On the night of August 1st, 2016, downtown Ann Arbor ground to a halt. Traffic was routed around State Street. DJ’s blared music. A crowd of thousands gathered. The Michigan Marching Band even made an appearance. Finally, just before midnight, a sole figure took the stand for a crowd-rousing speech. It was a scene straight from the campaign trail. The reason for it, for all of it—the celebration, the DJ, the shut down of a street—was not because of a big school victory, or a political rally, or a citywide festival. On the night of August 1st, 2016, the University of Michigan officially began its Nike sponsorship. It was a homecoming party for a clothing brand.
For a staggering $169 million – a little over $11 million annually over 15 years—The University of Michigan and Nike entered into one of the richest apparel deals in collegiate athletics. It’s a staggering amount of money, but in the realm of collegiate sponsorships, this number isn’t out of the ordinary. Other collegiate athletic programs and the athletic clothing giant have entered into similar agreements: Ohio State collects $16.8 million from the Swoosh every year annually, with the University of Texas not far behind at $16.6 million. However, far more than money is exchanged in these deals. Every time a college signs an apparel deal, a statement is made. Collegiate sponsorships are symbiotic relationships where fashion, sports, and status all merge in a way that has never been done before.
When a collegiate athletic program signs with a new sponsor, it’s a feeding frenzy for the school and its fans alike. Streets are shut down; social media is flooded with speculation over gear; and fans, most of the time, experience a rush of excitement, of pride. Not only do new sponsorships let fans redo their wardrobes with novel and trendy athletic clothing, but the very presence of a new top-dollar contract also makes a statement about their team’s worth.
In the realm of collegiate sponsorship, perhaps no brand is considered more worthy than Nike. The Portland-based sportswear giant is considered by many as the world leader in athletic apparel, consistently producing gear more innovative and aesthetically-pleasing than either of its two main competitors, Under Armor and Adidas. Within college sports especially, the Swoosh – that simple, distinctive, high-contrast logo - stands for cutting-edge performance.
Yet, it is not merely the promise of new uniforms that makes brand sponsorships so thrilling; there is something much bigger on the line than high-tech gear. When a college program partners with the leading athletic brand, status is conferred. If a team can get a large contract with Nike, it suggests that the team has talent, a supportive fan base, and most importantly, a bright future. In short, a contract with the Swoosh says that the team is good. Not just good, either – but, good and in good company.
Statistics show that teams with Nike tend to down right be better. In 2015, Nike sponsored 61.7% of all college football teams (the highest of any brand). 20 of those teams were ranked in the pre-season top 25 poll. What’s more: Nike-sponsored teams have won 15 of the last 17 FBS National Champions, and 11 of the last 17 FCS National Champions. With this history of excellence integral to the brand’s DNA, an environment is created where a single sponsorship can makes a profound statement about a team before they even take the field.
But it’s not just the team and the college program that receives benefits from these sponsorships. While the reputation of the college program is enhanced, the brand gains recognition, a larger and dedicated consumer base, and is able to make a much larger mark on the athletic fashion world even outside just college apparel. Nike’s revenue has increased steadily over the last few years, from $20 billion in 2011 to $32 billion, vastly outperforming its competitors. This emphasis on entering collegiate markets has also positioned Nike to enter the fashion scene in a way that no other athletic apparel brand has before. Thanks to the power of its brand and the recent athleisure trend, Nike performance gear is now sold as part of everyday fashion, not just to be worn during a workout or athletic match. When taken all together, it just shows how these huge contracts add up to more than just a contract with a single college program.
Every year, it seems as though larger and larger contracts are being drawn up between collegiate programs and big athletic clothing brands, especially Nike. With each new sponsorship comes news coverage, social media posts, and even traffic-stopping release parties to indulge die-hards and spectators alike. And while fans revel in the new gear, the college program can see its status as an athletic program rise, and the brand gains unfettered access to trend-driven college markets. These deals merge often-opposite worlds - fashion and sports – into something wholly new: a statement.