The latest round of disclosures by the leading brands in the football market again has Adidas and Nike boasting that they are the largest players in the sport, ahead of the final round of the football World Cup to start in South Africa next month.

At its investor conference in New York earlier this month, Nike stated that it achieved annual revenues of over $1.7 billion from football for the Nike brand alone, and the company said that the Umbro brand added another $0.2 billion. Nike emphasized that this could not be regarded as a projection but amounted to an estimate of its football revenues until the end of May, which is the end of the company’s fiscal year.

On the day of the Nike conference, the $1.7 billion was equivalent to about €1.33 billion, whereas Adidas announced in the same week that it was well on track to clearly exceed record football product sales of €1.3 billion for the full year. However, the comparison is slightly distorted by the divergence in fiscal years, which will include the full impact of the World Cup for Adidas and not for Nike.

Nike has a more solid claim to leadership as a group, since the joint football sales of Nike and Umbro, the English football brand bought by Nike three years ago, amount to about €1.49 billion. The Adidas group declines to provide figures on the contribution of the Reebok brand to its own group football sales, but those sales hardly tip the scales.

When it comes to cleated football boots, whose sales are easiest to measure, Adidas continues to claim wide international leadership. It refers to surveys conducted by the NPD Group and Sportscan that placed its global market share at about 34 percent at the end of 2008. In the five largest European markets, the German brand’s market share stood at about 40 percent at the end of 2007, which was more than Nike and Puma together, and Adidas says this leadership will be confirmed by the latest figures due to be released in June. Then again, NPD figures for the year ended in December 2009 showed that Nike was the market leader for cleated football boots in the U.K., Spain and Italy, while Adidas remained ahead in Germany and France.

Nike, which has shown its heightened commitment to football in the last years, will be outfitting nine teams at the World Cup, including favorites such as Brazil, Portugal and the Netherlands. They will all be wearing jerseys made entirely from recycled polyester, each one produced from up to eight recycled bottles – saving 13 million plastic bottles in all. Along with the jerseys it has come up with enhanced versions of its four different ranges of football boots, with a new upper and an ultra lightweight outsole.

At its investor day, Nike boasted that this World Cup would mark its largest-ever presence, in terms of teams outfitted by Nike and in overall marketing spending ahead of such an event. As part of this year’s campaign, it has opened a temporary Nikefootball store of 800 square meters on Corso Vittorio Emanuele in Milan and is dedicating the whole basement of its flagship store in Paris to football.

Adidas, which sold about 3 million replica shirts and 15 million Teamgeist balls in 2006, still beats all of its rivals in terms of endorsements with 12 teams wearing the Three Stripes in South Africa – not to mention the fact that Adidas is the official partner of Fifa. The three-striped teams include some heavyweights such as Spain, Germany and Argentina, along with the South African team.

At an interview in Paris last week, Herbert Hainer said that Adidas was enjoying brisk jersey sales so far, particularly for Mexico and Spain. More surprisingly, sales of the German team’s jerseys were at about the same level last week as in the same period four years ago, when the event was hosted in Germany.

Another surprising score is the delivery by Adidas of about 300,000 jerseys for the French team, although it remains to be seen if the sell-out will follow, considering its current low level of popularity among French fans. At the last World Cup, about half of the brand’s French jersey sales were made after the team’s qualification for the final round. Adidas’ share of the French football market reached nearly 41 percent at the end of last year, ahead of Nike at a little over 24 percent and Puma just above 7 percent, combining apparel, footwear and balls.

The partnership between Adidas and the South African football federation is enabling the brand to strongly reinforce its ties with South African football supporters. Its sales of South African football shirts have been taking off in the last weeks, especially since the government ramped up excitement around the World Cup by declaring Football Friday – encouraging citizens to display their support for Bafana Bafana, the South African football team, by wearing yellow shirts on Fridays.

South African companies have been ordering shirts by the hundreds since Football Friday was instituted. Hainer said that Adidas had already sold about 200,000 South African replica shirts. However, the company is also selling plainer and less expensive yellow three-striped T-shirts, known in South Africa as “skippers.”

The response apparently took Adidas by surprise, as it temporarily ran out of product in several locations. The company had little flexibility in re-orders since it promised to source its products from South African manufacturers only. It had initially contracted two factories and urgently had to get a third unit working on the shirts. However, some retailers complained that the shortages had encouraged a buoyant trade in counterfeits.

Adidas is using its partnership with Fifa and the South African football federation for many other initiatives, some of them inspiringly supporting education and health in the country. Among the more marketing-oriented plans is the construction of a giant Bafana Bafana jersey, which has been touring the country for several weeks. Supporters have been asked to sign the jersey to display their support for the South African team, and in exchange they have received a free yellow bandana. Adidas calls them Umus, after Unite Mzansi Unite, a rallying cry for unity in South Africa. Known in South Africa as “scrunchies,” these bandanas also went on sale this month and revenues derived from these products are to be donated entirely to Foundation 46664, so named after the prisoner’s number of Nelson Mandela at Robben Island.

Adidas jerseys have led to some controversy in South Africa. Sactwu, the textile trade union, said that the retail price starting at just under 600 rand (€61.50-$75.40) amounted to a rip-off, since the production cost of the jerseys in South Africa is only between 100 and 150 rand (€10.25 to 15.40-$12.50 to 18.85). Earlier, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) had threatened to march on Fifa offices to demand that more South Africans be involved in the production of World Cup merchandise. Global Brands South Africa, which has rights for official merchandise around the World Cup, countered that about 67,500 South Africans were employed in manufacturing and distribution of official licensed products for the event, and another 1,500 to 2,000 people would be employed in fan parks and for sales at football grounds.

Many South Africans are still outraged by the strict and sometimes ludicrous rules imposed by Fifa for marketing around the World Cup. Unable to use generic terms such as 2010 and World Cup, some companies are humorously marketing “2009+1” ranges and referring to “You know which year.” However, our sources in the country point to a growing willingness among the South African people to make the event work – to emulate the togetherness of the Rugby World Cup in 1995 and overcome a growing polarization among social and ethnic groups in the country.

Puma has long had a strong commitment to Africa, mixing football investments with other considerations, through the support of African artists and a flurry of environmental and development projects. A few years ago, its partnership with the Cameroon team led to spats with football authorities about unorthodox garments such as sleeveless shirts and one-piece football suits. But since then, Puma has become a fixture on African football pitches, endorsing 10 out of the 15 teams at the latest African Cup of Nations. Puma will outfit seven teams at the World Cup, including the incumbent champions, Italy, along with Switzerland, Uruguay and four African teams: Ghana, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast and Algeria.

Puma’s African sales have risen significantly in the last years. Jochen Zeitz, the company’s chief executive, said four years ago that Africa made up about 2 percent of the company’s sales in the EMEA region, but the share increased to about 5 percent this year. Although South Africa remains by far the largest African market for Puma, sales have started to pick up in a few other countries. Furthermore, Puma points out that African teams are often popular in larger European markets: While European teams are not widely supported beyond their own country, African teams are often second favorites.

In fact, Puma has invested in a large-scale, promotional event around Africa ahead of the World Cup, to take place in Paris later this week. Called Africa Unity Experience, this will involve players from three of its African teams in an exhibition game, free concerts and other cultural happenings.

Along with the three market leaders, another four companies will be endorsed by one football team each at the World Cup. Umbro remains the sponsor of the England team, while Brooks has teamed up with Chile and Joma is to be worn by Honduras. Erke should gain exposure on the shoulders of North Korean players – but bizarrely, just a few weeks before the start of the World Cup, it was uncertain that the North Koreans would indeed wear Erke at the championship.

A striking aspect of the campaign around this year’s World Cup is the massive shift of investment toward the internet. Adidas is skipping TV football commercials altogether to produce all the more internet clips, backed up by infiltration of internet discussion groups and many more web-based activities. Then again, Adidas is broadcasting another campaign around its Originals range, involving football stars from Franz Beckenbauer to David Beckham. Hainer said the company’s budget for performance football products around the World Cup would be comparable to four years ago, implying that it would be lower as a percentage of sales. However, marketing spending as a whole would not be lower.

For its part, Nike is broadcasting both TV commercials and internet clips. It has started airing a TV commercial of three minutes with all the trappings of an epic movie. With the tagline “Write the Future,” the humorous clip features some of the most prominent players wearing Nike boots, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Didier Drogba and Wayne Rooney – with focus on his Nike boots as well as his Umbro shirt. Its broadcast on the British ITV network has been saddled by technical problems, however.

There are few reliable figures on the football market in South Africa itself. It is estimated that there are about 2.5 million registered football players in the country, and many more casual players. Sports Trader, a specialist publication in South Africa, estimates the market at between 1.2 million and 1.5 million pairs of cleated football boots annually. Adidas is regarded as a strong market leader for football products in the country, while Nike is the leader in the broader sporting goods market. Hainer admitted that Africa continued to make up only a small share of the company’s sales, not more than 3 percent, and that he did not expect this to change in any significant way in the next few years.