Branding With The Stars: Jordan And Michigan Set The Pace For College Football

Nike, adidas, and Under Armour — the three largest apparel companies in college football — have treated the FBS market like a high-stakes poker game.

Table limits increase each time one of them signs a record-breaking deal with a major college program. Nine-digit contracts are now the standard. It’s been a tense and competitive game, but relatively boring to watch. Deals often lead to a press conference and minor jersey tweaks, but that’s it.

Jordan Brand, a wholly-owned Nike subsidiary, finally got a seat at the poker table. Michigan football great Charles Woodson texted Michael Jordan about the initial partnership idea. A few months later, the deal was done. The 15-year, $173.8 million contract with the University of Michigan is breath of fresh air for NCAA partnerships.

Some reasons are obvious — the Jumpman logo brings its pedigree of greatness to college football— but there’s more to it. Michigan and Jordan Brand use their biggest stars to show support for the partnership. They also release new apparel and promote themselves consistently. This strategy bolsters the awareness and publicity for both the university and the apparel company.

Jumpman enters The Big House with stardom

Michigan marching band forms the Jumpman logo at halftime (Fox Sports)

The Jordan Brand deal officially began August 1. They have taken some fun steps to build up the partnership:

  • Midnight block party at the M-Den store in Ann Arbor, MI
  • Retro Jordan sneakers released with the Block-M and Jumpman logos
  • Social media accounts for Michigan and Jordan Brand showcased the new gear with the #WEAREJORDAN hashtag
  • Michael Jordan gave the team a pep talk the night before the home opener vs Hawai’i
  • Jordan Brand athletes Charles Woodson, LaMarr Woodley, Derek Jeter, and Michael Jordan were together on the field for the Hawai’i game
  • Michigan marching band formed a Jumpman logo at halftime
  • Drake and Future came out and sang “Jumpman” one time

Fine. The last one didn’t happen. But would you be surprised if it did??

Appearances by former Wolverine football stars like Woodson and Woodley are expected. Jeter (New York Yankee legend who was raised in Kalamazoo and is a lifelong Michigan fan) and MJ are unique though. Their presence sent a strong message: we care about this program. We will bring our stars out on Day 1 to show support.

Michigan-Jordan is not the only new apparel deal this fall. But based on the lack of media attention though, it sure seems like it. The other brands can easily catch up though. Under Armour and adidas should get their NFL athletes to cross-promote their former teams. Nike is further along, but they should use their pro stars across sports to promote their alma maters. The Jumpman logo will still be a novelty, but other programs should not have to watch in awe.

Under Armour should get the most out of its biggest stars

In May, Under Armour signed a record 15-year, $280 million deal with UCLA. That deal won’t start until 2017. This year, however, the Auburn Tigers renewed their contract with the Baltimore-based sports apparel company. Surprisingly, there was no mention of it earlier this month at their home football opener against Clemson.

Auburn football alums and Heisman trophy winners Bo Jackson and Cam Newton attended the game, as they often do. Cam showed off his Bo Jackson jersey and the two exchanged greetings.

Cam Newton and Bo Jackson at the home opener on September 3 (Anthony Hall: 247Sports)

Under Armour should have taken advantage. Newton, an Under Armour athlete, could have said a few words about the renewed apparel partnership before kickoff.

The missed opportunities don’t stop there. Look at the Cam Newton Collection on Under Armour’s website. His football cleats come in different shades and size, but there are no options for Auburn colors! Even the UA Curry 2 Lows have a color option that could pass for Auburn colors. Under Armour helped Newton become one of the most marketable athletes in sports. The brand should leverage him further to promote Tigers football.

Adidas should give its stars some freedom

The German apparel company has taken a slight hit. It lost the Michigan and UCLA apparel contracts to Jordan Brand and Under Armour, respectively. Texas A&M is the biggest partner left. If adidas plays its cards right, it can regain some chips. Reigning Super Bowl MVP, Von Miller, is an adidas athlete and a proud Aggie. His extremely engaging personality makes him marketable. The brand has to capitalize on this opportunity.

The Denver Broncos linebacker is one of the best players in the NFL. "Dancing With The Stars" was a natural fit for him. His style is eccentric, to say the least, and some of his outfits make Cam Newton’s look tame. Von even stands out among his high-profile brandmates in this adidas "Creators" commercial:

adidas is already using Von to cross-promote apparel from others in the Three Stripes family. At the NFL home opener against the Carolina Panthers, he wore the first ever 'Yeezy' football cleats. 'Yeezy' is the official adidas sneaker line for hip-hop artist Kanye West.

The Freak franchise is adidas’ new line of Von Miller football apparel. If Miller wore Yeezys in an NFL game, then the Aggies should wear the Freak line once it's ready.

Von also needs to bring his personality to the adidas-A&M partnership. They should let him manage their social media accounts for a day. Make him honorary captain for the Texas A&M-Texas game. There are countless ways to use Von Miller. He can lift adidas' status in the NCAA apparel market. And Kanye would LOVE any chance for adidas to "jump over Jumpman".

Nike can foster rivalries among its partner schools

Nike is doing a better job than adidas and Under Armour. Nike and Ohio State University have the second largest apparel deal in all college football at 15 years, $252 million. LeBron James, a lifelong Buckeyes fan and Nike’s flagship athlete, has a longstanding relationship with the university. He attends games, gives the players sneakers, and has his own #23 Ohio State football jersey.

Last season, Draymond Green, Michigan State basketball alum and Nike athlete, made a friendly bet with LeBron for the OSU-MSU football game in 2015. The Spartans, a Nike partner school, pulled off the upset victory. LeBron sent Draymond two cases of Napa Valley Cabernet in response.

Since then, James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and Green’s Golden State Warriors battled in an epic NBA Finals series. A ballsy incident between the two players led to Draymond’s suspension in Game 5. Green says him and James are on good terms, which is great for Nike. The players have some “history”. Nike should get them to repeat their friendly wager with a few twists.

Draymond wearing the Spartan helmet at a Michigan State game (YouTube)

Nike can start a social media competition for #TeamLeBronBuckeyes and #TeamDraymondSpartans. From there, Nike should create Snapchat filters for each team. At the actual game, Green and James should be honorary captains for their respective teams at the November game. It would build excitement among the fanbases for an already huge college football game.

The Jordan Brand and Michigan partnership already looks like a victory. They have the hot hand at the poker table. Jordan Brand understands star power, especially across sports. Nike gets it too, but can take it a step further. adidas and Under Armour are not there yet, but the foundation is set. Both brands can build up their college programs with their NFL athletes who are alums.

It will be exciting to see how each brand responds. There’s plenty of time to get back in the game. If Drake and Future come out and do Jumpman one time though, then it’s probably game over for everyone else.

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