“It’s gotta be the shoes.” This assertion was made back in 1989 by Spike Lee’s Nike character Mars Blackmon, to attempt to explain Michael Jordan’s otherworldly play. Fast forward to 2014 and Louisville Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino is making a similar conclusion when it comes to the reasoning behind star recruit Antonio Blakeney retracting his commitment to Louisville. Blakeney plays for Nike-sponsored AAU club, E1T1 and is now mulling over offers from Kentucky, Missouri, and LSU – which all happen to be Nike sponsored schools. People close to the situation believe that Nike was behind Blakeney’s decision to withdraw commitment from Louisville, which is an adidas sponsored school. This whole process has understandably left a bad taste in Pitino’s mouth, which he spoke on recently.
“What I personally don’t like is I can’t recruit a kid because he wears Nike on the AAU circuit. I’ve never heard of such a thing but it’s happening in our world. I never thought that shoes would be the reason that you recruit players but it’s a factor,” Pitino said. He also expressed his desire to remove shoe companies from the recruiting process,“I think we need to get the shoe companies out of the lives of the athletes. I think we need to get it back to where parents and coaches have more of a say than peripheral people.” Later acknowledging the role of money in the situation by stating: “Nobody wants to talk about it because it’s money-related,” Pitino said. “University of Louisville makes a lot of money from adidas, and other schools. But I think it needs to be cleaned up.”
Unfortunately for Pitino however, it is all about the money. AAU basketball is pricey, even for the wealthiest of families. The cost of gear, apparel, travel and other fees add up quickly and shoe companies are more than willing to absorb these costs to equip kids in their product from day one. Until there is a neutral party that is willing to provide funding for AAU programs, situations such as Blakeney’s will continue to happen. Nike or the NCAA is not where Pitino should be directing his frustration but instead he should be frustrated with the strategy adidas used to market basketball apparel. In 2006, adidas announced an 11 year apparel partnership with the NBA valued at approximately $400 million. The idea behind this was to be the leading sports brand by having the greatest basketball players in the world practice and compete at the highest level in their apparel. While this is a massive deal that provides the brand a huge opportunity for exposure one could argue that adidas may have been better served to use their money elsewhere. adidas assumed that by being the outfitter for the NBA that young kids would push to wear what their basketball heroes were wearing.
Nike took a different approach which is starting to pay off. They went at the kids early, providing the same goods their basketball idols wore, and were more than happy spending money lavishing kids with gear and sneakers while covering their traveling costs. Their strategy to fund AAU programs not only allowed the athletes of the future to wear and be comfortable in their sneakers/apparel but they also know that by funding these programs they will win the brand loyalty of an entire generation of basketball players. This loyalty impacts which college players choose to play at and which sneaker company they will endorse when playing professionally. adidas could have spent a fraction of the amount they spent on the NBA apparel deal to enter a bidding war with Nike on the AAU circuit and the NCAA which may have affected where some of the top recruits decided to attend school. Instead adidas has recently stepped up their efforts by spending significant money on the highly touted 2014 NBA Draft class. They did so by winning bidding wars for talents such as Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, and Marcus Smart. This may pay off for the company in the long run, especially if one or more of these players develop into a superstar.
Unfortunately this doesn’t help Pitino or any head coach at an adidas sponsored school such as Louisville. If adidas wishes to cut into Nike’s huge market share and continue to give colleges an incentive to pursue a partnership with their brand, they need to realize it’s also about strategy and not just the shoes.