• WEATHER ALERT Severe Thunderstorm Watch

Trails brothers' feud that fueled Adidas and Puma

April 15, 2008 11:45:48 AM PDT
"Sneaker Wars: The Brothers Who Founded Adidas and Puma and the Family Feud That Forever Changed the Business of Sport" by Barbara Smit

Family feud hardly described the bitter relationship between Adi and Rudi Dassler, two German brothers who started a shoe company in their mother's laundry room that later became Adidas.

What began as a conflict in style and temperament grew to a relationship full of suspicion and anger that split the company and the family. By the end of World War II, Rudi left and founded competing company Puma.

The feud continued through the generations, as the companies and the family grew. Eventually, brothers, cousins and even parents fought for athletes, contracts and the competitive edge. The jostling was sneaky at times - one group once caused the competing company's product to be stuck in customs. And it was ugly at other times, such as the wartime accusations between brothers of an alliance with the Nazis or children being written out of a parent's will.

The intriguing tale is laid out by journalist Barbara Smit in "Sneaker Wars." She smartly details how the Dasslers' experiences shaped modern day sports business and the close relationship between business and athletics that prevails today.

Nowhere is this more evident than the compelling tales from the Olympics.

It begins when Adi Dassler "timidly pulled out his spikes, gesturing and mimicking until (American Jesse) Owens agreed to try them out" and won at the Berlin games.

The competition for athletes to don their gear begins. And just as quickly, tales grow more sordid. Company employees are said to sneak bribes to officials and envelopes containing money are passed to athletes in bathroom stalls.

Equally as curious are the companies' relationships with athletes, such one French soccer player who would replace game balls with Adidas brand balls. And there's the tale of Muhammad Ali who, after watching a woman dancer with tassels on, wanted a pair of tasseled boots to wear in his bout against Oscar Bonavena. He called them his "secret weapon."

There's even a supposed drinking contest that decided whether Steve Prefontaine would wear the Nike shoes of his coach or the Adidas shoes of his friend who worked for Adidas.

Smit's book is strongest in the early days of the conflict and the rise of athletic endorsements. It drags some as the companies' financial positions ebb and flow. But the story resumes strength as she chronicles Adidas' failure to pay attention to the small company that became Nike.

The Germans were aloof regarding Nike. One Adidas employee describes showing designers some of Nike's earliest shoes and said they "inspected the sample as if it were a piece of dirt, pulled at it and threw it over their shoulder" and thought the "lunatics who designed shoes with a waffle iron" were a big joke.

But it was no joke.

The book is largely slanted toward the tale of Adidas, which remains the number two athletic shoe and apparel company in the world behind Nike. Puma remains a strong brand and the story continues today as the companies battle it out in the marketplace.

Today's corporate tales from the shoe giants may be less racy but the book is no less intriguing to anyone interested in sports, shoes or retailing.

Load Comments