebrselassie. In 2007 Felix Limo was replaced with Blanka Vlasic – whom we had contracted in 2001 before she defended her world junior title in Jamaica 2002 – that meant we arrived at the World Outdoor Champs in Osaka with the Super 7 as: Gay, Campbell, Allyson Felix, Isinbayeva, Vlasic, Wariner and Gebrselassie as the Super 7. 6 of the 7 won gold medals, and Haile, who was not there ended up being ranked number 1 in the marathon. Naturally our detractors can point to the Beijing Olympics and say that some of the Super 7 didn't perform as expected. This is true, but when I last looked, each of these athletes was either in the hunt for a medal, or certainly highlighted in the media, so we were able to “check” boxes as it were despite not getting all the medals we had hoped for. More importantly, it meant that internally, our athletes were being used in campaigns, were being watched/followed/cheered, and the most important aspect of all, people realized that track & field didn't only happen every 4 years at the Olympics.

Naturally the Super 7 is a fluid concept that needs to evolve, and with Isinbayeva opting for Li Ning, we have included Christine O – World and Olympic champion – in the Super 7.

RBR, #2: How will your new IAAF sponsorship play into the overall adidas plan for athletics?

Spencer: The heritage of the adidas brand is closely linked with the legacy of athletics and the IAAF and we are looking forward to shaping the future of athletics together at all levels in the coming years.

adidas has a longstanding history in athletics dating back to 1928 when their founder, Adi Dassler, supplied Lina Radke with a handmade pair of spikes that she wore during the Olympic Games in Amsterdam. Lina set a world record in the 800 meters and became the first Olympian to win gold in Adi Dassler’s shoes. Many more heroes of athletics have followed including Jesse Owens, Emil Zátopek, Al Oerter, Bob Beamon, Daley Thompson, Grete Waitz, Heike Henkel, Haile Gebrselassie and Yelena Isinbayeva.

adidas is a clear leader in athletics committed to developing the sport at all levels and our partnership with the IAAF as the official sponsor and licensee product supplier for the next 11 years will to position adidas as the leading sports brand in the world.

An early spike cobbled by Adi Dassler, courtesy adidas communications.

RBR, #3: adidas has much longer contracts with properties than most of its competitors, why is that?

Spencer: At adidas we understand ourselves as partners to support all athletes to achieve their personal best. Therefore long term engagements are not unusual for us. e.g. 11-year NBA contract, official ball for FIFA tournaments since 1970, DFB until 2018, Spanish Football Federation until 2014, A.C. Milan until 2017, Ajax Amsterdam until 2019, we are Official Sponsor, Licensee and Supplier to all FIFA World Cups™ until 2014 etc.

RBR, #4: Can you give me the significance of the Boston sponsorship?

Spencer: On 20th April 2009, adidas celebrates its 20th year of sponsorship of the Boston Marathon supplying footwear and apparel to over 14,000 volunteers and officials. adidas has a longstanding relationship with the Boston Marathon as well as many other of the world’s most notable marathons including London, Seoul, Berlin and Santiago. This relationship highlights adidas commitment to running, sponsoring the most impressive events, equipping the most inspirational athletes, and creating the most innovative products in the industry.

RBR, #5: Same question for the London Marathon sponsorship?

Spencer: On the 26th April 2009, adidas is proud to enter its 10th year as official partner of the Flora London Marathon where Felix Limo triumphed in three stripes in 2006. The London marathon is also a tremendous platform for adidas to showcase its commitment and leadership in athletics and we look forward to continuing and expanding the partnerships we have with events like the London marathon.

RBR, #6: You have key sponsorships for London 2012, can you explain those?

Spencer: The deal with adidas will see the sportswear company receive marketing and licensing rights to London 2012, providing kit for the British Olympic Association and British Paralympic Association in Vancouver 2010 and London 2012. In addition, during the Games in 2012, adidas will provide sportswear to Games Officials, London 2012 staff and volunteers. adidas will also have exclusive licensing rights for branded and unbranded sportswear at London 2012 venues and stores. The deal with London 2012 represents the biggest ever single event sponsorship investment by adidas in the UK.

Mo Farah, shown during the Carlsbad 5k this past April, is one of the great hometown hopes for London 2012, photo courtesy of PhotoRun.net.

The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) and adidas announced in September 2007 that adidas is a Tier One Partner of the London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games as the Official Sportswear Partner.

adidas will play a major role in what promises to be one of the best sporting events the world has ever seen. We believe our deep involvement in the Games will help us to be the leading sports brand in the UK, the largest sportswear market in Europe.

§ adidas will sponsor Team GB and Paralympics GB through to 2012 including the 2008 Beijing, 2010 Vancouver and 2010 World Youth Games

§ adidas has worked with the BOA since 1984

§ adidas’ investment will provide specially designed kit for all the Team GB athletes, the Paralympics GB athletes and 70,000 London 2012 volunteers

§ adidas is expected to provide LOCOG with the largest amount of merchandise revenue from any licensee or sponsor through the sale of adidas branded and unbranded sportswear

Jenn Stuczynski, the current AR holder in pole vault, looks to 2012, by Photorun.net.

RBR, #7: . How does the economic picture affect your ability to implement sports marketing projects?

Spencer: We will continue to seek out the partnerships that will build and develop sport at all levels. Our goal is to equip all athletes to achieve their impossible, whether that be through new partnerships with athletes and events or through innovative products and technologies.

RBR, #8: How would you describe the Beijing experience for adidas?

Spencer: The Olympic Games in Beijing were a huge success for adidas - both in China and around the world. We were clearly the leading brand in terms of visibility across all sports during the Games. We provided first-class service and exciting products that were especially made for Beijing.

We also made our mark in communication with our campaign 'Together in 2008 - Impossible is Nothing' that won the first ever Golden Lion for China at the Cannes Festival. So the Olympic Games in Beijing brought us another giant step closer to our mission to be the leading sports brand in the world.

As Official Sportswear Partner of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, adidas supplied more than 3 million products to federations, volunteers, officials and others. By outfitting 16 National Olympic Committees, including the most successful nation, China, plus three other Top Six ranked Olympic Teams, Great Britain, Germany and Australia, adidas underlined its position as the true Olympic brand. In total, more than 3,000 athletes competed in adidas products and adidas provided products for 27 out of the 28 Olympic sports.

Among the successful adidas athletes who won Olympic Gold were pole vault world record holder Yelena Isinbayeva (Russia), double Olympic swimming champion Britta Steffen (Germany), Britain's cycling sprint sensation Chris Hoy, US gymnast Shawn Johnson, 110m hurdler Dayron Robles (Cuba), Italian fencing legend Maria Valentina Vezzali, Norwegian javelin champion Andreas Thorkildson, footballer Lionel Messi from Argentina and judo champion Xian Dongmei (China).

In terms of revenues, adidas Group sales in China increased over 60% on a currency-neutral basis in the first half of 2008. Based on this growth, China will become the second-largest market for the adidas Group after the USA by the end of this year.

RBR, #9: Finally, your favorite football (your kind) team? Your fave, besides athletics sport?

Spencer: Manchester United are my football team!! Supported them since I was a child. A Manchester United fan has become famous for displaying a banner: ManUnited, kids, wife-in that order. My wife says that this is true of me! I have a ManUnited tattoo on my left calf, and more will follow. People are quick to criticise me, saying that it is easy to support a team that wins everything. That may be true, but as kid in the late 70s we really didn't win much, and whilst the 80s provided hope, it all turned good with Sir Alex.

As is the case with the Track & Field category – my favourite meet by a long way is the World Juniors, I love watching the younger players come through and love watching our new right back – Rafael.

RBR, #10: Any other sports come to mind?

Spencer: I am a sports nut, and I love my wife for her understanding and patience of my passion!! I can watch literally anything – winter sports are of course not my thing, obviously coming from South Africa! Football – which is what it really is called my US friends, because the players use their feet to play with the ball – and ManUnited are an obsession. I love Cricket and Rugby – don't expect anybody in the US to understand – but my friends in the US will be happy to hear that I love American football and watch it on NASN & Sky Sports here in Europe, as well as baseball and basketball. But, don't laugh, I am a huge darts fan – Phil “The Power” Taylor is the man!!!!!! It may sound strange, but I am an bigger ManUnited fan than track fan!!!!!

Patrick Makau winning RAK half marathon in world's fastest time in 2009: 58:52,
photo by PhotoRun.net.

Special thanks to Spencer Nel, Evan Weiner and adidas communications.

For more on adidas, please check http://www.adidas.com

For more on the sport of athletics, please click http://www.american-trackandfield.com

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