By Ridge Mahoney
While in Buenos Aires last week, MLS commissioner Don Garber said while he knew nothing about a media "report" that stated legendary club Boca Juniors might be interested in securing rights to an MLS franchise some day, he welcomed the chance to work with Boca and other Argentine clubs.
What he didn’t say is what he can’t say about Boca, and couldn’t say about Barcelona and the New York Cosmos, which is: Any team sponsored by Nike and closely attached to it or any other supplier has no chance, zero, none, nada, of joining MLS in that capacity. Last summer, Adidas extended its partnership with MLS to 2018 at a price estimated at $200 million, and don’t think for a second it didn’t pay a stiff premium to shut Nike and other outfitters out of MLS.
During the dalliance a few years ago regarding Bolivian entrepreneur Marcelo Claure aligning with Barcelona to fund a team in South Florida, precious little about the Nike conflict could be found amongst all the talk of the glory that is Barcelona and concerns about the market and the gone-but-not-forgotten Fusion and a new football stadium at Florida International University that was supposedly going to host BarcaMiami or whatever the team might be called.
Months of meetings and discussions, according to sources, produced some compromise about whether MLS Barcelona could use the same jersey design and crest as the parent club and what it could call itself, but when it came to using the swoosh on the uniform or anywhere else, adidas refused to budge. Its deal, since extended, granted it exclusivity and in this case exclusivity means outfitting all league teams and their offshoots, providing the official MLS ball, and retention of its status as the only sports brand authorized to advertise at MLS games.
A sports marketing executive who knows a lot more about the business than me told me when I asked about the impasse, “Ridge, it's all about the Nike thing.”
He said most of the other issues could be worked out, but not that one. Foreign teams can wear their regular apparel for friendlies, exhibition tournaments, and international competitions such as Concacaf Champions Cup. If Barcelona plays this summer in the MLS All-Star Game, will it wear its famed jersey adorned by the swoosh? Of course it will, as did Manchester United -- another Nike team -- last year. The All-Star Game is an exhibition.
The Cosmos have unveiled an Umbro uniform fashioned in the green-yellow-white motif of their NASL predecessors. If somehow that fledgling operation assembles the resources to earn entry into MLS, Umbro will have to go, unless of course NY UmbrosCosmos is targeting a 2019 debut as the 28th MLS team, after the current adidas deal expires.
Media coverage of the Cosmos and Barca and Boca in connection with MLS is good for the league and a marketing-savvy commissioner – is there any other kind these days? – knows this well. But when it comes to joining MLS, in addition to paying tens of millions of dollars for an expansion fee and lining up guys with deep pockets to commit further hefty sums comes the obligation to play wearing adidas, or to not play at all.