The fascinating tensions between O’Neills and Adidas have been simmering for years. Alex Kirwan documents this ‘Cold War’ of GAA jersey production.
Messi, Mata, Neuer and Colm ‘The Gooch’ Cooper – what do they have in common in addition to being the very best in their particular sport? They all wear Adidas football boots while plying their trade. What sets The Gooch apart from the other players besides that fact he doesn’t receive hundreds of thousands a week playing for Kerry, he also wears O’Neills Sportswear. O’Neills are the official manufacturer of not only the Kerry player and fan gear, but the majority of inter county and club teams.
Adidas was founded in Germany in 1949 by Adolf Dassler (hence the name) and his older brother Rudolf. Rudolf and Adolf had an argument and Rudolf left to start his own company called Puma, which you may have heard of…
O’Neills was founded in Dublin by Charles O’Neill in 1918. They started out making footballs and sliotars but soon expanded into GAA clothing in 1955 when O’Neill’s son Paul took over the company.
These two companies also have something more specific in common – the three stripes. Both companies use the three stripes design on their jerseys, tracksuits, t-shirts and shorts which allows people to establish who made them.
One of the basic functions of a trade mark is to show or be an indication of the origin of a good. Now as Adidas have secured the three stripes as their trademark, if someone else is to use their registered trademark on their goods, it could lead to confusion as to the origin or manufacturer of the good. This is something known as passing off of a good, meaning passing your good off as if it came from the well-known manufacturer. Adidas therefore would be entitled to seek a remedy for this breach ranging from compensation to an injunction stopping further use.
So how is it that O’Neills uses the famous three stripes? Well in 1983 Adidas took O’Neills on in the Irish Supreme Court. At the time, many top class sports personnel were interviewed in court to see whether they would confuse O’Neills goods for Adidas and although many of them couldn’t tell the difference between the products, the Court still ruled in favour of O’Neills.
There are many reasons for a trademark not to be offered protection; one is the concept of functionality. For example you cannot trademark something that achieves the function of a good. Lamborghini were not allowed to trademark their vertical opening doors as it was deemed to be a function of the car. Similarly Adidas lost a case for this reason against another sports brand called Fitness World Trading who used a two stripe design on their shoes. Originally Adidas used the three stripes to add extra support from the lacing to the sole of the shoes. In their case, Fitness World Trading claimed that this was covered under the functionality exemption and shouldn’t be protected. They won their case.
Another reason why a trademark would not be protected is if it becomes too generic a mark. There are many examples of this happening such as Hoover, Sellotape and Blu Tack which all began as trademarked goods but due to over-use of the terms, they have become generic ways of describing the goods.
Interesting fact of the day: in the Dyson factory employees are not allowed to use the term Hoover, they must only describe their products as vacuum cleaners.
In the Supreme Court case, O’Neills claimed that people have been using stripes on sporting goods for a long time for fashion reasons and therefore it is a generic mark that doesn’t warrant protection from the court. Chief Justice O’Higgins was inclined to agree with them and said that as he has seen kids playing football wearing socks and shorts with one to five stripes as a fashion design, why should Adidas be exclusively allowed to use the three stripes design.
The Supreme Court of Ireland is just that, the highest court in the land which means it is the final say on a matter and the decision made cannot be appealed. It is because of this ruling that O’Neills can use the three stripes design on their clothing to this day.
However this only applies to products for sale on the island of Ireland. The O’Neills rugby kit made for London Irish and the London GAA kit do not feature the three stripes design but with O’Neills expanding onto the international stage they seem to be dropping their three stripes for two, instead of sticking it to the man they seem to want to compete with him.
O’Neill’s now have a selection of jerseys marked ‘international’ which are on sale in Ireland alongside their other jerseys. The ‘international’ jerseys and tracksuits however only have two stripes. O’Neills have an oligopoly on GAA merchandise with the GAA insisting that all county jerseys must be Irish made, and as a result, O’Neills have few competitors in this regard.
That’s not to say that Adidas haven’t tried to get around this by contracting an Irish company to make this 1998 Kerry jersey.
They are believed to have produced up to 5,000 of these jerseys which now are like gold dust to nostalgic or hipster Kingdom fans. This deal only lasted a year however, as it seems that the GAA raised their asking price, and Adidas opted to pull out of the GAA jersey production.
In this David vs Goliath battle of the sports brand David doesn’t seem content being a thorn in the side of Goliath anymore, O’Neills want to take on Adidas on the international market. With the growth of the GAA worldwide this writer doesn’t see why not? It seems that for O’Neills less is actually more; less stripes more sales.