Soccer Cleats Try the Sneaker Scarcity Game

Soccer players are clamoring for the cleats Lionel Messi wore for much of the recent World Cup, but only a few people were lucky enough to get the boots Adidas made for his birthday on June 24. Messi turned 27, so Adidas made 27 pairs of the cleats. Well, 28, if you count the pair it gave to the Argentine star.

Limited-edition footwear is spreading in the soccer sector as Nike (NKE) and Adidas (ADS:GR) try to stoke the sense of demand sneakerheads have long brought to basketball shoes. The product proliferation probably wouldn’t have worked 30 years ago when the spartan Adidas Copa Mundial was ubiquitous on playing fields and a colorful soccer cleat was as common as an obese midfielder. Today, however, players want to stand out; cleat makers, always eager to sell new shoes, are happy to oblige.

“It’s not something we consider a huge business opportunity; it’s just that we want to tell a story,” says Peter Hong, footwear merchandise manager for Adidas soccer. “With any limited-edition drop, we’re driving interest to the brand.”

Lionel Messi of Argentina during a training session at Estádio Beira-Rio on June 24 in Porto Alegre, BrazilPhoto by Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesLionel Messi of Argentina during a training session at Estádio Beira-Rio on June 24 in Porto Alegre, Brazil

Leading up to the World Cup, Adidas released a limited-edition run of its four main soccer cleats in motley Carnaval colors. This week it unveiled a special 20th anniversary edition of its Predator model, a cleat made famous by David Beckham in the 1990s. In both cases, the company made only 100 pairs for U.S. customers.

Nike, meanwhile, is selling a limited-edition pair of its Mercurial Vapor cleats to commemorate a stellar club season from Cristiano Ronaldo, the face of its soccer spending spree. The flashy boots feature all-white uppers with a gleaming gold footbed. They are also rare—Nike made only 100 of them.

Puma has just released its own special set of 100 cleats to be sold in concert with a Hublot watch. It also stamped out 900 pairs of its famous King model to commemorate Italy’s 1982 World Cup win. The cleats are a muddy brown color and the tournament happened 32 years ago, but none of that will matter to hard-core Italia fans. That’s why Puma is charging $250 for a pair.

There are a number of reasons why fancy, one-off soccer cleats are a savvy strategy. For one, they grow the overall cleat market by prompting players to buy multiple pairs of pretty much the same shoes. Combined, Nike and Adidas sell about $6 billion a year in soccer-related gear, so an extra pair of cleats here and there represents hundreds of millions in market share.

Limited-edition products also create a sense of scarcity, which is seldom a bad thing in retail. Years ago, Copa Mundial fans were confident they could buy their favorite shoe virtually any time. When players today see a particular model or color they like, they are more likely to act quickly.

Finally, the limited editions make for a powerful bit of branding. Nike’s constant stream of special-edition basketball shoes has created a thriving secondary market and a buzzing corner of the publishing world where sneakerheads discuss the company and its product pipeline ad nauseam.

That loop of positive feedback works on the soccer pitch as well. When it comes to cleats, there are now calendars for consumers looking for the next hot release.

Germany’s Mario Götze, the hero of the World Cup, has fast eclipsed the other athletes in Nike’s sponsorship stable. The company’s product designers are probably whipping up a Götze “game-winner” model as we speak. And they’ll no doubt make a commemorative batch 20 years from now.

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