“SIXTY INTERNATIONAL GIRLS” reads one of the many large pink signs on the Reeperbahn. One of Europe’s biggest red light districts feels more clinical than seedy. American tourists plod along with cameras poised; kids with parents stare up at flashing lights enquiringly. It will be different when the stag dos arrive.
I’m on a street where sex is advertised for €39, and at one end, a cult football club is set to jump into bed with one of the world’s biggest corporations. The love story starts about two decades ago.
In summer 1995, Kevin Plank was a sweaty student. The son of a property developer and politician, he was a business admin undergrad and a college footballer at the University of Maryland.
Plank and his team-mates would sweat a lot during practice and during games. He had a feeling this wasn’t just genetic. The kit he wore was thick and heavy. He found a microfibre cloth in a store and took it to a tailor, the start of an arduous process that kick-started a revolution.
Four thousand miles away in Munich, relegation-threatened FC St Pauli were winning 1-0 away at Bayern. All of the players wore heavy, baggy shirts but the outcome was as sickeningly inevitable as it would be today. In the 89th minute, Klinsmann scored a last minute equaliser.
FC St Pauli would go on to survive the drop in the 1995/96 Bundesliga, but it is a feat they have yet to repeat. They even endured a spell in the part-amateur regional third division, while Bayern won 13 league titles and two European Cups.
Plank, meanwhile, worked like a dog on his lightweight compression gear and pulled off some absurdly prescient product placement deals with The Wire and Any Given Sunday. His brand Under Armour now makes just about every kind of sportswear and will shift $5bn worth of kit this year. UA is taking the fight to Nike with high-profile endorsements.
St Pauli is the banging heart of Hamburg that famously made men of Lennon & McCartney. FC St Pauli finished fourth in 2. Bundesliga last year, their best performance since 2012.
Despite their on-pitch mediocrity, they usually fill their 29,546-capacity stadium, and for a small, lower-league team, their global pull is unmatched. There is a New York branch of a supporters’ club; Italian and English language books have been printed about them; and every football hipster thinks they’re just fabulous.
Part of the cult is built around politics and atmosphere. FCSP fans fly the gay pride flag, raise funds for refugees, fight fascism and are anti-corporate. They dress like motorbike-riding rebel pirates, and wear Scream masks. As journalist Uli Hesse put it, “They stand for all the right things, apart from winning.”
FCSP’s board must walk a constant tightrope of building for the future without wrecking their club’s spirit. Billboards in the stadium for men’s magazine Maxim were deemed too sexist by fans: they had to go. Instead, street art adorns the walls of the Millentor Stadium, which is overlooked on one side by a brutalist WWII bunker.
If FCSP want to get back into the Bundesliga and stay there, they’re going to need some cash. They recently bought back the rights to the Skull & Crossbones merchandise (a ubiquitous sight in the city), and this partnership with UA does the business on the balance sheet.
Any reticence to accept that this could be a harmonious relationship was tempered at the launch of the 2016/17 kit, in the black cage that doubles as the player’s entrance. It is where ACDC’s Hells Bells blares out on matchday and WELCOME HELL screams from the walls.
Often the most ambitious kit launches feel forced. The sight of a footballer emerging from a plume of smoke looks like Stars In Their Eyes. Back in May, I watched Simon Mignolet mutter into a microphone that he liked the new Liverpool goalie kit because it was green.
At this kit launch, Under Armour’s Europe MD Chris Bate spoke his own words of love of rebellion; of being young, aggressive and fearless; of the decision to sign Steph Curry when no one fancied it; of ambitious expansion into tennis, boxing and fitness; of their dream to build the baddest brand on the planet.
Bate then presented Oke Goettlich – the laid-back electronic music impressario, journalist and fan-turned FCSP club president – with a scale model of the tunnel: the place where the men had first stood at the start of this journey.
Goettlich responded with his own gift: a T-shirt with REFUGEES WELCOME printed on. The profits go to the local population of displaced victims of war.
It felt like a perfect representation of how a relationship can work between two very different partners. Both want a bit of something the other has in abundance. FCSP need money and professionalism; UA want to grow their influence and have authentic rebels to endorse them; they want a piece of that punk.
Many successful start-ups are perfectly happy to get bought out by a big company for a big payday. Kevin Plank goes nuts when he sees people wearing Nike shorts.
Most German clubs would be happy to maximise every revenue stream and settle for mid-table Bundesliga mediocrity. Even if St Pauli want that, they’re not prepared to sell their principles down the river.