Shoe Companies: College Sports Newest, Most Heated Rivals

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Harsh words were fired Thursday through media in one of college sports’ newer, albeit more bitter rivalries. No, I’m not referring to a deranged caller to the Paul Finebaum Show touting the strength of Alabama football’s signing class over Auburn’s — though surely that happened, too — but rather, Kevin Plank taking aim in the battle of shoe companies.

Plank, the CEO of Under Armour, took shots at Adidas in an interview with Bloomberg TV. Allen Brettman of The Oregonian has the meat, specifically the following passage regarding Adidas’ aggression in pursuing NFL rookies and high-profile college sports programs:

“Spending more money is no strategy, right? And we’re not going to compete with our dumbest competitor, either,” he said. “They will chase the old model.”

He also said, “Chasing and bidding someone up is not the goal,” he said. “The race to the bottom is not the goal that we have. So we think that in order to spend our money you’ll still see us go after the right assets, the appropriate assets.”

“But,” interviewer Stephanie Ruhle asked Plank, “is Adidas your dumbest competitor?”

“Uh, specifically? I don’t mind you quoting me,” he said. “I didn’t say it, but I don’t like them.

Aside from the hilariously passive-aggressive statement of “I didn’t say it,” just moments after Plank using the phrase “our dumbest competitor,” the bold is the real crux of the conversation at play here.

Shoe companies are just that: companies; businesses that exist solely to make money. Competing companies obvious preclude their counterparts from a portion of the marketplace, which in turn elicits reactions like that Plank offered up.

I don’t like them.

How many times have fans uttered the exact, same sentence about a rival football team? Forget fans — how about players and even coaches? Steve Spurrier has made sport of expressing his disdain for rival programs like Clemson and Georgia.

In that sense, the ethos of business and sport intersect nicely.

Shoes companies and athletic departments are tied together because teams need to be outfitted, first and foremost. Programs are customers, the same as anyone shopping for footwear and apparel. But it’s a symbiotic relationship in that the teams function as live-action billboards.

The more popular college sports become — football and basketball, specifically — the more important athletic departments are to shoes companies’ competition.

Nike is the industry leader in all facets, and that includes outfitting college programs. All four of the participants in last month’s College Football Playoff are Nike schools, led by The Nike school, Oregon.

The Oregon football program is the quintessential example of the potentially symbiotic relationship between college sports and shoe companies, with Nike’s investment in the Ducks giving them an identity that helped them stand out in the early 2000s. Oregon was then able to parlay that into success on the field, in part because that identity helped attract recruits.

Head coach Mark Helfrich said prior to December’s Pac-12 Championship Game that Oregon did not pursue players whose chief motivation for becoming Ducks was apparel, but that the “bells and whistles” certainly gave the program an added dimension of attractiveness on the recruiting trail.

Oregon is now the model others emulate, including Nike schools.

San Jose State, which landed a surprising No. 58-ranked recruiting class this week, was able to woo 4-star wide receiver Kanya Bell in part because of its Nike-branded uniform, per Friend of the Site Jeremy Mauss at MWCConnection.com.

Part of Adidas’ new strategy to become the definitive No. 2 is helping craft the identity of programs with successful histories and metropolitan fan bases. Arizona State and Miami join UCLA as flag-bearers; potential Oregons to Adidas’ Nike.

Add celebration endorsements like Snoop Dogg to push its college sports partnerships, and Adidas certainly has an intriguing strategy. If nothing else, Adidas got Snoop to don Bruins blue-and-gold well before his son, Cordell, forced him to dump out his USC red-and-gold.

snoop-dogg-ucla-gloves

Under Armour, a Baltimore-based company, has done the same with local program Maryland, albeit with mixed results. Under Armour did score a major coup when it added Notre Dame last year, though the company is more inheriting an established identity than helping shape one with the Fighting Irish.

From an outsider’s perspective, that may not be such a bad thing. In the current landscape of college football and basketball — mostly football — the line between traditional values and economics is blurred more seemingly every year.

As the identity of shoe companies and athletic departments become more enmeshed, the function of a college football team as part of the academic institution or simply as a revenue generator is muddled. If you’re a staunch believer in slippery slopes, this may be one in which the Iron Bowl is no longer built on fans bickering about Alabama and Auburn, but rather arguing the merits of Nike vs. Under Armour.