If a manufacturer league table were to exist Castore would be sitting in the relegation zone.
It's been a tough start to the season for the Manchester-based brand, with multiple incidents of shirts having chunks ripped out of them and their highest profile partner Newcastle triggering an exit clause on a deal that was due to run until 2027. The relatively public nature of kit deals often leads to somewhat awkward divorces, but the not-so-subtle fawning over adidas from Newcastle and their fans has no doubt left a particularly sour taste in the mouth.
Castore x Aston Villa wet look disaster
This awkwardness pales in comparison however to the growing storm surrounding Aston Villa and their "wet-look" kits. Villa shirts have been turning noticeably darker during games this year, bringing a new meaning to "taking an early bath". The problem has been most pronounced on the claret home kits but players have reportedly shared similar concerns about the white away shirts. Curiously other Castore teams do not seem to be affected.
Though a large portion of the kit community have been down on Castore for various reasons, the Villa kits are threatening to damage the brand's reputation with the wider public. Every day the passes until replacement shirts are produced (it's worth noting that the wet-look issue only affects player spec shirts, not replicas) will only increase scrutiny.
In many ways the damage has already been done, but for this week's Collectors Club I wanted to explore a few ways that Castore can begin to regain trust with fans and, perhaps more importantly for the future of the brand, club execs.
It goes without saying, but it is critical that new player shirts are produced and made available to Villa players as soon as possible. Even if Castore work around the clock to get new kits designed and produced as quickly as possible we're likely looking at a turnaround time of at least a month, but speed is absolutely of the essence.
One possible interim solution would be for the players to wear replica shirts, if the wet-look problem is in any way mitigated due to the makeup of the replicas. Though it might seem like a drastic move on paper, many pro clubs and even international teams wear replica level shirts during matches. The vast majority of fans would have no clue that the players were wearing replicas as opposed to player spec shirts (although I guess in the case of Villa they might notice that the shirts are drier...).
This is a moot point if the replicas suffer from similar sweat related issues when worn by pro players on the pitch, but it's absolutely something I'd be testing as soon as possible as a short-term solution to bridge the gap until new player spec shirts are made.
As a broader point, Castore's focus simply has to turn to production quality for future kits. Though 2024/25 shirts will be close to completion from a design perspective by now, if not completely settled, Castore must pour their efforts into making sure their shirts are durable and reliable from a production perspective. The reputation that the brand have for being sloppy in this department has perhaps been overblown, but incidents such as missing or misaligned crests have been far from isolated. Quality should always come first over any aesthetic considerations if a brand wants to be a big player in the space for a long time, and given Castore's obviously lofty ambitions they are in danger of running before they can walk.
This brings me to what I see as the crux of the issue, at least from an outside perspective. Castore have grown too big, too quickly in my eyes, and it looks like they've spread themselves too thin from a design perspective and now, a production perspective. The kit world is incredibly fickle and the revolving door of manufacturers has kicked out many bigger names in past years. It would be better for Castore to consolidate their portfolio and do an excellent job for a small number of teams as opposed to hanging on to a larger group, lest they fall into mediocrity as many have done before them.
We'd really need to dig into the numbers to justify such a drastic shift in strategy, and no doubt the Castore management have taken the approach of rapidly increasing their market share because they believe it will benefit them in the long run, but from the outside in it looks like the brand are going to crash and burn before long.
For a brand to solidify themselves in the industry they need long-term, sustainable partnerships with clubs. It's natural to expect some hiccups in any new deal, even with some of the bigger names, but as time goes on and manufacturers (hopefully) take time to listen to a club and their fans to really understand what makes them tick, great things can happen. This sort of mutually beneficial relationship can manifest itself in all sorts of ways, be it the design of kits themselves, the frequency and price point of new releases or even the intentional giving back to local communities.
And, when the dust settles on "sweatgate", this last point is arguably the most important factor. In order to restore their reputation Castore need to do all they can to engage with the fan bases they are, in a sense, working for. If they partner with their clubs to run events, perhaps even offering meaningful incentives or discounts to fans in some ways, they can quickly reverse some of the negative feelings that are gathering. It's possible I've missed some good work that is already going on, and I am really talking to all manufacturers at this point, but that's the challenge I want to bring to Castore in particular. All eyes on them now.
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