How Puma is taking on Nike and Adidas at Copa America


Football in the 21st century has, to a generation of young supporters, been the story of duopoly: Lionel Messi devotees and those who obsess about Cristiano Ronaldo.

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

To many, the German firm Puma was seen as a baby brother. This is reflected in overall sales, with Puma recording $2.1billion (£1.66bn at current rates) in revenue in the first quarter of 2024, compared to $5.46bn for Adidas and $12.43bn for Nike. As such, Puma is indisputably a challenger brand.

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

Adidas has long had its tentacles wrapped around major FIFA tournaments, such as the World Cup, and UEFA’s prized assets — the European Championship and Champions League. But this summer’s Copa America is the first since 2004 not to have Nike as a sponsor of the tournament and the match ball. Instead, Puma has taken ownership, as part of a bigger deal including all of the South American football federation CONMEBOL’s country and club competitions.

Yet Puma only sponsors one national team competing at the Copa America: Paraguay. Adidas sponsors eight (most notably Argentina and Mexico), Nike sponsors four (including the United States and Brazil), Marathon sponsors two, and Reebok sponsors one. It follows a pattern Puma has adopted in different markets, notably taking over sponsorship of the English Premier League ball from the 2024-25 season after a long period of Nike dominance, but sponsoring only one club in Manchester City. Puma also sponsors the ball in La Liga but does not sponsor any of Spain’s biggest hitters.

Paraguay are the sole country to wear Puma kit at the tournament (Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

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

Puma does have its fair share of big-name clubs and players; most notably City and one of their most marketable players in English winger Jack Grealish, as well as AC Milan, Borussia Dortmund, Marseille and Palmeiras, who have won Brazil’s Serie A in the past two seasons. Outside of football, the men’s 100-metre world record holder Usain Bolt is the highest-profile Puma name.

The faces of Puma’s Copa America promotional advert are Brazilian winger Neymar, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez and the U.S. men’s national team star Christian Pulisic. Puma signed Neymar in 2020, but he then struggled to hit the heights at Paris Saint-Germain. Last summer, he left for Al Hilal in Saudi Arabia, only to suffer a serious injury that ruled him out for most of the campaign and the Copa America.


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

Nike did not respond to queries for this report but sources familiar with the organisation, speaking anonymously to protect relationships, suggested Copa America sponsorship had previously been motivated more by Nike’s equipment business (ie, selling footballs) rather than mass global visibility. Nike already has a large soccer footprint in the Americas through its sponsorship of the U.S. and Brazil, although it did represent a significant economic blow to lose Mexico to Adidas in 2006.

There is, however, a slight awkwardness in that the USMNT’s biggest star Pulisic — and, more recently, his team-mates Yunus Musah and Weston McKennie — are signed to Puma. Missing out on Pulisic, in particular, was a source of angst and frustration in Nike’s soccer department.

More on the world of football boots and kits…

Ultimately, Nike’s decision to step back from the Copa America is most likely a hard-nosed business call. The company announced in late 2023 its intention to axe hundreds of jobs and increase automation as it sought to save $2bn in costs over the following three years. This has seen Nike retrench on sports marketing and sponsorship spending, analysing what the firm could afford to lose, rather than focusing solely on driving the business forward.

Nike, in a trend consistent throughout the industry, has also cut the number of athletes to whom it gives paid endorsement deals. The general strategy of Nike has been to focus on a smaller number of diverse elite athletes and incorporate social justice into campaigns. France and Real Madrid forward Kylian Mbappe and Manchester United and England striker Marcus Rashford are examples of clients Nike has placed at the heart 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 may actually see Nike balls at the highest level of football. Adidas has the World Cup, Champions League, European Championship and Major League Soccer. Puma has 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 Copa America, Puma’s Cumbre ball is, according to the brand, “inspired by the mountain range that spans across all of America, aiming to elevate the football of the region to new heights”. Its design is based on the shape of the continent, featuring 16 lines that refer to the total number of countries participating in the tournament. Laje says the ball, for which there will be 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 ball’s design has to be approved by FIFA and CONMEBOL because it has to convey a stable visual when the ball is both at play and rolling. So if the ball is too asymmetrical, that’s not accepted by FIFA. The design is very strict.”

The ball, which is being used in varying 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 were already tested in those leagues.”

It has been developed in laboratories and at universities, and then Puma-sponsored clubs and national teams get to “stress test” it.

“It is something players sense that we normal regular people cannot,” says Laje. “So we have these blank balls that we take to the training of our teams. They give us feedback to tweak them here and there. We blend the most objective lab testing plus the most subjective player testing to produce the final version.”

At the 2010 World Cup, Adidas’ Jabulani ball became famous for how it appeared to deceive goalkeepers as it flew through the air. Do brands crave this type of recognition?

Laje smiles: “We tend to favour what players want. And despite what we might imagine — that strikers might favour a more bouncy or unstable ball because it affects the performance of the goalkeepers — players generally like stability. These are top players and they really can handle where the ball goes. And we tend to favour what players need.”

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

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