The Nike State University: While We’re Waiting

LeBron James Ohio State Ezekiel Elliott
Matthew Emmons / USA TODAY Sports
“Of the top 25 NCAA teams, Nike supplies 20 of them. None of those teams are we more proud of than the one in this locker room. Congratulations. You were fabulous.” — Nike co-founder Phil Knight

Just minutes after the Ohio State Buckeyes beat the Michigan Wolverines in a double-overtime thriller, the players were taking a knee in the home locker room, taking in the wisdom being shared by head coach Urban Meyer. Meyer was not alone, however, as he introduced the room to a man standing behind him, clad entirely in black, doing so with a dramatic pause.

“Please welcome…Mr. Phil Knight!” Meyer exclaimed. As Knight stepped to the foreground, he was greeted with an enthusiastic round of applause. It was as if the players were in the presence of great importance. The only catch: They were.

As Oregon was playing in their rivalry game against Oregon State, the Ducks’ biggest booster (and outfitter) was in Columbus, Ohio, taking in one of his company’s biggest marketing moments in recent history. It wasn’t just Ohio State-Michigan; it was Nike-Jordan Brand. Michigan ditching adidas for Jordan Brand and $174 million was a landscape-shifting deal. Though U of M’s deal was technically with Nike, it allowed the football program to be outfitted in Jumpman gear—the first and only such a deal in NCAA football. Every player on the Ohio State sideline, meanwhile, was outfitted as human Nike billboards, wearing a special uniform—one that wasn’t revealed until the day of the game—with a host of players wearing LeBron James-based cleats, the first and only such a cleat in NCAA football.

Say what you wish about Nike’s business practices, penchant for signing kids to contracts bigger than those of their employer, or various levels of hype surrounding their products. Having Knight in attendance at The Shoe was a big deal. Anybody can cut checks—$252 million worth, mind you—but skirting what was taking place in Oregon to be in Columbus signals a bit of a sea change when it comes to The Swoosh.

It’s the perfect marketing storm for Ohio State and Nike. The Oregon-based company had recently signed deals with Texas and Michigan and was looking to renegotiate with Ohio State. Oregon itself was in a downward spiral as all the uniform combinations in the world hasn’t kept them from being 4-8 this season. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes winning the first ever College Football Playoff immediately placed themselves in the driver’s seat for negotiations—they’d be damned if they were to renegotiate and not be the most lucrative.

Big Savings for Big Fans at Fanatics.comHelping matters is the way that the university has aligned itself with James, Nike’s premier athlete who just so happens to play basketball two hours north of Columbus. He may not have attended the school, but it hasn’t stopped the basketball and football program from placing a LeBron locker (completely stocked with gear) in their locker room, or the football program from selling a No. 23 “James” jersey. For every person who thinks it is absurd for a school to be so closely linked with an athlete who didn’t attend said university, there are dozens of kids who dream about suiting up for that university, a dream which is only fueled by its link to to that very player.

“I promise, I say this all the time – if I had one year of college, I would have ended up here,” James said in 2013. “No matter where I go in the world, no matter where it is, I will always rock Ohio State colors.”

On Saturday, James, decked in Nike gear, was on the field with his teammates. Kyrie Irving was there. He’s a Nike guy. Tristan Thompson was there, as was Kevin Love. Both are Nike guys, the latter having just signed aboard after joining the Cavs. J.R. Smith? Nike. Iman Shumpert? He just left adidas for Nike. If you think this is all happenstance, you may want to revisit the lifetime deal James signed with Nike, one that will, at some point, spin off a James-based line similar to that of Jordan Brand. There will be shoes and gear and the like featuring James’ crown-based LJ logo. And if any college will be the one to have the first crack at this gear, it will be the one which has a shiny new contract with Nike that includes licensing and royalty income.1

Big game in Columbus? LeBron’s there. Cavs championship parade in Cleveland? Urban Meyer and Thad Matta are in one of the cars. This, kids, is what we call mutual interest.

James attended that national championship game two years ago, being one of the first on the field to celebrate with Cardale Jones and Ezekiel Elliott. Prior to the Buckeyes’ win over Oregon in the 2014 College Football Playoff championship game, James gave each OSU player a pair of Beats By Dre headphones, another company with which he is an equity holder.

The cleats themselves have long been in the making. While adidas recently rolled out cleated versions of their Kanye West-based Yeezy line, Nike had been working diligently to find a LeBron-based shoe that could handle the structure needed to attach cleats. The best part? They’re not even for sale. Neither is the red-toed version of the Soldier 10. Each may be available at some point, but at this stage—the outfitting, the cross-promotion—it’s all for allure. It’s all about the exclusivity of being an Ohio State football player who has gear that literally no one else in the world has. In sneaker culture, it’s called #TeamEarly. In the world of collegiate athletics, it’s called one hell of a recruiting tool.

Of the 20 universities Nike outfits in the college football space, the one Knight chose to support on Saturday was Ohio State. The reasons are green and obvious. Now if they could just figure out a way to pay these kids.

  1. The basketball team started wearing James-branded apparel back in 2007. []