TruSox: Dealing with sponsorship conflicts

Image source: Global Soccer Life

TruSox are the latest sports performance brand to take the football world by storm in more ways than one. 

The brand is the sock of choice for many football players, including the biggest names in the game, but are quickly becoming a headache for clubs, leagues and governing bodies.

Players who are fans of the brand include:-
  • Raheem Sterling
  • Dele Ali
  • Erec Dier
  • Andreas Granqvist
  • Luis Suarez
  • Gareth Bale 
  • Alexis Sanchez
  • Mesut Ozil

TruSox are described by their manufacturer as containing "revolutionary IN//EX technology powering the original and most performance enhancing grip socks ever. IN/EX pads on the interior and exterior of TruSox ensure no movement in your footwear, as the 2.0 technology grips to your foot and footwear simultaneously."

In a nutshell, the socks have non-slip performance pads both inside and out which grip the football boots as well as the foot, to ensure there is no slide. In the words of the brand, your "foot and footwear become one" causing greater speed and agility. The technology in TruSox is said to be rendered ineffective if worn with another sock over the top, or underneath.

So what is the fuss about?

Clubs and national associations usually enter into exclusive sponsorship deals with sport brands, such as Nike and Adidas, to supply the kit that their team will wear during games - and this includes the socks. For brands, these sponsorship opportunities provide a lucrative platform to showcase their products and in addition, earn additional revenues through the sale of replica kits.

The exclusivity of the sponsorship deal is of great importance to the sponsor. Brands will pay significant sums to secure these rights in order to ensure that their competitors are prevented from obtaining similar rights with the relevant club/association. As such, sponsors need to be protected from conflict marketing (or ambush marketing) and will often have clauses drafted into their agreements that are designed to quickly deal with situations where a conflict arises. This may take the form of a warranty from the club or association that they will take whatever legal and/or practical measures necessary to prevent conflict incidents from occurring, as far as reasonably practicable. 

Further, in order to ensure players wear the official sponsor's clothing, clubs and national associations will include provisions within player contracts, stating that the player is required to wear the official kit of the club immediately prior to, during, and immediately after a match, as well as refraining from wearing any other apparel (or displaying brands) that may conflict with the club or association's sponsors, during that time. 

As discussed above, TruSox are said to be ineffective when worn under the official kit socks and in order to have the benefit of the TruSox technology, players have resorted to cutting their official socks above the ankle and then sewing or taping the TruSox to the official sponsor's kit sock - in a bid to avoid breach of contract scenarios. However the socks, as highlighted in the photo above, have a pattern of coloured rectangles (which has come to be known as the branding of TruSox) printed up the heel and despite the lengths that some players will go to wear TruSox, they still risk exposing the branding - as per some of the cases below.

When it does become apparent that the player has either tampered with the official kit, or is simply not wearing it, this is likely to cause a dispute between the official sponsor and the club/association. Where a conflict arises, under sponsorship agreements, clubs will require to take legal and/or practical measures in a timely manner to address the conflict that has arisen - this can take the form of removing the conflict brand from the restricted area as quickly as possible or re-negotiating terms with the official sponsor where a significant dispute arises, due to the conflict. The club is also likely to sanction players who have caused the club to fall foul of their sponsorship agreements, in order to deter players from future breaches, and protect their official sponsor's interests.

Some cases

World Cup

In 2018, FIFA fined the FA £53,000 as a result of England players wearing TruSox at the World Cup, which was in direct contrast to the FIFA World Cup and Kit Regulations. FIFA had previously warned national associations about their players wearing the brand, with its distinctive markings, during both training sessions and fixtures. FIFA also fined Andreas Granqvist £50,000 for wearing TruSox after the black rectangles were visible during a fixture.

Kei Kamara 

Trusox enjoys global appeal in football and the MLS has recently had to deal with conflicts arising as a result. In 2017, the MLS fined Kei Kamara $1,250 for wearing TruSox during a match. Kamara explained that he wears the socks because in combination with his football boots, they keep the moisture out as he plays, which was previously irritating his toe. Kamara also advised that he received no support or education from the player's union to avoid the conflict but also accused the MLS of turning a blind eye to some other players who too had been wearing TruSox, instead of the official kit sock. 

Brand responses

The MLS recently released a statement concerning the brand: "The uniform socks are included under the Adidas partnership with MLS. Adidas has exclusive rights as they are part of the on-field uniform. Thus a player wearing TruSox is in violation of our agreement with Adidas."

Popular brands Adidas and Nike have also released statements and encouraged clubs and national associations to be act to prevent and stop infringements when they occur:

"Adidas asks that our contracted players and clubs do not wear prominent branding that infringes our rights as sponsor" (Adidas)

"We invest in innovation for every aspect of the uniforms we create, including socks. We also adhere to the guidelines issued by soccer's governing bodies on the use of branding and logos on all parts of those uniforms, including the socks." (Nike)

Preventative and Protective Measures for Players

Whilst many players who wear TruSox are not in partnership with the brand, football players, in particular, are specifically targeted by brands as football is an ideal mechanism for brand promotion due to its global widespread appeal. It is essential, therefore, that players are fully aware of their contractual obligations under their employment contracts before they commit to a business relationship with a brand who may approach them. Player representatives should be able to assist with carrying out any due diligence prior to negotiating terms for commercial opportunities, to ensure the player is protected. Further, clubs can take steps to deter athletes from potentially breaching  player contracts and causing conflicts, through in-house educational seminars on the effects of conflict marketing and breach of contract. Pre-match warnings for players would also serve as a helpful reminder for any individuals thinking about flouting club rules.

It is clear that sporting events and organisations are attractive to brands who wish to be associated with players/teams. The potential audience exposure that a football match enjoys presents a lucrative opportunity for brands looking to take advantage of what's on offer. An athlete or a team who partners with a particular brand increases that brand's awareness for their consumer audience, and in turn increases sales. It is natural, therefore, that players will become targets for brands looking to tap into the market. As such, it is essential that players are educated and are aware of their endorsement/sponsorship boundaries. It should be remembered that players may also find themselves in hot water should they promise a brand maximum exposure which they are ultimately unable to deliver due to contractual restrictions imposed on them by clubs and/or national associations.

IMPORTANT: This post is not intended to be a legal briefing, it is not intended to be a statement of the law and no action should be taken in reliance on it without specific legal advice.

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