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FEATURE | SOCCER

Soldier of fortune Warrior burst into European soccer this summer through an eye-catching deal with one of the continent’s grand old clubs. While Liverpool is the priority for now, Warrior Football’s Richard Wright insists the company has bold plans to establish itself in its new playground. By Tom Love

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n January 2012 Warrior Sports officially announced it would enter into European soccer at the start of the 2012/13 season, replacing Adidas as the kit supplier to 18-time English champions Liverpool Football Club. In doing so Warrior would compete alongside the likes of Adidas, Nike and Puma in the European soccer apparel marketplace, an industry as competitive as Europe’s leading leagues, teams and players. That the US sports apparel and equipment brand would make its debut in the Premier League, perhaps the most prestigious stage in domestic club soccer, was surprise enough; more surprising still was that it would do so by paying what is believed to be a record amount for English soccer for a six-year deal with one of the biggest global brands in the sport. Describing the landmark agreement from its inception as an off-the-cuff boardroom pitch to its conclusion on the hallowed turf of Anfield is Richard Wright, head of Warrior Football, the dedicated soccer division of the Warrior brand. Wright explains that following Boston-based New Balance’s acquisition of Warrior in 2004, the footwear brand’s board pointed Warrior away from its traditional roots as a lacrosse and ice hockey equipment manufacturer and on to the path of team sports that are played on a global platform. “Lacrosse is essentially 90 per cent US, and ice hockey, although it’s a bit further afield than lacrosse, it still isn’t a truly global sport,” Wright points out. “So the choices were basketball or football and thankfully they [the boards of New Balance and Warrior] chose football.” Led by Englishman Wright – a 20-year veteran of the sports apparel industry who began his career in a factory in

“‘We come not to play, we come to win,’ simple as that. That’s the company, that’s its personality, its attitude.” Heckmondwike, Yorkshire constructing the very first Nike Tiempo soccer boots – Warrior crossed the Atlantic and landed on England’s western shores in January 2011, establishing a design and development beachhead in the leafy Manchester suburb of Wilmslow. “I came on board and pooled a team of people here from product marketing and sports marketing with no assets at all,” Wright says. “At that point in time there was no Liverpool [deal], so the brand was going to go into football regardless,” he adds in answer to the brand’s very own chicken or egg question. Rather than forming Warrior Football on the basis of securing a long-term agreement with Liverpool, Wright explains that initially the brand was exploring the possibility of partnering with any of the Premier League teams that currently make up the league’s ‘top six’. “We were looking for big clubs,” he states. “The Liverpool deal came up because New Balance had an endorsement deal with the Boston Red Sox and therefore the Fenway Sports Group [FSG],” says Wright, referring to Warrior’s and Liverpool’s respective owners. “At one of the Fenway and New Balance meetings one of the New Balance guys suggested putting in an offer for Liverpool. That’s essentially how it started,” he adds, stressing that although the deal was initially made in Boston, Liverpool and the club’s managing director Ian Ayre “were part of that conversation from the word go.”

“It almost came out of the blue to be honest but out of the really big five or six teams, you have to be opportunistic in your outlook,” Wright says. The breakthrough for Warrior in signing with a club “in the top six in terms of commercial return” and behind only Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea and Bayern Munich in average annual shirt sales, was seen as a major loss for Adidas. With Warrior wrestling the much-prized Liverpool account out of the hands of Adidas – albeit by reportedly more than doubling the price of the previous agreement – the German company lost the ability to clad approximately 810,000 fans per year in its distinctive three-striped apparel. As to what message Wright believes the Liverpool partnership sends to the likes of Nike, Puma and Adidas, he asserts: “It tells them that maybe their service levels aren’t quite as good as they think they are.” Ignoring the lucrative nature of the partnership to both manufacturer and club, however, the deal, which if reports are to be believed carries an overall value of some US$229.8 million, represents a massive leap of faith for both parties. In approving what is thought to be a US$38.3 million per season agreement to provide the playing kit for the Liverpool squad in addition to the club’s legion of fans and international followers, Warrior has not only committed itself to what would be a huge loss leader if sales targets are not consistently met but also risked forever tarnishing its reputation

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if it is unable to keep up with demand in the way Sergio Tacchini struggled with tennis star Novak Djokovic. For Liverpool and FSG, meanwhile, agreeing a deal with David Morrow’s US upstart – a company with no track record in soccer and one that Wright admits to being still in its “infancy” – saw the club and its owners risk the distinct possibility of competing in a poor on-field product, frustrating the fans and bringing anti-American sentiment upon themselves as a result. To combat such fears, however, Wright believes that establishment of Warrior Football outside Manchester, undoubtedly a heartland of world soccer, has been crucial, both in escaping the image of two US organisations with dollar signs in their eyes colluding together to the detriment of the club and in the acceptance of the brand as a genuine contender in the soccer apparel marketplace. “A lot of the [Warrior] guys in the US will put their hand up and say, ‘Yeah, I don’t get it fully,’ but the intention was always to employ people who did get it and let them run with it which is what has happened,” says Wright. “The fact that the company took

the decision to completely separate a category, football, and locate it miles away from its head office in Detroit and put confidence in the people who are running it has meant that it’s been relatively easy because we as a team have been allowed a fairly free rein as to the directional strategy of Warrior’s football business.

“I know a lot of British football followers are anti-US to a degree but you can’t apologise for being American,” Wright continues. “We are an American brand and we have beliefs and values that follow the original US philosophy. However, I think it’s very important to emphasise real football traditions and on that point we’ve got a bunch of British people designing and putting together marketing campaigns.” It was therefore Wright and his team who were responsible for the launch of Liverpool’s 2012/13 kit and the ‘We come not to play’ campaign, which received a somewhat mixed reception, that ran alongside it. “You can finish the line off however you want but essentially it’s ‘We come not to play, we come to win,’ simple as that,” Wright says. “That’s the company, that’s its personality, its attitude. Speaking to some of the Liverpool players, they absolutely agree that that’s also the character of Liverpool.” As well as attempting to tap into the unique psyche Liverpool and its fans

Liverpool’s Nuri Sahin in the new home kit that Warrior Football head Richard Wright describes as a “home run”

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FEATURE | SOCCER

Expanding the front

The US invasion

hough Liverpool is currently the only name officially registered on Warrior’s books, Richard Wright is open in saying that the overriding aim of Warrior’s European debut is for “responsible, coordinated growth”, a strategy that will include “more licensed properties” in the near future. It has already been widely reported that Warrior has signed an agreement with Spanish side Sevilla to begin producing kit for the La Liga team from the start of the 2013/14 season. And though Wright is non-committal in his response when the question is asked, merely stating “it’s not been announced yet”, the move appears to be in keeping with the company’s own desire to only partner with clubs that command international exposure. “There are two leagues in the world which are globally viewed,” Wright says. “One is the Premier League and the other is La Liga, so it’s no surprise where our sponsorship strategy lies. There are plenty of opportunities in football, almost too many to be honest, and so in order to grow we will have to choose the right ones. With the length we agreed with Liverpool, you can see that we’re here to stay and push on and grow on a global basis. It’s very exciting times.”

here has been another high-profile supplier switch in England’s Premier League this year. In March 2011, Baltimore-based Under Armour announced it would replace Puma as Tottenham Hotspur’s kit manufacturer from the start of the 2012/13 season. Though the reported figures for Under Armour’s commitment pale in comparison to those of Warrior’s to Liverpool – the sponsorship element of Tottenham’s five-year deal is understood to be worth at least US$16 million per season – both agreements mark a significant shift in power away from the traditional apparel giants, Nike, Adidas and Puma. Warrior and Under Armour have captured two clubs that make up the Premier League’s ‘top six’ with Nike, currently in the process of rebranding some of its key properties from Umbro, holding rights to both Manchester clubs as well as Arsenal. Adidas, meanwhile, has recently tightened its grip on Chelsea in a long-term, eightyear agreement, while Puma, having previously been paying half of what Under Armour and Tottenham shook hands on, has dropped off the ‘top six’ radar altogether. “I think it’s probably coincidence but it’s also logical,” says Wright of the US invasion. “What’s the largest global

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– a supporter base that is both proud and fiercely defensive of its deep-rooted collective identity – Wright asserts that the selection and empowerment of a Warrior Football team local to the area has also meant that the question marks surrounding issues of supply and demand have proved largely unfounded. “We had to fi nd factories that could make football gear but because of the people we employed here, they had that experience which allowed us to take some shortcuts. We all knew the factories before we’d even arrived,” Wright explains. “From a distribution point of view we had to fi nd as many distributor partners around the world

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who could distribute Warrior products. Again, that was facilitated by the fact that we had a global distribution network through New Balance.” As a result, Wright reports that despite not yet having achieved a full distribution network, something that will be put in place over the next 12 months, Warrior has been able to deliver “100 per cent on time”, which he says represents “a major coup” given that “nobody expected it, particularly the big brands who were waiting for us to stumble. Without patting ourselves on the back too hard, we’ve hit the nail on the head.” Indeed, for all the concerns over

Tottenham’s Aaron Lennon in Under Armour

sport and where is it played? Football, and it’s played in every country in the world and it’s followed in every country in the world so it’s absolutely no surprise that they [Under Armour] started off in the English Premier League as well.” Wright’s words chime with those of Under Armour’s director of international marketing Blair Tripodi. Speaking to SportsPro shortly after the Tottenham deal was announced, Tripodi said: “We’ve seen tremendous success for our company based upon our key relationships that we enjoy in the United States and other markets, but we feel Tottenham is quite a coup and quite an important new footprint for us in Europe. We’re very serious about our presence in this market and in this sport and we couldn’t be any more pleased to be starting at the very top with a club like Tottenham.” Warrior’s off-field inability to satisfy the voracious appetite of Liverpool fans for all things Liverpool, it has been the club that has so far yet to live up to its billing as a top performer on the highest level. Liverpool fi nished the 2011/12 Premier League season in eighth – the club’s worst performance since 1994 – and as such failed to qualify for the 2012/13 Champions League, a big setback given Warrior’s desire for recognition on an international basis. And while Wright admits to, “along with every other Liverpool fan”, being “hugely disappointed” with the club’s non-appearance in the world’s most prestigious club soccer tournament,

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Premier League kit manufacturers 2012/13

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard in the away kit

Club

Kit supplier

Contract end

Arsenal Aston Villa Chelsea Everton Fulham Liverpool Manchester City Manchester United Newcastle United Norwich City Queens Park Rangers Reading Southampton Stoke City Sunderland Swansea City Tottenham Hotspur West Bromwich Albion West Ham United Wigan Athletic

Nike Macron Adidas Nike Kappa Warrior Umbro (Nike) Nike

2014 2016 2018 2015 2013 2018 2019

Estimated annual value* US$12.9 million US$6.05 million US$32.26 million US$16.14 million US$2 million US$40.37 million US$19.38 million

2015

US$37.94 million

Puma

2014

Undisclosed

Errea Lotto

Undisclosed 2013

US$1.25 million US$6.46 million

Puma Umbro Adidas Adidas Adidas Under Armour

2013 2013 2014 Undisclosed 2014 2017

Undisclosed Undisclosed Undisclosed Undisclosed US$2.46 million US$16.14 million

Adidas

2014

US$2.42 million

Macron

2013

US$6 million

Mi-Fit

Undisclosed

US$1.5 million

*Using October 2012 exchange rates

The Liverpool deal has “exceeded expectations”

halfway through year one of six he reports that Warrior’s partnership with Liverpool is already “exceeding expectations”, adding: “It could have improved our financial situation significantly if we had been in the Champions League but we’re very happy with it so far. We’re very pleased, particularly coming in as a new brand. Whatever we put out there it was going to be risky but particularly with the home kit, to use a Red Sox term, we’ve hit a home run. “It was a pretty big risk from Liverpool’s point of view as well – they’re a club steeped in history and tradition – but in an attempt to break from tradition you’ve got to do something brash and brave and that’s what they did,”

continues Wright. “They went with a new brand which has different ideas to the usual names in the sports trade and they wanted a bespoke service which other brands were not offering. Our total focus at the moment, from a club point of view, is on Liverpool and therefore we can spend a lot more time and energy looking into what’s important to Liverpool Football Club rather than just going, ‘Here’s another kit.’ “The service that we’re offering, be it from design or marketing campaigns or whatever, hopefully will allow us to outperform some of the bigger brands who have that much on their plate that it’s very difficult for them to focus on specific clubs.”

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Soldier of fortune  

Warrior burst into European soccer this summer through an eye-catching deal with one of the continent’s grand old clubs. While Liverpool is...

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