Scoring with the world game
As the likes of Beckham, Ronaldo and Rooney become international celebrities, watchmakers realise the benefits of being associated with a truly global sport still growing in popularity
Anyone who has tried to make conversation with a man during a soccer match will understand the term 'talking to the wall'. Men have an incredible ability to zone in on a match, blocking out all distractions. The beautiful game would seem like an obvious platform to use in order to target a male audience and certain watch brands have begun to realise this potential.
Watchmakers have a long history of collaborating with sports and sporting events but soccer wasn't one of them until recently. The game has always been hugely popular but the value of the sport has increased massively in the past five years. Players are not just sports stars but have joined the celebrity ranks and are suited and booted by brands such as Hugo Boss and Giorgio Armani.
Within the stadiums, the areas dedicated to VIPs, corporate clubs and company boxes have substantially increased. Stadium design now represents state-of-the-art architecture from elite designers like Herzog & de Meuron, who designed the Allianz Arena home of Bayern Munich in Germany, and Norman Foster, who was responsible for the new Wembley Stadium in London.
Newcastle United's England striker Michael Owen has been an ambassador for Tissot watches for the past 10 years. A limited-edition Number 10 timepiece was designed in his honour, 10 being a reference to the number on his jersey.
More recently, both Ebel and Hublot have seen the opportunities in soccer sponsorship and both have high-profile deals with major championships or clubs.
Hublot's first relationship was with the Swiss national team in 2006. Since then, it has sponsored the Mexican national team, been official timekeeper for Euro 2008 and recently forged a link with the Spanish Federation of Football.
The game has changed its profile as its popularity has grown. For the past five years, soccer has enjoyed more popularity than Formula One through its growing popularity on all continents, including in the United States and China. 'Football has become a new target for luxury brands as much as Formula One, if not even more,' said Hublot chief executive Jean-Claude Biver.
Since Mr Biver joined Hublot four years ago, the company's turnover has multiplied tenfold and much of this success can be attributed to the links he has forged with the soccer world.
Mr Biver said he did not have to think twice when offered the chance to be associated with Euro 2008. 'How bad would it have been to have a foreign brand being timekeeper of such an event held in Switzerland? It would have been an image loss for our country. When the project was presented to me, I concluded the deal overnight,' he said.
Before the tournament even took place, Hublot had already made back its entire investment, and on the back of this success it has already committed to the next European Championship in 2012.
The watchmaker's popular Big Bang collection introduced a new watch to commemorate the championship. The Big Bang Euro 2008 incorporates a half-time movement that measures the length of each half of a match and 15 minutes of extra time. Production was limited to 2,008 pieces.
Ebel has also been extremely proactive in establishing relationships with the sport. The focus on soccer came about after failing to find a sport that wasn't yet owned by another watch brand.
Ebel's global president Thomas van der Kallen said: 'If you look at the Louis Vuitton Cup, nine watch brands are sponsoring nine boats out of the 14 competing. Did we want to be the 10th brand involved or did we want to own a unique territory where we could partner with the best actors and the best teams?
'From that standpoint, Ebel developed a strategy in 2006 to get involved in the world of elite football, as it is a sport that has gone through a major revolution over the past 10 years, gaining in prestige and exclusivity,' he said.
In those two years, Ebel has secured deals with Bayern Munich, English club Arsenal and Scotland's Rangers, among others. 'Our strategy is not to be involved in football; it is to be associated with the most iconic and successful football clubs in Europe. They have a world reputation and followers from Europe to Asia, the Middle East and the Americas,' said Mr van der Kallen.
Ebel already targets the female market through partnerships with supermodels Claudia Schiffer and Gisele Bundchen. The soccer links have cemented a strong male following worldwide.
The watchmaker distinguishes its brand as being the first to develop a long-term strategy for the game, partnering one iconic club in each important market. 'The advantage of being the first is huge, as football is all about networking. And the advantage we've taken so far will always give us leadership and authority,' Mr van der Kallen said.
Ebel has completed a full season with Arsenal and will launch an Arsenal limited-edition timepiece before the end of the year. That is expected to propel the brand to new heights.
A new movement called the Calibre 245 received a great response at Basel 2008 earlier this year. It was designed especially for soccer and developed in the brand's La Chaux-de-Fonds workshop. It measures each half of a match (hence its name '245' standing for 2 x 45 minutes) and also indicates extra time. This movement was fitted in the new 1911 Tekton Caliber 245 watches designed to celebrate the watchmaker's association with Arsenal and Bayern Munich. The watch has been described as the most cutting-edge timepiece in the Ebel collection. The limited edition almost sold out within one week.
Determined not to become complacent, Ebel is planning to continue its collaboration with soccer clubs around the world. 'By August 2009, we plan to have eight prestigious football clubs associated with Ebel. By August 2010, we hope to have 10 clubs,' Mr van der Kallen said.