New Balance may have signed up Trott and Steyn - but it is destined to be cricket's 12th man
The once staid world of cricket bats (“linseed oil”, “knocking in”, “nice middle”) has become something of a bunfight of late with a host of upstart and established sporting brands vying to cash in on England’s new-found preeminence.
Jonathan Trott with his New Balance bat
Twenty years ago, pitching up at the nets with anything other than a chunk of willow from Gunn & Moore, Duncan Fearnley, Slazenger, Gray-Nicolls or an SS Jumbo would render you a laughing stock.
Unless of course you padded up with a Kookaburra, imported from Australia, which playing for Marple thirds meant you were “up yourself”.
But cricket bats, like the game, have evolved, and now the domestic game and its stars is no longer the preserve of those unerringly English brands like Duncan Fearnley which were individually crafted by the hands of a skilled British artisan. Or, so they liked to tell us.
The likes of Adidas have changed all that, crashing into the cricket bat market by signing up mega-stars like Kevin Pietersen and Sachin Tendulkar on seven-figure sponsorship deals.
Bat sponsorship is now big business: Australian captain Michael Clarke is on a multi-million dollar contract with Aussie brand Spartan, which also signed up England’s Matt Prior on a three-year six-figure deal even though he is not a specialist batsman.
The latest mega brand to join the fray is New Balance, the US footwear giant, which like Adidas has no ambition to make bats but is simply using cricket as wallpaper to showcase its brand and sell a few more trainers. In short, it sticks its brand on bats.
New Balance argues otherwise and says it wants to be a serious player in cricket. To prove it, it has signed up Jonathan Trott and Dale Steyn, two of the top cricketers in the world, while the brand also has deals with a number of top counties to supply them footwear.
But New Balance’s argument is caught out by the simple fact that if you want to be a serious player in cricket then you need to be making a play for the Indian and Pakistani market, where around 90 per cent of cricket goods are now made and sold.
That is why a brand like Nottingham-based Gray-Nicolls is still flourishing, unlike many of its domestic rivals.
Gray Nicolls, used by England captain Alastair Cook, is now crafting its much-prized English willow on the sub-continent, realising that otherwise it is doomed, and will suffer the same fate of Woodworm (the previous bat brand used by the mercenary Pietersen and Freddie Flintoff) which failed to recognise the hegemony of that market.
If New Balance was serious about replicating its success in trainers with cricket then it would have signed up one of the top Indian or Pakistani cricket players, like Adidas which has deals with arguably the two most popular players on the planet, Tendulkar and MS Dohni (who uses an Adidas-owned Reebok blade).
Instead, New Balance is focusing on the UK, Australian and South African market, countries where the sport is popular but not where it is a religion like the sub-continent.
No, the simple fact is that New Balance is using cricket, as one expert said, as "a brand driver for group sales".
Moreover, New Balance’s move to sign up Trott and Steyn is a marked volte-face for the brand, which has always sat aloof from the more-commercially-led, star-fronted Nike and Adidas in its refusal to use brand ambassadors.
During the 1990s, New Balance ran an “Endorsed by No One” campaign, believing that the beavhiour of star athetlets “demonstrated attitudes and behaviours that we felt did not represent our brand”.
Very worthy, indeed. But there is a graveyard of sporting brands have followed this mantra, such as Umbro. Star endorsements sell products, simple as.
That is why New Balance is now signing up other sporting ambassadors, such as baseball stars.
By moving into cricket and signing up some of its top stars, New Balance shows that it can still compete with Nike and Adidas globally but it has no ambitions to be captain of this particular game.
New Balance will be happy to play a 12th man role in cricket and this is no bad thing, as New Balance has always known what it is best at and that is making very good, no-nonsense trainers