At the University of Minnesota’s spring football game, Nike was everywhere. Running back Donnell Kirkwood warmed up on the sidelines, with N-I-K-E in silver letters on the back of his black shoes. An array of coaches and assistants roamed the field — including coach Jerry Kill in a Nike hat and pullover — and each wore the trademark Nike swoosh on their chest. In the gift store inside TCF Bank Stadium, a Nike football featuring the university’s logo sold for $35.
In exchange for a hard-to-miss profile on campus, Nike has been important to the Gophers’ bottom line — the school gets $1 million a year in Nike merchandise, with the company offering everything from shoes, uniforms and gameday warm-ups to weight-training gloves, stopwatches, sunglasses and golf balls.
As the school’s seven-year contract with Nike nears expiration in July 2014, university officials are looking to increase the benefit to the school. Under the current contract, the school also gets $200,000 a year in royalty payments: $10,000 should the Gophers men’s hockey team make the Frozen Four tournament and a 2-for-1 deal on Nike football shoes once the Gophers football team gets 325 pairs.
But other schools have since signed more lucrative apparel contracts with Nike or its competitors. It’s a sign of how such arrangements are now commonplace on the collegiate landscape, and also an indication that the University of Minnesota remains a second-tier customer for apparel companies because of its more-modest tradition of winning.
Alabama — the college football national champion for three of the past four seasons — is in the midst of an eight-year contract with Nike that is valued at $30 million.
Michigan is in the middle of a long-term contract with Adidas — the school switched from Nike — that pays the university $6 million annually in cash and in-kind contributions. Nebraska’s contract with Adidas involves $2.5 million annually in cash and in-kind contributions, and the company pays the school $100,000 if its football team plays in a major bowl game.
Nike pays Minnesota $25,000 if the Gophers get invited to a major bowl game.
There are critics of the apparel deals and what that says about the commercialization of college athletics.
“What does doing business with Nike have to do with higher education?” asked Michael McNabb, a Twin Cities attorney who regularly analyzes the Gophers’ athletic budget. The business that has become collegiate athletics — including the Nike deal — “is just so far removed from what [the] reasons for having a university are,” he said.
But coaches and athletes for the most part appreciate the arrangement.
“I enjoy being a ‘Nike school,’ ” said Katie Richardson, who played third base for the Gophers softball team. “I’ve kind of worn Nike for most of my life.”
As she fielded ground balls at a recent practice, Richardson wore a Gophers maroon-and-gold uniform that featured the Nike swoosh on the chest, back pocket, socks and shoes.
As the University of Minnesota weighs a contract extension, doing business with Nike — which has contracts with seven other Big Ten schools — comes at a price.
In its contract with the school, Nike makes little secret of its motive: “The principal inducement for NIKE’S entrance into this agreement is the exposure that the NIKE brand receives through the prominent visibility of the NIKE Swoosh.”
Nike spokeswoman Cindy Hamilton said the company would not discuss details of its Gophers contract nor its contracts with other schools. “We don’t tend to comment on our contracts,” she said.
The 33-page contract stipulates that the university can be penalized financially if players tape over the Nike logo on their uniforms or shoes; players who cannot wear a Nike shoe for medical reasons must have the reason certified by the team’s doctor. The university must make its coaches available for up to three personal appearances a year on behalf of Nike and even gives Nike the legal ability to use a coach’s nickname in marketing the company.
At most home games, a public address announcer or an electronic message board at a stadium must tell fans that Nike is the “exclusive products supplier” for the school. For a separate $100,000 annual payment to the school, Nike gets eight hockey season tickets and 12 tickets per round of any postseason tournament — part of a large assortment of tickets the company gets to most of the school’s major home-and-away sporting events.