Thom Browne will be outfitting the FC Barcelona soccer club.

MILAN It’s often said that one’s favorite soccer team is forever. Which might be true for the 736 million fans that soccer has reportedly attracted in 2017 across 18 surveyed markets, according to a study released by American measurement and data analytics company Nielsen.

The number translates into a big opportunity for companies across different categories and especially for fashion brands supplying off-the-field uniforms and developing co-branded capsule collections, to bank on soccer’s global relevance and possibly tap into new customers.

For instance, Thom Browne joined the arena last year by crafting for the first time the off-the-field tailored and formalwear uniforms of FC Barcelona with a deal covering the next three years, while Hugo Boss has renewed its partnership with the AS Roma, FC Bayern, Real Madrid, Tottenham Hotspur and Paris Saint-Germain teams.

Players from the FC Bayern Munich soccer team outfitted by Boss.

Players from the FC Bayern Munich soccer team outfitted by Boss.  Courtesy Photo.

Some remain skeptical. “As a marketing tool, I’m uncertain about the return on investment. First of all, there’s a target issue: Are fans of soccer teams target customers for these brands?” wondered Alessandro Maria Ferreri, chief executive officer of The Style Gate consultancy firm. He noted that brands are often putting a lot of money and efforts into these partnerships with little guarantee of return.

“Brands are looking for visibility, so it makes sense [for them] to endorse a team or a personality whose global awareness — especially outside fashion — is higher than their own,” said Stefania Saviolo, head of the Luxury and Fashion Knowledge Center at SDA Bocconi School of Management, who attributed the link ups to the rising need for companies to build a strong fan base, in addition to boosting sales.

Widening the brand’s audience also caters to fashion’s need for inclusivity, according to Dario Golizia, fashion marketing strategies lecturer and consultant at Istituto Marangoni. “It’s hard today for fashion brands to blend exclusivity — meaning high-quality, in-house and local productions — with inclusivity. Sponsorships are instrumental in targeting this goal,” he said. “Sports bring us all together and stadiums are filled with people across different social classes,” added Mattia Bogianchino, cofounder and partner at Most Valuable Partner Group, a Milan-based consultancy firm for sport companies. He noted that the return on investment is highly dependent on the accuracy of the strategies set in motion.

The Nielsen research showed that 57 percent of interviewed soccer fans believe that companies involved in sponsorships gain in appeal with their audience, showing the potential of such deals. “Eighty percent of fans and [social media] community members are not necessarily customers. In today’s economy we have a clear separation between owners — actual customers — and fans,” said Saviolo, adding that apart from merchandising goals, partnerships often help position and define the brand itself.

Bogianchino attributed the rising appeal of these partnerships to the number of vehicles and media — including social networks — available today. “The sports industry has always advertised through billboards and traditional media, such as television, which made tie-ups ineffective for luxury brands,” he said, referring to luxury’s generally more selective way to communicate.

From the sales perspective, it is unclear whether these partnerships are actually profitable “at least not in the short-term…maybe they can deliver positive results in the medium- to long-term,” said Golizia, who believes the soccer/fashion tie-up undoubtedly enhances the brands’ “leadership” on both a local and global scale thanks to the sport’s across-the-board relevance and appeal to potential customers regardless of “gender, income and social status.”

Turin's Juventus soccer players dressed with off-the-field uniforms by Trussardi.

Juventus soccer players dressed with off-the-field uniforms by Trussardi.  Courtesy Photo.

While both storied American company Brooks Brothers and Trussardi settled on longstanding partnerships — now in their sixth seasons — with Milan-based soccer teams Inter and Turin’s Juventus, respectively, Ferreri believes than more often than not partnerships are “not conceived as mid- or long-term strategies, they’re more like one-shot,” coming amid a multitude of other marketing initiatives with celebrities. Yet Bogianchino underscored that “sport holds an intrinsic emotional value, which can hardly be found elsewhere.”

Beyond the teams’ “planetary audience,” as Saviolo put it, there’s also a cultural implication involved.

“I have always felt that world-class athletes are the best role models and truly inspiring. The image of the players in the uniforms show true confidence and individuality that will inspire the youth of today,” said Thom Browne when the FC Barcelona partnership was launched in July.

Although Ferreri acknowledges the cool factor and sexiness of soccer players as examples of today’s masculinity, he is conversely convinced that “endorsing the whole team, which is a fragmented entity, dilutes the message.”

“If you want to immediately give the audience an idea of the prototype of customer you’re trying to engage, you need to make things easier. The more easily you identify your brand with a standard of masculinity and therefore lifestyle, the more effective the message is,” Ferreri contended. One such example can be seen in Philipp Plein’s decision to name Argentinian-born Inter player Mauro Icardi as one of the brand’s ambassadors, as well as in fast-fashion retailer H&M debuting an intimates capsule collection designed by David Beckham. As a tool to enhance the brand’s positioning, luxury labels should “bank on teams or single players that the audience can relate to emotionally,” Bogianchino said.

Inter players attended an in-store meet and greet event at Brooks Brothers' Milan flagship on Thanksgiving.

Inter players attended an in-store meet and greet event at Brooks Brothers’ Milan flagship on Thanksgiving.  Courtesy Photo.

Becoming providers of the teams’ off-the-field uniforms or endorsing celebrity players may enhance visibility, but evolving it into a merchandising asset in the form of dedicated co-branded capsule collections is what fashion players are currently banking on.

To this end, while Boss made the off-the-field suits it created for AC Roma available in all its stores, the tie is exclusive to the Rome flagship. Diesel, which last October announced it renewed its partnership with AC Milan for the third year, has exploited the liaison by launching a co-branded capsule collection of 10 pieces. The range, including jackets, sweaters and a polo shirt, as well as accessories, is almost identical to the off-field uniforms worn by the players, with the exception of the AC Milan official emblem. “We want fans to feel like they’re part of the soccer team, hence we aligned the two collections,” said Andrea Rosso, creative director of Diesel Licenses and Renzo Rosso’s eldest son.

AC Milan players sporting the Diesel co-branded capsule collection.

AC Milan players sporting the Diesel co-branded capsule collection.  Courtesy Photo.

Accessories, a significant sales booster and often positioned at an entry-level price, are almost always part of co-branded capsules, representing target purchases for non-fashion-savvy customers. “Customers don’t necessarily convert to the [brand’s] core business but respond to those several merchandising iterations,” contended Saviolo.

For instance, Paul Smith, which first outfitted Manchester United in 2008 and most recently during the FA Cup final against Chelsea, unveiled last November a new collaborative effort. Celebrating the team’s iconography, the designer created photographic prints of vintage scarfs and rosettes to embellish a range of accessories, including cardholders, a beauty case, a wallet, cuff links and a tie, among other items.

Also Piquadro, the Italian accessories brand listed on Milan’s stock exchange, has partnered with soccer team AC Milan to become, for the first time this season, the team’s official tech travel partner. A high-tech equipped backpack, a trolley and a beauty-case provided to the players are also available at the brand’s flagships. The strategy is sometimes pushed further with in-store meet-and-greet events and brands renting lounges at the stadium. On Thanksgiving, Brooks Brothers hosted an event at its Milan flagship with selected clients meeting Inter players.

Manchester United's Paul Pogba fronting the campaign for Paul Smith's co-branded capsule collection.

Manchester United’s Paul Pogba fronting the campaign for Paul Smith’s co-branded capsule collection.  Percy Dean/Courtesy Photo.

Although fashion — like any other industry — plays on a global scale today, Golizia contended that such partnerships can often “establish and strengthen the bond with local communities.” To wit, Dsquared2 announced it was providing the off-the-field, pre-match uniforms for the Manchester City soccer team in 2016, on the heels of the opening in 2015 of the brand’s then-largest store and first in the U.K. in London’s Mayfair, signaling a push in the country. Similarly, Japanese streetwear label A Bathing Ape teamed with Paris Saint-Germain on a capsule collection launched on Dec. 1 to mark the brand’s Paris store first anniversary. Even a pure women’s wear label such as Manish Arora created a few pieces splashing the portraits of the Parisian team’s soccer stars Kylian Mbappé and Neymar onto the clothing.