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Can apparel deals sway recruits?
The expansion of sports cable networks has put even mid-major conferences on TV with regularity. Stadiums and other facilities have been upgraded nationwide. Schools increasingly stress academics to recruits.
The material difference between whether a school lands a recruit could be just that: material.
“It’s definitely something I looked at,” said Bryce Treggs, a wide receiver at St. John Bosco High (Bellflower, Calif.) who has committed to Cal. “I think it’s more about the look than the brand. Also you have to see what kind of stuff you get from the school.”
Treggs said a quality education, playing time and location fall ahead of clothing, although he does have it in his top 10. He’s hardly the exception as schools from the University of Oregon (Nike) to Notre Dame (adidas) to the University of Maryland (Under Armour) have tight relationships with manufacturers who continue to push the limits when it comes to uniforms, especially in football.
“Think of a scale where you have 50,000 pounds on each side,” said Scott Kennedy, director of scouting at Scout.com, a division of FOX Sports Interactive Media. “If I throw a five-pound weight on one side, it tips the scale. Those five pounds in the grand scheme of things aren’t much, but if everything else is equal (uniforms and clothing) it’s a way for schools to differentiate themselves.”
While much of the nation mocked the jerseys chosen by the Maryland football coaching staff for its opener against Miami earlier this month, Terrapins players liked the look of their Under Armour gear. The Terps have 30 different uniform combinations they can go with this season.
Under Armour has contracts with 10 Division I football programs, a fraction of the schools Nike has in its ranks. Much as Oregon is to Nike, Maryland is the de facto Under Armour flagship. The company is based in nearby Baltimore and was founded by Kevin Plank, a former Maryland football player.
“It’s the perfect situation,” said Matt Mirchin, senior vice president of sports marketing at Under Armour. “Randy Edsall is the new football coach and we have been talking to them about helping create a new identity. They wanted to make a statement through their uniform and incorporate the state flag as a symbol of that. As far as publicity goes, it was more than we expected.”
While Maryland is first in the heart of Under Armour’s founder, Auburn might have put the brand on the college map. It might have been Auburn vs. Oregon in this year’s BCS title game, but it was also Under Armour vs. Nike.
Auburn’s 22-19 victory was also a win for Under Armour, which had revenues of $1.1 billion in 2010 — a figure that is dwarfed by Nike’s $20.9 billion. Auburn’s seven-year contract with Under Armour is valued at $27.45 million in cash and products, while Oregon's eight-year deal with Nike is worth $22.7 million, according to The Birmingham News.
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The firm estimated that Under Armour got $2.4 million of broadcast exposure from logos on Auburn coach Gene Chizik’s jacket and collar when the postgame ceremony was factored in; Nike’s exposure from its logos on Chip Kelly’s visor and shirt was estimated at $1.4 million.
“We don’t have an infinite number of schools we can sponsor,” Mirchin said. “We look for schools that reflect the principles of Under Armour along with location, distribution, academics and dedication to winning.”
Future brand feuds could prove moot, however, since Nike is exploring a purchase of Under Armour, according to a report in the London Times last week.
The days where a uniform just stuck to the traditional school colors are gone. In their place — at least outside of Penn State and a few other schools holding on to tradition — are increasingly imaginative designs, although we might be reaching a threshold.
“Every now and again, a season of fashions is influenced by sports, so the two definitely have a history together, but I'm not sure that sports uniforms need to be fashion forward,” said designer Chris March, a former contestant on “Project Runway” and star of Bravo’s upcoming “Mad fashion.” “After all, we are talking mostly about men here, (who are) not known for their fashion risks. If there were no limits, I'm afraid that sports uniforms would start looking more like gymnastics wear, with cutouts, swirls, and rhinestones.”
Regardless of how the uniforms look, they are generating publicity for a manufacturer — even if it backfires at times.
“Since a lot of these guys are watching football, the teams are in a position to influence and get the regular guy thinking, ‘Hey, if (Maryland quarterback) Danny O'Brien is looking sharper, I could, too,’ ” said Sachin Bhola, fashion editor for AskMen.com, a FOX Interactive Media site.
“Of course, a lot of this is in theory. In practice, some of these teams haven’t exactly executed the style thing impressively. If these teams are going to take this seriously, I would recommend bringing in some contemporary menswear designers who I believe could totally pull it off.”
Changes aren’t limited to college football. When Oregon relaunched its baseball program in 2009 after it was dormant for nearly two decades, the team got the full Nike treatment. (Nike co-founder and chairman Phil Knight graduated from Oregon and is a leading Ducks booster.) That included the bottom of the team’s cleats, which featured coach George Horton’s face last season.
“A lot of my colleagues were laughing at me and they asked, ‘What have you stooped to, George?’ ” Horton said. “It wasn’t my idea. Two of my players, Scott McGough and Tyler Anderson, worked with our equipment guy and the Nike shoe guy after I had left the room. They wanted to surprise me.”
Horton met with more than just officials in the athletic department when it was courted. He also made a trip to Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton.
“Six people there showed me a Power Point presentation with the marketing goals and the ideas they had,” said Horton, who previously coached a winning program at Cal-State Fullerton, where he led his alma mater to a national title in 2004. “They had some brilliant suggestions but didn’t agree with everything they wanted to do.”
One uniform Horton warmed up to was Nike’s unique take on pinstripes. From afar, it looked like a normal pinstriped uniform, but viewed up close, the stripes were words to the school’s fight song along with Horton’s motto: present, positive and process.
“Besides the performance of these uniforms, I thought that was a really cool idea,” Horton said.
The NCAA has no dollar limit on how much companies like Nike and Under Armour supply to schools, according to NCAA spokeswoman Emily Newell.
“It is deemed to be a student-athlete well-being issue that is left to the discretion of the school,” Newell said.
But students can’t receive unlimited gear for personal use. In fact, NCAA rules limit the gear supplied to student-athletes to apparel worn in practice and competition.
That doesn’t seem to bother Alex Carter, a safety at Briar Woods High (Ashburn, Va.) who has committed to Stanford, a Nike school.
“Some guys lean toward Under Armour, but I like Nike better,” said Carter, who chose Stanford mainly for academics and the school’s comparably moderate climate. “I like the way the gear looks. I’ve liked Nike since I was younger. It’s just been my favorite. I don’t know exactly what I’m getting besides gloves, shoes, cleats and some shirts and that sort of stuff.”
Kennedy said prospects from the inner city and rural areas could be more easily swayed by a school’s apparel deal. Of course, he’s heard of even more peculiar ways of picking a school.
“I heard a coach tell me that he lost a recruit because one school had an ice-cream maker in the mess hall,” Kennedy said. “That was the difference.”
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