By Alex Ritman
The history of the sports business can be traced to a bitter feud between a family of German cobblers over 60 years ago.
Here's an interesting fact to tell your mates: The history of the sports business can be traced back to a bitter feud between a family of German cobblers over sixty years ago.
Read the corporate history of sports behemoth Adidas, and you'll probably stumble across a few dusty black and white photos of a cheery chap tinkering with a pair of football boots.
There he is, Adolf ‘Adi' Dassler, the sports-obsessed cobbler extraordinaire, the man who founded an empire in his mother's washroom in a small German town sixty years ago and put his name to a legend that, by the time of his death in 1978 was producing 180,000 pairs of three-striped shoes a day in factories across seventeen countries.
With two stripes used before and four deemed too confusing, three was adopted as the standard for adidas and a legend was born.
What you're unlikely to learn about, however, is that Adi's shoe business began long before 1948, with his older brother Rudolf in fact, but a bitter rift between the siblings would see them set up rival companies practically spitting distance from one another, companies that would go on to dominate the world sports market and turn the industry on its head.
Established at the beginning of 1920 in the Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach, Adolf Dassler's little shoe business began life as a very small outfit indeed.
Family members were drafted in to help and employees sometimes had to clamber over Adi's bed which he had set up at the workshop entrance in case a brainwave struck him in the middle of the night.
Sports shoes were his forte, notably running spikes, which were forged and driven through the soles by Adi's friend Fritz Zehlein, who just happened to be the son of the town's blacksmith.
In 1923, the company was joined by Rudolf and Gebruder Dassler (Dassler Brothers) was born. With experience in marketing, Rudolf exploited the growing sports craze across Germany by sending packages of Dassler shoes to clubs. Thankfully, the quality of Adi's designs were unquestionable and the response was overwhelming.
By the time of the 1936 Berlin Olympics - dubbed the ‘Nazi Olympics' because of Hitler's rise to power two years earlier - Gebruder Dassler's spikes had developed a following and the company was already Germany's leading sports-shoe supplier.
The hero of the Olympics was undoubtedly Jesse Owens, the black US athlete who ruined Hitler's hopes for an Aryan-dominated event by taking four golds medals in spectacular fashion.Owens' victory was a coup for Gebruder Dassler too, for Adi had gained access to the Olympic Village and persuaded the runner to wear his spikes. The Dassler reputation was cemented.
The start of WWII in 1939 spelt trouble for Gebruder Dassler, with rationing reining in output and priorities shifted to the battlefield.
But it wasn't just the business that suffered, for tensions were beginning to fray within the family. Rudolf regularly lost patience with Adi's obsessive tinkering and aloof attitude towards business matters, while Adi was increasingly disturbed by his older brother's brashness.
Adi got revenge, leaving a van displaying the adidas slogan opposite the puma office until it was eaten away by rust.
They were both married with children by now, but living together in the same building and conflicting personalities among the new family members was taking its toll. Two bickering couples and five children behind one door did not a happy household make.
By the end of the war, the heightened in-fighting had reached such a point that the brothers resolved to split. Rudolf gathered up his family and belongings, crossed the Aurach river dividing Herzogenaurach and set up shop in a small shoe factory Gebruder Dassler had owned, leaving Adolf the larger plant.
Rudolf also gave Adolf and Kathe the family villa, but the remaining assets were painstakingly divided. When it came to the company's employees, the Dasslers let them choose sides. Predictably, most of the sales staff went to Rudolf while the technicians remained with Adi.
By April 1948, the separation of Gebruder Dassler was finally complete and two new companies were registered over the following months. Adolf filed a registration for a company called Addas, but this was rejected as it was too similar to a German children's shoe company.
Instead he contracted his name and surname and ‘Adidas' was born. Rudolf did exactly the same, registering ‘Ruda', but this was considered inelegant. Soon after he registered ‘Puma'.
On either side of the river, the split deeply affected the Dassler's businesses. Rudolf had all of the previous company's administrative and sales staff, but with the technicians having stayed behind, they had nothing to sell. Adolf, on the other hand, quickly restarted production but had no means of promotion. Now in his late forties, he had to turn things up a notch, drawing in his family more intensely than intended.
Publicity and brand awareness was essential for Adi, and shortly after the separation a key marketing tool emerged. The Dasslers had long used numerous strips of leather on the sides of their shoes for support.
Most of the time they were made of the same leather as the rest of the upper, nearly always black or dark brown. Such uniformity had often made it difficult for Gebruder Dassler to back up their claims that successful athletes had been wearing their shoes.Adi figured that if the stripes were coloured white, instead of brown, they could be used to identify his stripes from afar. With two stripes used before by Gebruder Dassler and four considered two confusing, three was adopted as the standard for Adidas, and a legend was born.
Across the river, Rudolf was quickly employing technicians from competing companies to work the machines. The earliest form of the Puma logo was a square with a rapacious-looking beast jumping through a ‘D'.
Like his sibling, Rudi had toyed with idea of using the support stripes on the side, but his early version involved just one thick stripe, which later evolved into the formstripe we see on Pumas now. The three stripes and the formstripe became instantly instrumental in the fight between the two companies.
The following years would see some intense battling for dominance in the sports footwear market between Adidas and Puma. Both developed a football boot with adjustable studs - to be screwed in or out, in several lengths, depending on the state of the pitch.
However it was Adi's boots that shot to fame as the West Germany national team had worn three stripes when they upset Ferenc Puskas and his mighty Hungarians in the 1954 World Cup. Indeed Adi - as the team's devoted shoemaker - was hauled into the victory snapshot.
‘What a Dassler!' ran a English newspaper headline. With an export arm established, Adidas was now dispatching boots across Europe and extra factories had to be built to cope with exploding demand.
Adidas quickly adopted the slogan ‘der Sportschuh der Weltbesten' (‘the sports shoe of the world champions'), but as soon as the West German side were knocked out of the following competition in Sweden, Puma quickly moved in to sue.
Despite the court ruling in his favour, Rudolf could not stop Adi taking revenge through a fishmonger opposite the Puma building who left a van displaying the ‘world champions' slogan parked right under their office window until it was eaten away by rust. Pettiness ran rife.
By the 1960s, the competition between the two moved into a new phase as the next generation of Dasslers exerted their influence on the companies. Horst Dassler, Adi's eldest, was unquestionably the more successful and despite his father's devotion to the sporting element of his company, transformed the business into one where money talked and money walked (but hopefuly with the right shoes on its feet).
The age of endorsements was emerging and with the large amounts of cash that Puma and Adidas were willing to pay to put their logos on the best, athletes realised that they could command serious money to wear the right footwear.
Perhaps one of the most famous tie-ins occured in 1970. Muhammad Ali had asked Adidas to prepare a special pair of boots before his fight with Oscar Bonavena. The Ali Shuffles, featuring red tassels would be described by the boxer as his ‘secret weapon'.
Adidas and Puma designed shoes that would go on to define a generation. Adidas' Superstar would capture 85 per cent of the US professional basketball market less than four years after their introduction.The same shoes were adopted by the nascent hip hop scene in the 1980s, with Run DMC singing My Adidas (and walking away with a tidy amount of cash).
An endorsement with US tennis champ Stan Smith and Horst Dassler's personal friendship with Romanian racketeer Ilie Nastase led to pumps that would sell over 60 million pairs over the next decade.
Thanks to Adi, Rudolf and their sons, the sports business is a million miles away from its humble beginnings in Herzogenaurach.
To read more about Gebruder Dassler and the rise of Adidas and Puma, plus the emergence of Nike in the 1970s, buy the excellent Pitch Invasion by Barbara Smit published by Penguin.
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