Tactical Insights

Barcelona and Nike’s breakdown in relations reveals deeper problems at Camp Nou

The launch of a new first-team kit is an eagerly awaited moment of the summer for many fans — and also a key revenue-generating date in the commercial calendar of all top clubs.

Last year, Barcelona’s home kit was launched on June 15, with accompanying video and photos of top stars including Robert Lewandowski, Alexia Putellas, Pedri and Aitana Bonmati modelling the new look.

The launch featured a huge online marketing effort, while the new kit was prominently on sale at Barca’s retail outlets in the tourist-thronged Catalan capital for the summer high season.

In recent years, the new first team jersey has always been launched by mid-June (except for 2020, because of Covid-19). However, no date has yet been set this year, with the delay coming amid a serious breakdown in relations between Barca and its long-time kit supplier Nike.

Recent months have seen Barca president Joan Laporta heavily criticise Nike, and publicly threaten to break off a relationship which is over two decades old. The club has flirted publicly with other suppliers Puma and Hummel, and even floated the idea of making and selling their own kits themselves, before realising that was legally and practically impossible.

This all happened as the Barca board were looking for more creative ways to raise new ‘lever’ money to deal with the club’s increasingly complicated and difficult financial problems, with huge doubts over whether La Liga would allow them to add any new players at all to their squad for the 2024-25 campaign.

Real Madrid are already selling new jerseys featuring its new galactico Kylian Mbappe. Meanwhile, Laporta and his board struggle to get out of another difficult situation, much of their own making.

Barca’s relationship with Nike goes back to the late 1990s, when then-Barca president Josep Lluis Nunez did the deal with a young executive at the American company called Sandro Rosell (who was later Barca vice-president from 2003 to 2005, then club president from 2010 to 2014).

The most recent kit deal was signed in May 2016, when Josep Maria Bartomeu was president. Barca had recently won the treble with a front line of Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi, a ‘trident’ equally adept at scoring goals and selling jerseys. Bartomeu negotiated a record deal worth a basic €105million a year (£88.8m; $112.3m at current rates), plus a possible €50m in add-ons.

Messi, Suarez and Neymar celebrating in December 2016 (David Ramos/Getty Images)

That deal runs until 2028. However, a sign of trouble came in February when Laporta told Catalan radio: “The relationship is not ideal. Nike is not fulfilling the terms of the contract. They’ve not replenished our stocks, as scheduled.”

Laporta said that, due to these problems, Barca’s board were considering three options: they could continue with Nike, switch to another kit supplier, or manufacture and sell the jersey themselves.

The president also said the “market” would pay double what Barca were currently getting for their kit deal, and that Barca needed to renegotiate. “We’ve shown our teeth to Nike,” he said, an admission of how fiery the relationship now was.

Part of this ‘showing of teeth’ was Barca letting it be known that they were talking to other potential kit partners. Catalan paper Sport reported that Puma had made a “practically unrejectable” offer that could reach €200million a year with variables.

Later in February, Nike executives were seen in the Catalan capital meeting with Laporta and his board. These talks were not very fruitful, and Laporta said on his own podcast in March that Barca had decided that they were going to end their contract early.

“We’ve told Nike that, due to flagrant breaches, we will end the contract,” Laporta said, adding that Barca were demanding “compensation” and that lawyers had been called on both sides.

A factor in such complaints was Nike having restructured their Spanish operations in 2022 as part of worldwide reforms, which Barca felt hurt their visibility and sales. Laporta also did not like the ‘performance-related’ clauses negotiated with his predecessor Bartomeu, including significant ‘bonuses’ for winning La Liga and reaching the Champions League final stages.

Barca’s men’s team last won the Champions League in 2015 (Marcus Brandt/picture alliance via Getty Images)

When first agreed, these clauses were triggered most years. But Barca has won just one La Liga title in the past five seasons and last reached the Champions League semi-final in 2018-19. That has lost around €100m in potential revenue. This explains Laporta saying in February that “in difficult moments, Nike have not been with us”.

Nike’s position was quite different. The American company has a history of vigorously protecting their interests in such circumstances. Real Madrid star Vinicius Junior last year attempted to leave a 10-year deal signed when he was just 18, but was unsuccessful. Nike’s lawyers also won in this case — with Laporta himself revealing a court injunction in the United States against Barca breaking the deal.

Over the decades, Barca’s relationship with Nike has always revolved around huge stars who wore Nike boots, often Brazilians including Ronaldinho and Neymar. Just as crucial were back-office connections. Besides Rosell, Raul Sanllehi was another former Nike executive who transitioned into a senior football role at the Camp Nou (this week, Sanllehi joined MLS club Inter Miami as its new president of football operations).

For years, Nike ran most of Barca’s merchandising operations, including their club shop and other retail outlets. Then in 2018, Bartomeu’s board took back control of most of these commercial intellectual property rights, forming a new separate company owned by the club called Barca Licensing and Merchandising (BLM).

Laporta and Ronaldinho pictured in 2003 (Jose Jordan/AFP via Getty Images)

The club now earned more from official kit sales, and could also design, manufacture and retail new ranges of leisure wear, including creatively leveraging the club’s heritage for new merchandise, such as the ‘Cruyff Collection’ range.

BLM turned out to be very successful, and became an important source of revenue for the financially troubled club. Just last February, Barca trumpeted a UEFA report ranking them top of all European clubs for kit and merchandising revenues, with a €179million total. This figure has been projected to soon top €200m a year, leading to estimates that the BLM company was now worth €500m-€700m.

Such numbers were interesting, given Barca’s deep financial problems. In June 2022, club socios voted to give Laporta’s board permission to sell up to 49.9 per cent of BLM’s shares. It was to be another ‘lever’ — an external partner paying a big chunk of money up front, in exchange for a share of future profits.

Talks were held with potential partners, including American online retailer Fanatics. Former Barca financial vice-president Eduard Romeu said an offer of €275million for that 49 per cent stake had been rejected, as the club felt it was worth more.

However, this may have been wishful thinking. A total valuation of around €300million for BLM is more realistic, according to an industry expert with close knowledge of the situation, who did not want to be named to protect their position. The practicalities of the relationship with Nike also complicated any sale of a stake, as both sides must be involved in commercial promotions, such as last October’s with the Rolling Stones — when Barca wore the band’s imagery on their shirt for El Clasico. Internal political issues did not help either. Laporta is currently on his third BLM chief in less than two years.

Still, Barca’s board really need to find a big chunk of revenue, due to a €100million hole in their 2023-24 accounts caused by huge problems with the ‘Barca Media’ lever pulled in summer 2023. Without fixing this problem, La Liga will not let them sign anyone in summer 2024 — or even register current players Vitor Roque or Gavi, or take Joao Felix and Joao Cancelo on loan for another year.



Barcelona’s search for another quick fix – and questions over their ‘$1bn’ media brand

Barca had been hoping to find new investors for the Barca Media scheme, without success. So minds turned again to selling a share of BLM, which would be more attractive to investors if it was also manufacturing and retailing all the club’s official kits.

However, once it became clear that it was legally impossible to break with Nike, Barca’s strategy quickly changed to renegotiating the deal, maybe even extending for another decade or more.

Laporta’s stated aim was to “receive one euro more than Real Madrid’s Adidas deal”, which is the most expensive in the world at €120million a year. A new agreement would be especially useful if it included an up front ‘signing bonus’. Catalan press reports spoke of sums of up to €150m to sort the problem with La Liga ahead of the summer transfer window.



Real Madrid are Champions League winners again – and their power only looks set to grow

Significant flaws quickly appeared in this plan. Madrid have the biggest current kit deal as they have the biggest superstars — such as Vinicius Jr, Jude Bellingham and (soon) Mbappe. Barca’s current most marketable names are its emerging stars like Lamine Yamal, Pedri and Gavi, all still some years from reaching their full potential on or off the pitch.

Another complicating factor was La Liga not accepting such a signing bonus as a solution to the Barca Studios problem. For that ‘lever’ to actually work as Barca had hoped, new investors must take over from German company Libero, and existing partners Socios.com and Orpheus.

And Nike themselves are not in a great position to increase the money they pay. The American company has had a rough few years financially. Just last December, it announced a $2billion cost-cutting plan, including 1,500 lay-offs globally.

Nevertheless, Barca remained publicly confident of a bumper new arrangement. Laporta even said on his own club-produced podcast on June 4 that a new deal with Nike had been agreed. As that was not yet the case, the audio had to be audited before the podcast could be released.

Talks between the two entities continue. Barca declined to comment for this article, while a Nike spokesperson told The Athletic that “we have a contract with FC Barcelona until 2028 and are fully committed to the club and this agreement”.

The 2024-25 season is hugely important commercially for Barcelona. Lots of events are planned around the club’s 125th anniversary on November 29. The team are also scheduled to return to the renovated Camp Nou around that time, with all the merchandising possibilities that should bring.



Barcelona’s Camp Nou rebuild is ‘on schedule’. It can’t come soon enough

All this made it even more important for this summer’s kit launch to go smoothly, but it has not. Nike has a new design ready but much of the usual preparation has not been possible. Most strikingly, the annual photoshoot with players, usually done towards the end of the old season, did not take place this year.

Challenges in communication and collaboration have led to other issues, including Nike not realising early enough that Barca shirt sponsor Spotify changed its logo in May 2024, so some 2024-25 shirts were made using branding that was now out of date.

At some point in the next weeks, Barca’s new kit will be launched with the correct sponsor logo, and likely with stars currently with their national teams or on the beach photoshopped into the publicity material.

A big new kit deal could also be negotiated, and trumpeted loudly. But there are fears that the ‘lever’ policy will again see up-front money to pay off immediate liabilities borrowed from their future revenue.

Once more, the constant improvising and upheaval at Laporta’s Barca has done damage to its chances of success, both on and off the pitch. The problems with their new kit underline again the deep issues at the club, and fears about where it is headed.

(Top photo: Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

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