Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Football kit manufacturers: Trends, graphs and charts

As you probably know, we're rather fond of football kit design here at The Football Attic. We like nothing better than making broad sweeping statements about the brilliance of a particular kit, especially when we know we haven't got a clue what we're talking about.

What makes football kit design such a fascinating subject is the sheer number of great designs that have been produced over so many decades. In England, this began in earnest during the mid-1970's when production techniques improved and a burgeoning sense of commercialism finally dawned.

So many great manufacturers are associated with the football kits of English football - Adidas, Nike, Admiral, Umbro... the list goes on, but we wondered which ones have provided the most kits for top flight teams since the mid-1970's, and what the trends have been in the popularity of those manufacturers.

To find out the answers to these and many other questions, we plundered as much information as we could find from the website that's unparalleled in its knowledge of the subject, Historical Football Kits. Our research threw up a number of interesting findings.

The early days: 1974-1980

It's fair to say that before the 1970's, football kits were made to distinguish the colours of one team from another and very little else. Football kits were looked upon as 'equipment' rather than fashion items, but that was all to change.

That change has often been attributed to the Leicester-based firm of Admiral, and it's not hard to see why. In 1975, the classic 'tramlines' design arrived to bemuse and amaze the fans of Coventry City, Dundee and Wales, and by 1976 their logo seemed to be cropping up everywhere. They weren't, however, the domineering force in the English First Division.

Where our story begins in the 1974/75 season, it was Umbro that had the lion's share of all the top team's contracts, providing kit for eight of the 22 clubs. By the end of that campaign, the number had increased to nine because QPR had switched allegiance from Admiral in late January.

First Division 1974/75: Kit manufacturers
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Details of the kit manufacturers providing First Division kits are somewhat sketchy for 1974/75. More than half the club's suppliers are unknown, but we do know that Admiral only had three top clubs on their books at the end of that season - Stoke City, Luton Town and Leeds United. By the end of the decade, this figure had doubled, but Umbro were also adding more clubs to its portfolio. During the 1976/77 season, they provided the kit for 13 of the 22 teams including the top four - Liverpool, Manchester City, Ipswich Town and Aston Villa.

Queens Park Rangers 1976/77
It was in this season that Adidas made their First Division d├ębut well after their logo had appeared on shirts during the 1974 World Cup. Queens Park Rangers have the distinction of wearing the first Adidas kit in the top division and indeed they were the only club that did so at the time, but in 1977/78 another four teams wore the German marque - Middlesbrough, Birmingham City, Ipswich Town and Nottingham Forest.

In the period between 1974 and 1980, the only other companies providing kit for First Division teams were Bukta and Le Coq Sportif, but they were struggling to make much of an impact during this time. Bukta, based in Manchester, were the suppliers of team kit for Newcastle United during much of the 1970s and also had their logo on West Ham's kit during the 1975 FA Cup Final. As for French firm Le Coq Sportif, their arrival in the First Division didn't come until the 1978/79 season when they provided the kit for Derby County. Tottenham and Aston Villa would soon follow suit when the 1980's finally arrived.

A sign of things to come: 1980-1989

In the latter half of the 1970's, only five companies had made football kits for England's First Divison teams. In the decade that followed, that number had increased to 14 but be in no doubt - Adidas and Umbro were far and away the main players. Admiral's star was on the wane and as new names like Hummel and Patrick began to get some traction, a few 'club brands' started to appear on the radar too.

Between the two of them, Umbro and Adidas provided the kit for 18 of the 22 First Division teams in the 1980/81 season. Only Coventry City and Leeds United (Admiral), Southampton (Patrick) and Tottenham Hotspur (Le Coq Sportif) bucked the trend, but as the 1980's progressed, more and more clubs were tempted to try alternative suppliers.

First Division: 1980-89 - Umbro & Adidas v The Rest
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Coventry City, in particular, adopted a different approach when they ditched the Admiral tramlines in 1981. Their famous 'Talbot' kit was the product of a company called Talbot Sports, and in the 1986/87 season they fashioned their own supply deal again by plumping for kits made by Triple S Sports. As luck would have it, the striped Coventry home kit ended up being worn during a successful 1987 FA Cup Final against Tottenham, but it was a one-season wonder and was replaced for 1987/88 by new strips made by Hummel.

Danish company Hummel had started making First Division in-roads after some useful exposure during Euro '84. Their clean, distinctive, Arsenal-style shirt had been worn by the Danes right through to their exit in the semi-finals of the competition, and it was in the following season of 1984/85 that Norwich City became the first club wear the famous double chevrons. By the end of the decade, they'd be joined by Southampton, Aston Villa, Tottenham and, of course, Coventry.

First Division 1980/81 - 1988-89: Kit manufacturers per season
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The arrival of lesser-known names like Henson, Scoreline, Strike and Spall in the late-80's was a portent of things to come. Adidas and Umbro's combined share of all the First Division kit deals was down to just 50% in 1988/89, and in the 1990's things got even worse for them as the race to supply outfits for the top clubs got even hotter.

Diversity: 1990-1999

Taken as a whole, the final decade of the 20th Century saw Adidas almost disappear from the English First Division football kit landscape. Having supplied outfits for as many as seven or eight of the 22 top-flight clubs during some seasons of the 1980's, they were down to just one team - Liverpool - in 1994/95. On two occasions later in the decade, only Newcastle United were on the German company's books.

This surprising fall from grace can perhaps be attributed to the growing prominence of the Champions League as Adidas' main priority and the need to have its kits on show there. The increase in football kit manufacturers in the UK was also growing - 27 used during the 1990's - but initially at least, Umbro didn't seem affected by either issue. Between 1990 and 1993, they were making the kits for almost half of the First Division's teams, including Everton, Nottingham Forest, Chelsea and both of the Sheffield clubs.

First Division/Premier League 1974-2014: Kit contracts for Adidas and Umbro
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By 1995, however, even Umbro were seeing their dominant grip on the market weakened. New companies were providing smart, stylish alternatives for England's top clubs; Asics, Puma, Reebok and even Nike wanted a piece of the action as the traditional giants of the kit world were forced to take a lower billing.

Apart from Umbro, there was one other company that made more First Division kits than Adidas - Pony. The American footwear firm arrived on the scene in 1993 with kits for Southampton and West Ham that both featured prominent 'reverse tick' elements on the upper part of the shirt. The tick came from Pony's logo, and while it looked fine on the West Ham kit, Southampton's red and white stripes struggled to form a harmonious complement with it.

Yet again smaller companies were snapping up the few crumbs that were left after the giants had fed. Clubhouse and View From were two names used by QPR in the early 1990's; Swindon's only season in the top flight saw them wear a kit by Loki; Avec came in to lend Sunderland a hand near the end of the decade, while Crystal Palace went for Nutmeg in 1994/95.

First Division/Premier League 1974-2014 - Kit manufacturers per season
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More so than ever, the fragmentation of the kit supply market was providing more choice for clubs and ever-more imaginative kit designs for fans to savour, but the 21st Century would see the trend slow down as the big companies returned to reclaim their territory.

Contraction: 2000 onwards

In 2004/05 and 2006/07, the 20 clubs of the Premier League in England used 14 different football kit providers - the greatest number in any one season. Adidas and Umbro were still there, but now Nike were pushing hard to join them at the top table. Not far behind were Reebok, a perpetual partner and shirt sponsor for Bolton Wanderers but now also a supplier of kit for Liverpool and Manchester City. Kappa and Puma were also a familiar sight in the Premier League around this time, while Le Coq Sportif were making something of a comeback too.

So many kit makers for so many clubs, and yet that all changed at a stroke at the start of the 2007/08 season. During the previous campaign, Umbro made kit for only one Premier League team - Everton. When the next season began, they had six clubs to their name - Birmingham, Blackburn, Everton, Sunderland, West Ham and Wigan.

Several kit companies disappeared from view that Premier League season - Airness, Diadora, Hummel, Joma, JJB and Lonsdale all found themselves without a contract for one of England's top teams, while Reebok's portfolio was reduced from three teams to just one - Bolton. Quite how or why Umbro had managed to snap up so many contracts is unclear, but their diamond-strewn designs of 2007/08 were certainly a common sight - even on the England kit of the time.

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Umbro's dominance contracted again a few seasons later as Adidas and Nike consolidated their own exposure in the Premier League as once again a wider variety of manufacturers returned. Xara, Carbrini and Macron all wrote their names into the football kit history books, but a notable divide was slowly forming between the big companies and the smaller ones.

These days, we've come to accept this as the ongoing norm. On the one hand, Adidas, Umbro, Nike, Puma and Reebok struggling for overall superiority, well established and proven to create football kits of a high quailty. On the other hand, smaller and newer companies trying to make a positive impression but having to accept a limited impact among England's footballing elite.

Yet with this coming season, all that is about to change again. What Umbro did in 2007/08, Adidas have done on an even bigger scale for 2013/14, for they will start the next campaign providing kit for nine of the top 20 clubs in England. It is by far the strongest attempt by the German company to dominate the Premier League, and in the weeks to come you'll be seeing Chelsea, Fulham, Hull City, Southampton, Stoke City, Sunderland, Swansea, West Brom and West Ham wearing those three famous stripes.


How have Adidas forced their way to the top of the tree with such ruthlessness? In part, the answer lies with the disappearance of two of their main rivals. Reebok's final season in the Premier League came in 2011/12 when Bolton Wanderers were relegated, but this came seven years after Reebok became a subsidiary of Adidas themselves. As for Umbro, they were bought out by Nike in 2008 and have since been sold on to Iconix Brand Group during the last year. Whether we'll see the Umbro diamonds again in future remains to be seen, but there are some encouraging signs beginning to appear.

With two such big names no longer competing for a share of the market, Adidas has seen an opening and taken advantage. Quite what you may think of this year's Adidas kits would be interesting to know, but it seems the football kit landscape - in the Premier League at least - will be a less varied (perhaps less interesting) place this season. With only three companies - Adidas, Nike and Puma - owning 75% of all the top clubs' kit deals, the likelihood for diverse design sadly seems all but doomed. We can only hope for better in the not too distant future.

Total number of 'kit seasons' for all manufacturers - 1974-2014
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Kit manufacturers used by First Division/Premier League teams (1974-2014)
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With special thanks to Dave Moor at Historical Football Kits for his help in providing the data for this article.