Tech, Russell Athletic partnership coming to an end

Georgia Tech and Russell Athletic, which has been an official supplier of gear to the athletic department since 1992, will not continue their partnership past the end of their current contract, which ends next June. (AJC photo by Hyosub Shin)

Georgia Tech and Russell Athletic, which has been an official supplier of gear to the athletic department since 1992, will not continue their partnership past the end of their current contract, which ends next June. (AJC photo by Hyosub Shin)

The football team is coming off a nine-win season and a win over Georgia. The basketball team far exceeded expectations by reaching the NIT finals. Going into the 2017-18 academic year, another development at Georgia Tech is bound to please Yellow Jackets fans, perhaps universally.

When Tech’s apparel contract with Russell Athletic expires in June 2018, the school will move on to a new apparel provider. Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury has been negotiating with Adidas, Nike and Under Armour to be the new outfitter of the Yellow Jackets.

“We’ve got another year in our contract, so we definitely, with the direction that Russell’s kind of moving in corporate-wise, we’re going to be making a transition,” Stansbury told the AJC.

Russell Athletic’s presence in Division I college athletics has decreased in recent years. In 2016-17, Tech was reportedly one of four FBS schools with a Russell contract. Ohio University, Western Kentucky and Southern Mississippi were the three others. Ohio, whose Russell Athletic contract ended this past academic year, switched to Adidas. Western Kentucky and Russell Athletic, which are both located in Bowling Green, Ky., will part ways at the end of June, one year into a five-year contract extension. The school, a Russell partner since 2007, will join the Nike empire.

The brand also ended its sponsorship of an Orlando, Fla., bowl game after last season. That leaves Tech and Southern Mississippi as the only FBS schools not outfitted by Adidas, Nike or Under Armour.

Tech might well have come to the decision on its own, as school athletes, fans and athletic department staff were largely unenthusiastic about Russell Athletic’s offerings.

“I think everyone will be pumped,” said former Tech football captain Roddy Jones, estimating his reaction of the fan base. “I haven’t met a single person on the Russell for life train.”

Stansbury said he is in the early stages of gauging interest from Adidas, Nike and Under Armour and hopes to have a decision on the athletic department’s next apparel deal in the next few months.

“So that, one, recruits can know what’s going on, coaches can know what’s going on and we can start to make plans for whatever transition we need to make,” Stansbury said.

Tech is the only power-conference school under contract with Russell Athletic and is believed to be one of two schools in FBS not aligned with the big three of Adidas, Nike or Under Armour. Southern Miss, also a Russell Athletic school, is the only other exception.

Russell Athletic has long been the bane of Tech fans, who have seen it as a hindrance in recruiting. The apparel provider lacks the appeal of gear makers such as Nike, Under Armour and Adidas.

“I never hear it being a negative, but I just know, the way kids think, they don’t relate to Russell the way they do Nike, Adidas and Under Armour,” said Norm Parker, president of the Nike-sponsored Georgia Stars AAU team, in an interview last year. “They don’t relate to it like that.”

Tech athletes haven’t been overwhelmed by the gear, either.

“From a student-athlete perspective, switching from Russell just shows a level of care and investment and kind of an attitude of just kind of being in this era of college football where that’s something that’s important, that you have to pay attention to,” Jones said. “I think it’s great news. And, no slight to Russell. They make quality products. It’s just not the right application for it.”

Freddie Burden, captain of the 2016 team, said it was a topic of conversation among teammates almost daily.

“You see, especially during the season, teams will tweet out, ‘We’re wearing these new jerseys this weekend,’” Burden said. “We’re like, Dang, look at this jersey this team has.”

Russell Athletic has been a Tech partner since 1992. In 2007, the company and the athletic department, then under the direction of Dan Radakovich, entered into a 10-year deal that began with the 2008-09 year and runs through the coming academic year. It has averaged $840,000 in cash and $1.2 million in gear.

Since then, as is the case with almost any facet of the industry, contracts have shot upward. It has occurred at the top – UCLA and Under Armour signed a 15-year deal worth a record-breaking $280 million in May 2016 – but also at the middle. When Cincinnati left Adidas for Under Armour in 2015, its apparel deal went from a reported $525,000 annually in cash to $1 million in the first year of the new deal.

Stansbury has met with representatives of all three companies, seeking to leverage his department’s impending free agency and other assets to create the best arrangement for Tech.

“I think all three of them bring significant benefit to us if we line up with what their corporate strategy is, and a lot of that is where do they view Georgia Tech and Atlanta specifically,” he said. “Because I think the strength of the partnership is going to be the synergy of what you’re both trying to accomplish.”