For many sports fans, the gear is only slightly less important than the game. And thanks to the internet, the itch to wear (or display) something glorifying your team is easier to scratch than ever thanks to a bevy of online sports shopping sites. But when FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) opened its huge Official FIFA Online Store in 2013, it was the first play in a whole new ball game.
Considering the global popularity of soccer (or football, as most of the world outside the NFL knows it) this should come as no surprise. The last edition of the FIFA World Cup™ was estimated to have been watched at some point by 3.2 billion TV viewers, representing 46 percent of the world’s population at that time. FIFA expects to sell more than 3.3 million tickets to the 20th FIFA World Cup™, an international men's football tournament scheduled to take place in Brazil from June 12th to July 13th, 2014.
A total of 64 matches will be played in 12 cities across Brazil. Along with the host country, all the world champion teams since the first World Cup in 1930 (Uruguay, Italy, Germany, England, Argentina, France and Spain) will be playing in this competition. Spain is the defending champion.
Ingabe We Umkhumbi Ukuze Country Your
Setting up an online shopping site to accommodate this big a crowd is no joke. To get an idea of the scale of the challenge facing FIFA in designing this international site, click the "Shop In" drop-down field. Based on your selection, the site will be instantly translated into one of 74 languages—including Zulu. ("Ingabe We Umkhumbi Ukuze Country Your?" is how to say, "Do We Ship to Your Country?" in Zulu. And incidentally, the answer to that question is almost certainly yes. I quit counting after 150 countries.)
Putting aside, for a moment, the language you shop and ship in, the sheer amount of affordable event-specific merchandise on this site is breathtaking. You can buy jerseys for the 2014 World Cup™...or adidas footwear...or posters...or a soccer ball. You can certainly buy a fluffy replica of Fuleco, the cute, official mascot of the 2014 FIFA World Cup™—a tatu-bola (that's armadillo to you) that defends itself from predators by rolling up into a ball. Fuleco's name is a combination of "football" and "ecology."
If you've got $999.99 you can even buy a piece of history with limited edition, officially licensed, FIFA World Cup™ memorabilia. For instance, that $999 will buy you a jersey personally signed by legendary footballer Carlos Alberto, who captained Brazil to victory in the 1970 FIFA World Cup™ with one of the greatest goals in the history of the tournament. (The site does not make it clear whether Alberto was actually wearing the jersey at the time.)
That might seem like a lot of money to pay for a t-shirt, even an autographed one, but the FIFA World Cup™ is big business. Brazil has announced that it will spend at least $19 billion to stage the tournament—the most ever spent for a World Cup. The previous FIFA World Cup™, held in Germany in 2006, cost $6 billion.
"The ecommerce platform is a vitally important component of our global licensing program," said FIFA's Marketing Director Thierry Weil. "We have a great range of merchandise available and we want to ensure that accessibility to this range is optimal. The online store will give football fans worldwide the opportunity to own their very own piece of the FIFA World Cup™."
Down to Product
The Official FIFA Online Store, which launched in May of 2013, is actually operated by 365 Incorporated, a division of a company called Sports Endeavors based in Hillsborough, NC. According to 365's General Manager, Jeff Stephens, his division manages over 30 partnership stores for Sports Endeavors, including a lot of big soccer clubs in Europe and the United States. It runs a few rugby sites as well, but its main interest is soccer.
Stephens and 365 have run enough online soccer stores that he knows what to expect, but the sheer size of the FIFA World Cup™ event would make anyone nervous.
"Having the site ready, building up the store platform, is number one," he says. "We built the store to handle millions of customers a day. Preparing for the main event there's all the stuff you have to think about like servers, and the amount of traffic on the store site, especially for the first few days of the World Cup. There's a lot of work that goes into the back end. A lot of development and planning goes into making sure that things operate smoothly. Fortunately, we've done this before."
But finally it all comes down to product. "We want to make sure we have a selection of product for all 32 countries that are participating," he explains. "Men, women, kids, infants. And while it's a summer event for the northern hemisphere it's a winter event for the southern hemisphere, so we have everything from tank tops to hoodies, sweatshirts, and jackets."
Anticipating the crunch, Stephens and his staff have been adding product for months—hundreds of new products every week. Right now the store has about 15,000 products available. "We think that we're ready," he laughs. "But you never know what could happen. If the USA has a great tournament and advances to the semis…we might not have enough USA product. Those things are really hard to predict."
So what's cool? The most visible product that FIFA sells is the ball, the adidas Brazuca Ball. It will be used in every play, every event, and it's totally symbolic of the FIFA World Cup™. ("Brazuca" means "Brazilian" in local slang.) Another popular product is an official wall chart that lets you fill in the various teams as they progress in the tournament. It's only $14.99. Jerseys for each team are always big sellers. The store even sell caxirolas, a Brazilian version of the South African vuvuzela, only not as loud.
Feel like dropping some serious money? Consider adidas' Historical Ball Collection, including an official replica ball from every FIFA World Cup™ since 1970. It's only $1200. Or the complete Official Archive Set of 20 limited edition World Cup posters, in a nice leather box, for $6590.
The scariest product problem facing the FIFA Online Store is simply that nobody can predict how the tournament will play out. "It's really hard to get the right amount of product for each team," says Stephens. "We look at the odds for who's going to qualify and who's going to win, and we try to use that as a tool when we're deciding how much product to carry for each team. But there are always jerseys that sell much better than we anticipated. And you have to order months in advance, trying to forecast what sales are going to be. If demand is much greater than we anticipate, we can find ourselves running short. That's the biggest challenge we face—and it gets worse as the tournament progresses."
On to the Next One
Most storekeepers facing the approach of a humongous crowd of FIFA World Cup™ fans would be frozen like deer in the headlights, but Stephens actually seems to be looking forward to it. And past it.
Typically there are 200 people working in the warehouse, he explains, but during the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ that number will run closer to 750. "And they'll be working 24 hours a day. That first week, and the week before, is when it gets super-busy. Typically we run customer service 18 hours a day, but for the first week of World Cup we're going to be running customer service 24 hours.
"Our plan for the World Cup is to sell as much product as we possibly can," he laughs. "After that there's another World Cup next year, the FIFA Women's' World Cup in Canada. We've already got product up on the store for that event, so as soon as one event is over we just move on to the next one. It never ends."