“Just Pay Me”: Nike’s new recruiting slogan

 By Matt Stewart

The NCAA is opening the floodgates for compensation and endorsement through name, image and likeness deals with college athletes, and there’s one big winner in the apparel arms race: Nike.

The clothing and footwear giant already owns massive stock in college football: 53% of FBS college teams wear Nike apparel (69 total), almost double Adidas and more than triple Under Armour’s roster. When it comes to the power players in college football, Nike has the market cornered; 65% of Power 5 teams adorn the Swoosh logo, including all the big boys: LSU, Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia, Florida, Oregon, Alabama, Oklahoma, Penn State – the top nine teams from last season.

Here’s the kicker: In recommending the allowance of endorsement deals for individual college athletes, the NCAA’s current report places restrictions on which apparel company a player can sign with to prevent brand competition. For example, last season, Joe Borrow, who played for Nike-endorsed LSU, couldn’t have signed a deal to promote Adidas because it would have conflicted with his school’s agreement.

So, in essence, Nike already has the rights to the biggest teams and the biggest players in the country because it endorses the majority of Power 5 schools that contend for titles annually. Notre Dame (Under Armour) is the only non-Nike school to play in the College Football Playoff.

If and when these NIL regulations go into effect in 2021, LSU’s Derek Stingley, Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux, Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson, Georgia’s Nolan Smith, Clemson’s Bryan Breese and more future studs will be pumping Nike because they don’t have a choice. Not that they’ll argue with it – Nike has the money and the reach nationally to draw the top players regardless of whatever restrictions are imposed.

Phil Knight, Nike co-founder, former Oregon track alum and a huge Ducks fan, famously created a new jersey for every week of the Oregon season and has funded the program for years. What happens when one of the 20 richest people in the country, who owns an apparel company and knows the ins and outs of college football endorsement deals, is given free rein on 70% of NCAA players? We’re about to find out, and we know Knight and Nike aren’t afraid to spend money in an effort to find the next Jordan.

Nike already has the Jumpman logo on the uniforms of four of the biggest football programs in the country: Florida, Oklahoma, Michigan and North Carolina (Ok, not the biggest, but it’s Jordan’s alma mater). The Nike subsidiary Jordan Brand will only grow, and the younger kids still eat it up.

You think coaches won’t use Nike to entice recruits even more now that an endorsement deal could be waiting in the wings. It’s inevitable.

“Recruits are always asking about swag and what kind of gear we have,” Florida head coach Dan Mullen told CBS Sports when Florida signed on with Nike’s Jordan Brand. “Obviously, it is a great marketing and branding advantage to be associated with the Jordan Brand.”

Mullen wears Jordans with his khakis on the recruiting trail. He’s probably already guaranteeing an endorsement with every commitment. Try to stop it, NCAA.

Larry Fedora, former head coach at UNC when the Tar Heels began wearing the Jumpman logo, saw the potential then, even before player endorsements were a possibility.

“Every single player we’re recruiting knows about it,” he told CBS Sports at the time. “They all want to see the different uniforms we’re going to wear, the different shoes that we get.”

Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma saw it, too.

“We’ll be at the forefront of making sure our players have the best, trying new things, new ideas, and leading the charge as far as that race,” he told CBS Sports in his first season wearing the Jordan Brand.

Nike saw this coming, and they’ve probably already built a blue print and infrastructure to identify high school players and a contact list of college recruiters to facilitate the process. Zion Williamson at Duke was just the start. The free market is open for business, and Nike is looking for its next cash cow.  

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