Sports branding hits high schools
Nike woos Armwood High School with a deal for swoosh.
By Letitia Stein and Eduardo A. Encina, Times Staff Writers
Published March 9, 2008
In the upcoming season, the Hawks football team - one of the region's most celebrated with back-to-back state championships - will sport a prominent swoosh on its jerseys.
Nike's sponsorship puts Armwood in an elite club. The sports apparel company picked just five high school programs to outfit in Florida. Only Armwood made the cut in the Tampa Bay area.
"Let's be honest. A big company like that is going to want to put their product on high-profile schools," said Hillsborough County athletic director Lanness Robinson, who would prefer that all schools benefit equally.
Equity is just one of the concerns as Nike and competitors push their brand on ever younger athletes. Like it or not, experts say the Friday night lights crowd has reached the prime time. Expect to see more brand-name sponsorships, and the mixed bag that comes with them.
"The concern has to be, as it has been at the college level for so many years, that an arms race starts," said Richard Lapchick, director of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida. "Keep a watchful eye that nothing goes wrong here in terms of unethical behaviors, even more so at the other high schools as they try to compete."
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Nike approached Armwood coach Sean Callahan in October, pitching the idea of the Hawks joining a prestigious group of Florida high school football programs outfitted by Nike.
The strategy was similar to how Nike targeted college football programs about 15 years ago.
"We created such a marketable event," said Len Kosmalski, the company's team sale representative for Florida colleges and high schools. "A million people watch a Florida State-Miami game on TV, and they all see the Nike logo. Since we were doing so well at the college level, we're venturing into the elite high school level."
Nike offered Armwood $10,000 to purchase home and road uniforms. No contracts were signed in a deal that Callahan called a gentleman's agreement. The sponsorship is year by year. If Nike wants to keep Armwood on its roster, the school would likely receive another $15,000 next season.
"Nike wants to be recognized for having the best football players wearing their uniforms," Callahan said. "I'm proud of the fact we're the only Nike team in Hillsborough County. ... The biggest thing to me is that they contacted us and recognized us as one of the top programs in the state. To me, that's self-fulfilling."
Nike did not get free rein to design the uniforms. District officials are requiring the company to follow rules that aim to keep players looking similar.
While differences are subtle, the Nike jersey is unquestionably superior.
Callahan estimates it will cost about $150 - almost eight times the district-issued version. The shirts are form fitting, which could make players tougher to tackle. The fabric is designed to dry quickly and stay lightweight.
The notion of one team having such advantages bothers Hillsborough assistant superintendent Lewis Brinson, who hopes to speak with interested companies on behalf of the district's two dozen other football programs.
"Nike is a world-renowned company," he said. "I'm quite sure that they can do more than just support one of our schools."
That may be an uphill push. Nike plans to keep its sponsorships limited to elite programs, possibly branching out to eight or 10 schools in Florida next year.
"We want the Nike program to be exclusive," Kosmalski said. "It's a privilege and we want to keep it a privilege."
Armwood initially flirted with the Under Armour apparel company, which wanted the Hawks to be its first high school in Florida. But when Callahan asked the company to donate money toward the school's academic programs, the deal fizzled.
"I knew better not to ask the next time," the coach joked.
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Sports marketers are the latest entry into a school system already riddled with corporate influences. Hillsborough campuses sell Pepsi products. Students and teachers get a discount on Hewlett-Packard computers.
The message of companies like Nike may be especially influential on young players already inundated with unrealistic messages. Most won't get scholarships to play in college, much less win multimillion-dollar professional contracts.
But they get excited by the dream. Hillsborough High's football program is pursuing its own sponsorship deal with Reebok. The Terriers purchased shoes through Reebok, and the company in turn is outfitting the team with practice T-shirts and shorts. The sideline staff also will be outfitted in Reebok.
Within the next two seasons, coach Earl Garcia plans to outfit his team from head to toe in Reebok, the official supplier of the NFL. He says Hillsborough is the first Reebok high school in Florida.
"The kids are already excited about it," Garcia said. "They'll be wearing the same shoes they do on Sundays. They don't say Reebok on them. They say NFL Equipment."
Success at Armwood