In 2012, the major professional sports leagues in the United States lost over $13 Billion in revenue due to sales of counterfeit shirts and merchandise including a whopping $3 Billion alone from the 32 teams in the National Football League (NFL). Some top end “authentic elite” team shirts which should retail for $250 could be found online with an 80% discount*. These numbers, whilst staggering on their own, are just a drop in the ocean when we look at the total “black” economy which runs annually into trillions of dollars.
In Europe, football means something very different to the American version. Whilst the biggest NFL sides can expect to sell tens of thousands of shirts (neither official shirt supplier Nike or the NFL will actually reveal unit sales), the unit sales for the best selling “franchise”, 2014 Super Bowl champions Seattle Seahawks pales into insignificance to current European Champions League winners Real Madrid who sell over 1.4 million shirt sales per annum, the vast majority now bearing the names of twin superstars Ronaldo and our very own Gareth Bale. Hot on their heels is Manchester United and Barcelona, each selling over a million shirts per annum. The top ten football clubs sell over 7.5 million shirts per annum across the globe, significantly more than the top ten clubs of any other sport.
Obviously these numbers only reflect the official sales. Browsing the new adidas store at Bluewater last week I picked up a Real Madrid shirt, complete with an official Champions League badge on the sleeve. The prices tag? £60. Last month Nike and the Football Association found themselves being the talk of the town for the wrong reasons with questions even being raised in the Houses of Parliament over the price of the New England shirt, with those “authentic elite” versions again costing upwards of £90.
Football shirts are not luxury items, yet their official price tag puts them in the same category as similar types of items sold by the likes of Armani, Gucci and Versace. £60 for what essentially is a t-shirt is simply crazy, irrespective of the new-fangled material used to differentiate the latest version from the almost identical one released the previous year. They are a lifestyle purchase. Whilst a very small numbers of sales will be based on fashion sense, the vast majority are based on the blind loyalty that football fans have for their team.
In the last few years manufacturers and clubs alike have come under criticism for the number of new kits they bring out. Whilst nobody is forced to buy the new, upgraded version of the shirt when it is released, that same blind loyalty has has queuing up to buy the shirt on the first day of sale.
It is the rule rather than the exception that clubs bring out a new football shirt every year. Not just one shirt, but in some instances six different versions if you count the special “European campaign” and goal keeper ones. Chelsea, for instance, have released fourteen different kits, excluding their goalkeepers one, in just five seasons.
With the retail cost increasing every year it is no wonder that the market for counterfeit goods is swelling every year. Just last month a huge haul of fake football shirts was discovered on its way into the United States. More than $1 million worth of Chelsea, Barcelona and other major European football teams shirts were found in a container at Savannah Port in Georgia that had arrived from China. The US Customs and Border Protection force will readily admit they got lucky in finding the counterfeit items in Georgia – hundreds of millions more pass under their noses every year without detection.
The majority of counterfeit football shirts are made in Asia where raw materials and workers wages are very low. Over the course of the last few years I’ve been to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, the Night Market in Marrakech, the Ladies Market in Hong Kong and even the Sunday Boot Fairs of Sidcup. Vast ranges of every major football shirt can be bought for just a few pounds. The quality of the counterfeits varies per seller, with some offering “special edition” shirts. When I was in. Morocco two years ago, one stall was selling Manchester United, 2012 Premier League Champions shirts, made specifically for the Reds title success. The problem? Rivals Manchester City won the title with virtually the last kick of the season.
It is fairly obvious that you aren’t buying the real thing at the price they are being sold for, although production techniques now mean that fakes come in a variety of grades of quality. At the low end the wrong material and non-exact match colours will be used and often there will be spelling mistakes (Liecester City anyone?) whilst the higher grade ones will often have all the bells and whistles of the real thing including holograms and inside printing.
But there is another side to counterfeit football shirts that you may not have considered and that is the conundrum of brand awareness.
Consider this situation. Every counterfeit shirt carries the branding of not only the football club, but also their main commercial partner(s). The whole reason why major brands invest millions into putting their logo on the front of a football shirt is to increase their brand awareness both in existing and new markets. The hundreds of millions invested by Emirates into their sponsorship of Arsenal, Olympiakos, Paris Saint-Germain, Hamburger SV, AC Milan and now the European Champions, Real Madrid means they have huge global exposure from the sales of official shirts. But their logo also appears on counterfeit items as well, increasing their global reach albeit through illegitimate channels.
Consumers simply associate Emirates with these shirts, irrespective of the legitimacy of the shirt. Whilst the airline may be deeply unhappy that their logo is being used on counterfeit items, they are essentially increasing their return on investment through free advertising. I have no doubt that the sales of fake shirts are taken into commercial consideration when they are negotiating their deals, but it is a by-product that they inadvertently benefit from.
And what of the clubs themselves? Football is now a global game. The elite clubs no longer consider the summer break as a chance to rest and relax. They now travel far afield to play exhibition games in front of sell-out crowds in new markets. The forthcoming Guinness International Champions Cup in the USA is an example of this where some of the world’s biggest clubs including three of Emirates sponsored teams, Olympiakos, AC Milan and Real Madrid will play a series of games around the USA to boost interest in the game. Last year Chelsea travelled to Singapore and Malaysia, whilst Manchester United played in Hong Kong as part of their strategy of increasing their global fanbase.
Many of these fans, in the Far East especially, have significantly less disposal income than their core fans have in England. They cannot afford the real-deal, climacool, multi-weave new shirt at £60. But they can afford the counterfeit at £5.
By buying a counterfeit shirt, one that they can afford, they are still buying into the brand, happy to market the club by wearing the badge, albeit one that may not be official. Does this make them less of a fan? By spending 90% less on a shirt they can then afford to buy a ticket or subscribe to the club’s online streaming content. What is more important to the club? New fans who will engage with the club on a regular basis or ones who will contribute a small amount of money once a season through an official shirt purchase.
The whole sports apparel and merchandise market is unique. Someone who buys a counterfeit Gucci shirt or a fake IPhone charger is doing so for very different reasons than someone who buys a fake replica Barcelona shirt. Whilst football clubs need to have a brand protection strategy in place, are counterfeit shirts the maker concern for global sporting brands? It’s an interesting debate, one that will certainly differ whether you have the emotional engagement as a fan or the commercial view as a sponsor or the club itself.
*Source: Allan Brettman, “NFL, Nike fight to keep counterfeit products off the market,” Orgonian, November 16, 2013.