'David vs Goliath – the battle between large and small kit companies'

(Posted on 15/05/14)

The news recently emerged that Sheffield Wednesday had moved from their incumbent kit supplier, Puma, and signed a new apparel deal with Sondico. It appears that some Owls fans were not happy with this move though, claiming that Sondico (house brand of Sports Direct by the
way) were 'cheap' and didn't have the 'street cred' appeal of sportswear giants Adidas, Nike and indeed Puma, or as I prefer to call them, 'The Big Three'. It’s an attitude that is increasingly common in football but it’s not one that sits comfortably with me.

Prior to the replica age, kits in the UK were produced, primarily, by either Umbro or Bukta. Of course there were the odd exception but these two companies dominated the market. Since the late 70s/early 80s though, smaller firms, often focusing on clubs further down the divisions, have always played an important role in the rich tapestry of kit design. Who could forget Matchwinner with their outrageously challenging range of designs in the early 90s or the safe but solid designs created by Ribero, Spall and Scoreline. And of course Hobott and Osca who produced some superb strips in the early 80s - fresh designs that provided effective and interesting counterpoints to the big guns. As the 90s progressed the bigger firms took hold however, including Umbro who dominated the kit tally of the first ever Premier League season.

Since then, thanks in part to the temporary leave of absence of Umbro, The Big Three have taken a firm stranglehold of kit supply in the UK, from the top flight right down to non-league.

As much as I admire these larger firms and the outfits they produce, I take great pleasure in seeing the likes of Macron, Kappa, Lotto, Mitre, Fila, Errea etc still making a vital contribution to kit culture and showing up in kit bags and club shops around the land - in fact it's the massive importance of the club shop that seems to be enabling the dominance of the larger brands to flourish.

Much of The Big Three's widespread presence in the lower leagues is due to the emergence of teamwear deals where a strip is bought off the peg by clubs with any subsequent income simply generated by the expected replica sales. This is in contrast to the technical supplier sponsorship deals that bigger clubs enjoy, whereby sportswear firms pay large sums to provide teams with their kits and in the process gaining extensive brand exposure alongside a healthy payback from replica sales.

So why then do some lower league sides opt for these teamwear deals (often brokered through a third party distributor) and their template designs rather than striking a smaller technical sponsor deal, complete with a bespoke design, from a less famous sportswear firm? And why the increase in smaller technical supply contracts with The Big Three amongst clubs outside the Premier League's Top 4?

The answer is simple, but frustrating. Basically thanks to High Street cool and the desire amongst supporters to be seen wearing fashionable brands the belief is that a club will sell more replica shirts if it has three stripes or a swoosh on it rather than if it were produced by a smaller company. The now established single-season kit lifespan compounds the issue by ensuring that a club simply has to choose a template from an Adidas/Puma/Nike catalogue, badge it up and then sell replicas to a brand-savvy public to ensure a steady income.

As a lover of football kit design though I personally don't want to see every team in the league decked out in a relatively small number of identical templates, especially when they're changed every year seemingly for the sake purely of generating revenue. Sure some teams may push the boat out and choose an unorthodox or untraditional colour scheme now and then but essentially there is a plethora of identical designs on our football pitches - at all levels. There are very little bespoke kits around that are designed with one eye on the heritage and history of the team and one eye on the High Street.

I'm not so commercially naïve to see why this situation occurs, but it does sadden me. Surely a supporter, if they want to show their support for their team by donning the same jersey as their heroes on the pitch, would purchase one whatever the brand? Surely the team identity is more important than the manufacturer's?

I love seeing lots of different companies supplying team kits throughout football. Always have done. If the companies are local to the club, then even better. Sure you could occasionally criticise some of these smaller brands for simply reproducing clones of Big Three designs from a couple of seasons earlier, but many of their kits are bold and daring with true innovation. Kits that push boundaries from firms that courageously tries and provide their teams with an outfit that’s different from the designs everyone else is wearing - strips that are both experimental and exciting.

Is the dominance of The Big Three a sad reflection of the modern game? 
A symbol of how we are all slaves to fashion? Or a natural progression of the complex replica kit business model as first pioneered by Admiral in the mid 70s? Possibly a mix of all three.

Personally though I inwardly cheer every time I see strips produced by a wide and rich variety of different sportswear companies, each with their own character and design nuances. Variety is the spice of football kit life and it would be a dull, dull world if all teams looked exactly the same. So viva Fila, hurray for Macron and bravo Errea, Vandanel and Carbrini! Long may they challenge the dominance of The Big Three?

You can follow John Devlin from True Colours Football Kits on Twitter @truecolourskits