Brand: Russell Athletic
2014-15 contract value: $2.3 million.
Breakdown: $1.3 million equipment and apparel; $900,000 cash; $100,000 discretionary apparel allowance.
2014-15 contract value: $145,000
Breakdown: $130,000 equipment and apparel; $15,000 discretionary apparel allowance.
2014-15 cntract value: No cash value. School receives discount for apparel purchases.
Source: Portland Business Journal database
It approaches again. Hear that sound in the distance, the hyperkinetic squeaks of a thousand rubber soles making fierce friction with the hardwood? Like a riot of lab rats. That’s the coming of another college basketball season.
How appropriate that the one distinctive sensory experience of every basketball practice is this scat song of shoes in motion. For no other game is more linked to an article of clothing than basketball is to its footwear. More than just serving as practical attire, the shoe is a statement of fashion, an architect of image and a symbol of high finance.
It is the big shoe company that nurtures the young player through sponsorships at the AAU and high school level.
As the best among them are sorted out, Big Shoe splashes its name all over the various summer tournaments that serve as the nexus between talent and those who recruit it.
What is the ultimate sign of success in this field? Why it is the embarrassingly large shoe contract, and maybe even getting your name on one of the overpriced sneakers, like a Jimmy Choo with ups.
And, at least one of the more prominent coaches in the college game said the relationship between footwear and the phenom has gone too far, to the point of actually determining where he serves his required sentence in college. “We need to get the shoe companies out of the lives of young athletes,” Louisville’s Rick Pitino said last month.
Look at what Sonny Vaccaro has wrought.
Vaccaro was the slick marketer, hired by Nike in 1977, who birthed the practice of paying college basketball coaches to get their teams in his shoe. And if he was able to steer a promising player to one of those coaches, that was good business, too.
What a concept: Rather than rely upon 30-second commercials to hawk its product, the company could have all four quarters of a football game or both halves of every basketball game to display its logo and its wears.
Nike still owns the marketplace. For instance, 12 of the 15 schools in the ACC and nine of 14 in the SEC wear its shoes. And it pays handsomely for the privilege. This season, the company’s contract with Georgia alone calls for more than $2.5 million in apparel and cash for its entire athletic department, from football to golf. Consider that the dowry in the marriage of the “G” and the swoosh.
Fighting off the advances of rivals such as Adidas and Under Armour, Nike holds powerful sway over an impressionable audience.
Picking the name of a Nike competitor that has no real skin in the college game, Georgia State Ron Hunter said only half-jokingly, “My son wouldn’t play for me in Converse. I’m not knocking Converse, but if R.J. (last season’s Sun Belt player of the year) knew we were in Converse, no he wouldn’t. Absolutely no way he would have signed with me.
“My son is kind of a shoe guy.”
To accept the premise that an athlete would at least partially base such an important decision as college on the whims of fashion, one must assume a teenager to be somewhat naive, shallow and image-obsessed. Not such a stretch, really.
“It’s an important issue, for some kids more than others,” Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said. “You want to be able to provide a first-class experience for the kids and sometimes recruits view part of that first-class experience in terms of the shoes and apparel and different things like that.”
With its Russell Athletics contract, Tech has an unusual arrangement. Since Russell doesn’t do shoes, Gregory was free to seek a separate shoe deal for his program (Nike). Young recruits are interested in such details, and, yes, some might actually be put off by Tech’s designation as a “Russell school,” and the lesser profile of that brand.
Pitino took the issue of shoe power to another extreme last month when he suggested he had lost a top recruit because Louisville, an Adidas program, didn’t fit his feet.
Shooting guard Antonio Blakeney withdrew his commitment to the Cardinals amid speculation that he was under pressure from his Nike-sponsored AAU team to find a Nike-sponsored college program. Blakeney and those around him all denied that any such conspiracy was afoot.
”What I personally don’t like (is) I can’t recruit a kid because he wears Nike on the AAU circuit,” Pitino said. “I had never heard of such a thing, and it’s happening in our world.”
So, now, the devil wears Jordans?
At Tech, Gregory has had ample challenges constructing his roster for Friday’s opening (real) game against Georgia. He will rely upon an uncommon number of transfers and lack of experienced depth at point guard.
He also, quite suddenly and quite surprisingly, lost one of his most skilled players when junior Robert Carter left for Maryland in June. He’ll sit out this year, with two seasons’ eligibility remaining.
There, too, were the shadows of shoe business around that decision. Connect the dots: Carter maintains a strong bond with his old AAU team, the Atlanta Xpress, an Under Armour-sponsored squad. When he decided he needed to get out of Atlanta to further his game, he included four schools on his shopping list, three of them with Under Armour connections.
Carter didn’t just go with any Under Armour team, he signed with the mother ship of the brand (the company’s founder, Kevin Plank, is a Maryland alum).
“Maryland’s apparel wasn’t it at all,” said Winfred Jordan, the Atlanta Xpress coach. “It’s funny how people perceive that, but his situation was as though he wanted to leave Tech and give himself another opportunity. In doing so, the schools that communicated with him were mostly Under Armour schools. It was more of a coincidence than anything.”
Hunter said that the overt steering of players to a school based on apparel affiliation is only an issue among the thin top layer of recruits, those being groomed for big endorsements down the road. The vast majority of talent is not in such demand.
More universal is the belief that if your feet are going to be at eye level for parts of a game, they might as well be stylishly shod. And while you’re way up there, let them know that this sport, more than any other, is an amalgam of show business and shoe business.