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19 May 2024

Nike finally on the ball

Nike brand ambassador Ronaldo was voted World Player of the Year – and the most popular Premier League star in the UAE. (AFP)

By Gary Meenaghan

The incident occurred at the Sheikh Maktoum Stadium.

AC Milan were training in front of a throng of fans and Ronaldinho, the popular playmaker playing in his prime, jogged past the eager crowd wearing a fresh pair of Nike's and his famous toothy smile – the spectators cheered and waved.

Behind the Brazilian followed David Beckham, the 33-year-old former England captain, wearing a pair of silver adidas and displaying a couple of ink-covered arms – the crowd quickly erupted in deafening noise.

Nobody was left in any doubt as to who the fans were primarily there to see: Ronaldinho is hero-worshipped in Milan, but Beckham, much like adidas the boot brand he endorses, is the dominant force in Dubai.

Nike, however, with or without the help of Ronaldinho, is hoping to change that and take the title of market leader for itself.

The Oregon-based company attained a corporate presence earlier this year when it opened an office in Dubai Media City and this week announced it will be the official ball supplier to the 19th edition of the Gulf Cup, a three-week long football tournament that kicks off tomorrow in Muscat and will feature all six Gulf nations as well as Iraq and Yemen.

The tie-up is the company's first major football sponsorship deal in the GCC and is likely to be the first of several, according to Bence Hamori, the company's Middle East sales manager.

"You will definitely see higher participation of Nike in this region in the future," said Hamori, who also revealed the $18bn company is official apparel supplier to the ongoing Capitala World Tennis Championships in Abu Dhabi. "More sponsorships, more partnerships, but more importantly, we would like better communication with our consumers.

"We take it as a challenge. In some countries we are the market leader. In some categories, if we are not the market leader yet, we will be. In the Middle East we are on the right way. We know [adidas] have been here for a long time, but I think there will be a competition between the two brands."

Nike had, until recently, been primarily associated with basketball, a sport that is far from dominant in the Middle East. Adidas had always chosen to focus on football, using ambassadors such as Beckham, Kaka and Lionel Messi to sell their merchandise. Unsurprisingly then, with football the undisputed No1 sport across the Gulf, Nike has identified the beautiful game as a key area on which to focus.

"There are four key categories: football, running, women's fitness and lifestyle. Each of these have different timescales, but we believe – and I am positive – that we will dominate in the Middle East," added Hamori.

Nike Inc, which posted a turnover of more than $10 billion (Dh36.7bn) in 2008, has set itself an arduous challenge in becoming the market leader for football in the region. But if it is looking for an ambassador to market its products, it would struggle to better the potential of current clients Cristiano Ronaldo and Fernando Torres.

Manchester United midfielder Ronaldo, who was last month voted World Player of the Year, is a long-term partner of Nike, while Torres, who helped his country Spain win the European Championships last year, has been on Nike's radar since competing in an Under 15 Nike Cup in 1998.

Last month, following a worldwide survey by English Premier League sponsors Barclays, it was revealed Portuguese playmaker Ronaldo had been voted the most popular player in the UAE, while the player most fans would like to see sign for their team was Torres.

"Ronaldo is one of our most important ambassadors," said Hamori. "But we also have [Wayne] Rooney and Torres, and several others. It is almost impossible to pick just one. Yet, now knowing that Ronaldo is the most popular player in this region, perhaps we should look to make him more locally relevant."

'Glocalisation', the concept of taking a global brand and arabising it to suit the local market, is a theory Nike will implement in the coming months.

Although the temptation to translate Nike's synonymous slogan "Just Do It" into Arabic ("Efalha!") will likely be resisted, the company intends to translate the labels on its apparel, as well as considering the region's conservatism when it comes to releasing new lines of women's clothes.

When Nike released its financial results for the second quarter of the fiscal year, few analysts were surprised to learn future orders for Europe, the Middle East and Africa had decreased by 13 per cent. But while figures are unavailable regarding the Middle East individually, it can be assumed the majority of the drop came from Europe due to the extent of the continent's financial downturn.

In October, Nike opened its corporate office in DMC in a bid to aid its associate partners as they look to build the brand and "take the business to the next level". The current financial climate means, said Hamori, that now is the perfect time to gain market share.

"The economy is indeed fragile, globally. But, I believe, in the Middle East it is a different story. We believe this is our time to gain market share and look at it as an opportunity. Everybody is pulling brakes, but we are a cash-rich company, we have no liquidation problems and we will continue innovating," he said.

Nike were ranked No1 for Innovation in Apparel by Fortune for 2008.

Sony tune in to gulf cup

Nike is not the only global company making its debut at this month's Gulf Cup. Electronics giant Sony announced this week that it will be an official partner of the biennial tournament.

Osamu Miura, managing director of Sony Gulf, said: "Football is the GCC's favourite sport. We have great respect for the energy, enthusiasm and dedication to the sport in our region and we are looking forward to promote football here."