Erik Siemers is a staff writer with the Portland Business Journal, a KATU.com news partner
On Monday I linked to a Reuters story about Nike Inc.’s battle with Adidas for supremacy in the global soccer market.
You can count on these Nike-vs-Adidas stories to pop up on the eve of every major international soccer tournament — in this case, the European championships underway in Poland and Ukraine.
Each time, almost without fail, the story includes a single offending line that gets Mick Hoban, an original member of the Portland Timbers, on a mission to set the record straight.
“Nike, whose roots date back to the 1960s,” according to the Reuters story, “did not enter the soccer business until 1994.”
My piece repeated the phrase, which succeeded in bringing Hoban into my inbox later Monday morning.
“Your article about Nike’s entry into soccer, based upon a report by Reuters is misleading,” Hoban wrote. “The Reuters article suggests Nike ‘didn’t really enter the game until 1994’. As you probably know Nike’s first ever shoe featuring the ‘Swoosh’ was a soccer shoe which was launched to the public in 1971, some 23 years prior to the date mentioned in the Reuters report.“
Most people in Portland know Hoban as the first player signed by the expansion Portland Timbers in 1975, making him one of the most notable footnotes in the club’s colorful history.
But his far-less heralded claim to fame is as Nike’s first-ever soccer employee, way back in 1978 when it was still known as Blue Ribbon Sports.
Hoban’s criticism at first seemed like semantics. Technically, it’s true that Nike had a role in soccer prior to 1994. But it’s also true that Nike didn’t really commit to the world’s game until the 1994 World Cup in the U.S., after which it put the weight of its resources into turning soccer into a $2 billion category for the brand.
Yet saying Nike didn’t enter the soccer business until 1994 inadvertently dismisses a swashbuckling part of the company’s pioneering early days that Hoban seems sworn to protect.
“I look back at those years with great pleasure,” Hoban said.
But the most endearing part of Hoban’s story is that nothing about it was easy. It was an outright struggle to be a Nike soccer employee in the late 70s and early 80s.
Hoban left the Timbers in 1978 to take a job with Blue Ribbon in “promotions,” what would today be called sports marketing, in which the company hired mostly former athletes like himself to get its shoes onto the feet of athletes.
“I had no experience outside of playing,” Hoban said. “I was familiar with the local market and everybody in soccer locally. Nike promotions then said, basically, go out and start soccer for us.”
Under Hoban’s direction, Nike signed on as sponsors of soccer tournaments and state associations. It signed players in the North American Soccer League and, in 1979, the Timbers became the first club to make the company its official equipment provider.
That was a feat considering Nike at the time only made shoes. It was up to Hoban to help source soccer balls, apparel and other equipment. At one point, the Timbers famously wore soccer jerseys bearing Nike’s swoosh that were actually made by a contract manufacturer in Leicester, England.
“I can tell you laughingly the trip I made to the Minnesota Kicks in the old NASL to try and procure their business from then-general manager Freddie Goodwin with a suitcase full of products that, other than the footwear, Nike didn’t produce for themselves,” Hoban said.
The job didn’t get any easier in the early 80s, when Hoban joined the Nike team, under the guidance of yet-to-be-Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, to build Nike’s presence in Europe.
European retailers wanted Nike, they just didn’t want Nike for soccer, their shelves already filled with products from German rivals Adidas and Puma.
So while Hoban’s counterparts in basketball and track and field products were welcomed with open arms, he received heavy and repeated doses of rejection.
“We had doors thrown in our face and were told more often, ‘We have no need for a soccer brand at the moment, but is it possible to get hold of your basketball shoes?’,” Hoban said.
Just like he did in the U.S., Hoban’s efforts were constrained by Nike’s relative lack of product in soccer. At a time when growing numbers of football clubs, particularly in the NASL, were using artificial turf, Nike was without a turf shoe for soccer. It had to quickly improvise when Adidas arrived on the market with the Beckenbauer Turf shoes.
“It was difficult to go against Adidas in those days,” said Hoban, who today works as an outside consultant for Adidas, which keeps its North American brand headquarters in North Portland. “I felt envious every time you could see an Adidas representative come into a store and throw down gear.”
Hoban had his share of victories, too. Using his connections in the game, Nike’s United Kingdom branch succeeded in getting Swooshes on the feet of some of England’s most accomplished players and teams.
With the aid of former Liverpool legend Ian St. John, Nike landed shoe deals with the then-current generation of Liverpool stars, including Ian Rush and Steve Nicol, and other high-profile players, including Tottenham Hotspur star and eventual England coach Glenn Hoddle and Arsenal’s Charlie Nicholas. Hoban also helped land a contract with his old team, Aston Villa, a year prior to the club winning the 1982 European Cup.
“I can confirm that Peter Withe, a former Portland Timbers and a former teammate of mine on the 1975 Timbers, scored the winning goal in the European Cup Final … in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, against FC Bayern Munich in 1982 wearing Nike boots,” Hoban told me.
So while it’s true that Nike’s growth in soccer comes post 1994, and was propelled by its eventual signing of the Brazil national team, Hoban serves as a living testament to Oregon’s most prolific brand’s initial foray into the world’s biggest sport.
“I look back on it with a great fondness and a feeling of a pioneering spirit, not just for me, but the tens of hundreds of others doing the same for Nike within soccer without much recognition. I don’t think our commercial success warranted it, but our presence was real,” Hoban said. “That’s a helluva lot of people that spilled a lot of blood to get that thing started.”