Louisville's adidas "infrared" uniforms for the 2012 postseason.
The original adidas "blackout" uniform for the 2005 win over West Virginia in 2006.
The adidas uniforms for the 2013 NCAA championship team.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Shoe companies have long had a foothold in college sports. I'm thinking back several years, to a player the University of Louisville was recruiting. The Cardinals were on the player's short list, but one of the gurus who follows these guys all summer told me, matter-of-factly, "Won't ever happen. He's a Nike kid."
And he was.
Here's what I know about shoe company and apparel deals in college sports: They're more important than most of us give them credit for.
You think coaches and recruiting services start tracking the best players at a young age? Take a look at the battle being waged at the AAU level, with shoe companies sponsoring coaches and teams.
Three years ago, adidas outfitted U of L's basketball teams in "Infrared" uniforms for the postseason. The Cardinals went to the Final Four, and fans were dying to get their hands on the new gear, but there wasn't any. Adidas didn't use it to market to fans. They wanted AAU teams to use the new uniforms, and they did.
U of L announced a five-year, $39 million contract with adidas on Thursday, an extension of a deal that had been paying the school $350,000 in cash annually, and about $1.1 million in product.
The current breakdown wasn't disclosed. U of L says no contract has been signed, only a short memorandum of understanding with basic terms. A spokesman said he didn't know the timetable for a new contract to be completed. But if the deal includes Rick Pitino's deal with adidas -- in the neighborhood of $1 million annually -- that would break down to about $350,000 a year for the university itself in cash and then about $6.2 million in services and "product," equipment, uniforms, marketing, and other benefits, depending on how you value those.
And those numbers are my estimates, based on not seeing any actual numbers. So don't take them to the bank. But they give an idea. If you think it's a little shaky to use guesswork, consider the answer given when asked about the deal's value by Brent Seebohm, associate athletic director for external relations, when asked what it was worth yesterday.
"Overall the five-year partnership, a figure was reported earlier, but the five-year partnership in total value, that we would project as the university, is around $39 million," he said. "And that figure is subjective and calculated differently with every university and every brand, but that's at retail value of the products, the cash investment, the extra marketing activation investments, what we aspire to do as far as postseason performance, licensing revenues have skyrocketed the past two years, so just the merchandise revenues, are all forecasted into that. So that's our projection in total."
There will be performance incentives built into the deal when it's in its final form, and U of L is projecting certain attainment as well as certain growth in its merchandise sales to arrive at that number.
Regardless, it's a lot of money, and a lot of stuff. And most of it, as fans, you won't see. But it's some of those additional features that make the contract important for U of L.
Often in apparel deals, you'll see the shoe company sponsor a scholarship for a single sports administration student. This deal includes 20 scholarships. It includes money for video technology (U of L is moving even more into this area, having built its own TV studio into the new Mark and Cindy Lynn Soccer Stadium). It includes equipment for the spirit squads, and an overall expansion of the U of L equipment room for football.
Of course, new football uniform combinations are being promised, as well as some alternates for basketball.
Michigan has the biggest adidas deal -- receiving $3.8 million in cash and $2.2 million in equipment per year. It was the largest apparel deal in college sports -- worth $66.5 million over eight years, until Notre Dame bolted from adidas and went to Under Armour for a 10-year deal worth a reported $90 million.
But these things are about more than clothes.
What Nike provides its schools is a grass-roots athletics operation that can allow it to identify the best players and try to keep them under the Nike umbrella from AAU to the NBA. That's their goal. They don't keep them all, but they keep quite a few. Nike also has a deal with the NCAA to manufacture apparel for the national champions, which is why you saw U of L title gear with the Nike swoosh last year.
Adidas has the apparel contract for the NBA. It doesn't have the kind of grass-roots organization that Nike has, but has established itself firmly. With the University of Kentucky being one of Nike's top college basketball properties, taking on U of L probably wasn't a realistic option. U of L could've had talks with Under Armour, but athletic director Tom Jurich said he wanted to give adidas the first crack at the contract which expires next year, and the deal was everything he'd been hoping for.
Louisville, as its profile continues to rise and as it goes into the Atlantic Coast Conference, is an important property for adidas. And as company officials said Thursday, its recent success and the ACC component make it even more important. What nobody said but what should be said is that Rick Pitino probably is the company's single most important college sports figure. Pitino, and his visibility, are as important as the university, in fact, at this point in his career, from a marketing standpoint for adidas.
There have been murmurs of Louisville looking elsewhere from time to time, but I don't know that there has been much substance behind them. Adidas undercut U of L with one of its highest-profile recruits. Sebastian Telfair had signed to come to U of L out of New York City, and wasn't completely sold on heading to the NBA straight out of high school until adidas offered him a 6-year, $15 million apparel deal. That made the decision a no-brainer.
But in recent years U of L has thrived during the adidas postseason basketball uniform promotions, and the relationship on Thursday took another step.
"The leaps and bounds that adidas has made in the past decade have been phenomenal," Jurich said. "And we're glad to be a part of that wave. . . . We have such a growth curve in front of us."
Clothes don't make the man, of course. In fact, if it takes flashy uniforms to get the attention of recruits, isn't that an indictment of recruiting? But apparel is only part of that picture. Uniforms are important. In college sports today, apparel is a big deal, and a huge business. Clothes don't make the man, but they don't hurt. Adidas bringing back the "Dunking Cardinal" logo in a limited way deserves praise in itself. U of L being able to say that it has even at least potentially one of the five largest apparel deals in the nation, is a big deal for its department. There may not have been a realistic apparel alternative for U of L, but Jurich and his staff seemed to have improved position within the company anyway.