Monday, November 21, 2005

Nike rules college sports

I don't care what people say about Matt Leinart's meteoric popularity in Hollywood. I similarly dismiss notions of Roy Williams being larger than life in Chapel Hill, negate Jim Boeheim's deity status in upstate New York, or Vince Young's celeb stature in the Lone Star State. Phil Knight is the Big Man on Campus.

Not since Magic Johnson intentionally covered the Reebok logo in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona to honor his association to Converse has professional endorsement by a shoe manufacturer been so significant. The convoluted world of pro sports naturally promotes sponsorship at the individual level, which screws up unified representation.

Of the first 15 of the AP's Top 25 NCAA Division I football schools, 11 use Nike apparel, and only UCLA and Notre Dame (who's never subscribed to conventional rules anyway) use alternative products, siding with rival Adidas. In basketball, all teams to make this past season's Final Four - North Carolina, Illinois, and Michigan State and Louisville - rocked the Swoosh, and most teams in the AP Top 25 have Nike gear prominently.

Nike's blanket coverage of the college sports world is phenomenal. There simply are no more major collegiate sports programs and/or conferences that are nationally competitive consistently enough for other brands to sponsor.

The early mid-1990's days of collegiate sponsorship saw Deion Sanders led the teased FSU "Free Shoe U" Seminoles. Even the historic dominance of their in-state rivals, the Mighty Miami Hurricanes, weren't too powerful to be wooed this year into being one of four select schools to wear new "revolution" unies with a colored left sleeve (featured left). Even this 1996 article cites the logevity of the economic benefits of being recognized by the world's premiere athletic brand.

This serves as a testament to the superiority of big-budget marketing. When you think about it, the quality or attractiveness of the products themselves become incidental. The price of NIke gear is marginally more expensive than the competition, but it doesn't matter. There's a sexiness behind having the Swoosh, knowing what it represents. The push behind them can elevate your status to the next level.

To be fair, several athletes at the professional level, unmarred by rich alumni, political favoratism or heavy endowment that plagues college sorts today, have either left Nike for more affordable brands. Chris Webber reneged on his contract in favor of Converse because the latter would be more accessible to inner city youth, and Hakeem Olajuwon partnered with Spaulding to take the "high quality without high price" angle. Others just sought sponorship with other brands - Allen Iverson is the face of Reebok, Stephon Marbury in similar fashion represents And1. But the undeniable creator of image has been Nike, from Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods to LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. And they look damn good doing it, too.

Nike is the sports apparel industry's Microsoft. Ubiquitous in reach, intimidating when contested, impressive in approach, undeniable in impact. They're the stuff. And as far as college sports go - Nike rules.

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