How Puma Takes on Nike and Adidas at the Copa America

Football in the 21st century has been the story of duopoly for a generation of young supporters: Lionel Messi supporters and those obsessed with Cristiano Ronaldo.

A two-party system has led to massive revenue and social media engagement for clubs and countries represented by the pair, who between them have won 13 of the past 15 Ballons d’Or. The stranglehold has also extended to strengthening the two brands most associated with Messi and Ronaldo: Adidas and Nike.

For many, the German company Puma was seen as a little brother. This is reflected in overall sales, with Puma posting sales of $2.1 billion (£1.66 billion at current rates) in the first quarter of 2024, compared to $5.46 billion for Adidas and $ 12.43 billion for Nike. As such, Puma is undeniably a challenger brand.

But in the context of 20th century football, Puma owned the cultural touchpoints that defined the South American game, signing brand endorsement deals with Brazilian icon Pele and Argentinian superstar Diego Maradona. Puma also had shoe deals with Dutchman Johan Cruyff, widely regarded as the most influential footballer of all time, and Portuguese forward Eusebio.

Adidas has long had its tentacles around major FIFA tournaments, such as the World Cup, and UEFA’s prized assets: the European Championship and the Champions League. But this summer’s Copa America will be the first since 2004 without Nike sponsoring the tournament and the match ball. Instead, Puma has taken over ownership as part of a larger deal that includes all country and club competitions of South American football federation CONMEBOL.

Yet Puma only sponsors one national team that participates in the Copa America: Paraguay. Adidas sponsors eight (mainly Argentina and Mexico), Nike sponsors four (including the United States and Brazil), Marathon sponsors two and Reebok sponsors one. It follows a pattern that Puma has adopted in several markets, most notably taking over sponsorship of the English Premier League ball from the 2024-2025 season after a long period of dominance by Nike, but only sponsoring one club in Manchester City. Puma also sponsors the ball in La Liga, but does not sponsor any of Spain’s biggest hitters.

Paraguay is the only country to wear Puma kit during the tournament (Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

“The ball is a way to be present in every match,” says Carlos Laje, Puma general manager for Latin America, “because the ball is the object of desire of the fans and the players. You can be the center of attention without having to go country by country picking up pieces, players and teams.”

Puma has a large number of big name clubs and players; most notably City and one of their most marketable players in England winger Jack Grealish, as well as AC Milan, Borussia Dortmund, Marseille and Palmeiras, who have won the Brazilian Serie A in the past two seasons. Outside of football, Usain Bolt, the world record holder in the men’s 100 meters, is the most famous Puma name.

The faces of Puma’s Copa America promotional ad include Brazilian winger Neymar, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez and US men’s national team star Christian Pulisic. Puma signed Neymar in 2020 but he subsequently struggled to reach the top at Paris Saint-Germain. Last summer he left for Al Hilal in Saudi Arabia, where he suffered a serious injury that ruled him out for most of the campaign and the Copa America.

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“Neymar gets injured, there is no way you can replace that,” says Laje. “What you’re missing is the opportunity for him to generate additional memories and pop culture moments. He is still there as an ambassador, despite not playing. So we will continue to use it for communication, because the story we tell goes beyond this specific tournament.”

Nike did not respond to questions for this report, but sources familiar with the organization who spoke anonymously to protect relationships suggested that sponsorship of the Copa America had previously been motivated more by Nike’s equipment business (i.e. selling footballs) than by massive global visibility. Nike already has a large soccer footprint in America through its sponsorship of the US and Brazil, although losing Mexico to Adidas in 2006 was a significant economic blow.

However, there is a slight awkwardness in the fact that the USMNT’s biggest star Pulisic – and, more recently, his teammates Yunus Musah and Weston McKennie – have signed with Puma. Missing Pulisic in particular was a source of anxiety and frustration in Nike’s football department.

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Ultimately, Nike’s decision to withdraw from the Copa America is most likely a tough business decision. The company announced in late 2023 its intention to cut hundreds of jobs and increase automation as it sought to cut $2 billion in costs over the next three years. As a result, Nike cut back on sports marketing and sponsorship spending, analyzing what the company could afford to lose, rather than focusing solely on moving the company forward.

Nike, in a trend consistent across the industry, has also reduced the number of athletes to whom it gives paid endorsement deals. Nike’s overall strategy has been to focus on a smaller number of diverse elite athletes and incorporate social justice into campaigns. France and Real Madrid striker Kylian Mbappe and Manchester United and England striker Marcus Rashford are examples of clients Nike has put at the center of its campaigns, but it also has a lifetime deal with Cristiano Ronaldo.


Ronaldo wears Nike on national duty with Portugal (Etsuo Hara/Getty Images)

The curious aspect of the Copa America decision, however, is that it leaves a dwindling base of where we can actually see Nike balls at the highest level of football. Adidas has the World Cup, the Champions League, the European Championship and Major League Soccer. Puma owns the Premier League and La Liga and recently signed an agreement with the African confederation to produce balls for the Africa Cup of Nations.

At the Copa America, Puma’s Cumbre ball, according to the brand, “is inspired by the mountain range that spans the Americas, with the aim of taking football in the region to new heights.” The design is based on the shape of the continent, with 16 lines that represent the total number of countries participating in the tournament. Laje says the ball, which will have a special gold edition for the final in Miami on July 14, was the eighth iteration of a process of development and testing.

He explains: ‘The design of the ball must be approved by FIFA and CONMEBOL as it must convey a stable image when the ball is both in play and rolling. So if the ball is too asymmetrical, it will not be accepted by FIFA. The design is very sleek.”

The ball, used in various climates across the United States, benefits from technologies developed in Puma’s La Liga balls. Laje adds: “In Spain you have extreme conditions – hot in the south and cold in the north – so those technologies have already been tested in those competitions.”

It is developed in laboratories and at universities, and then Puma-sponsored clubs and national teams are allowed to ‘stress test’ it.

“It’s something players feel that us normal, everyday people can’t do,” Laje says. “So we have these blank balls that we take to our teams’ training. They give us feedback to adjust them here and there. We combine the most objective laboratory testing with the most subjective player testing to produce the final version.”

During the 2010 World Cup, Adidas’ Jabulani ball became famous for the way it seemed to fool goalkeepers as it flew through the air. Do brands crave this kind of recognition?

Laje laughs: “We tend to give preference to what players want. And despite what we might imagine – that attackers prefer a more bouncy or unstable ball because it affects the goalkeepers’ performance – players generally like stability. These are top players and they can really handle the ball. And we tend to give preference to what players need.”

(Top photo: Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)