How Nike dominated Oregon high schools in 1 fell swoosh
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A caravan of coaches paced the empty halls at Sandy High School in search of a symbol.
Inside one classroom, a sales representative showed off the latest in Nike gear. In another, it was Adidas. An agent pushing Under Armour waited inside a third.
The sports apparel companies were jostling to outfit varsity teams at the 1,400-student school at the base of Mount Hood. School officials craved the payday that came with exclusivity, which helps score free merchandise in an era of fluctuating state funding.
“We weren’t trying to create competition,” recalled Wade Lockett, the school’s athletic director at the time of the 2016 event.
It almost didn’t matter. In the battle for Oregon high schools, Nike had already won.
Nike dominates Oregon’s high school marketplace, inking deals to exclusively outfit 93 percent of all large public institutions that hold apparel agreements, according to an analysis by The Oregonian/OregonLive. Swooshes appear on prep uniforms from Pendleton to Portland to Central Point — and nearly everywhere in between.
The newsroom filed public records requests for apparel agreements with every school district at the Class 5A and 6A athletic levels, where schools typically exceed 675 students. Out of 80 public schools, 75 have agreements with shoe companies. And of those, 70 are with Nike.
Nike provides its schools with free gear worth more than $1 million a year, according to The Oregonian/OregonLive’s review, a sum that doesn’t include merchandise given to four of five private schools that also wear the Swoosh.
The agreements offer each public school at least $15,000 in merchandise annually, enough to cover uniform costs for most varsity teams. But the true value is often much larger.
The company based near Beaverton offers sizable discounts for additional purchases, giving athletics officials incentive to buy more. Certain schools qualify for special perks, such as buy-one, get-one-free uniforms or free gear for coaches and staff.
And schools with top-tier basketball programs can score exclusive sponsorships beyond those school wide deals. In an effort to bond its brand with winning, Nike showers players from sponsored teams with free shoes, bags, warm-ups and other items, often without the knowledge of district administrators. Select football teams also earn special status: Tigard High School, for example, received free “Mach Speed” uniforms in 2017 in addition to the 75 pairs of cleats it typically gets each year.
Nike’s dominance here began with a concerted expansion drive in 2012. The company undercut its competition to sign up more schools to wear the Swoosh in a gym near you. Such marketing, once the domain of only the most successful sports programs, now extends into far-flung communities where generations of players had been accustomed to wearing off-brand uniforms.
Apparel and sponsorship agreements are huge for cash-strapped school districts. Nike has certainly been lauded for its generosity, but the company and its competitors have more than philanthropy in mind.
Nike’s deal requires players and coaches to wear only Nike products during games and at official events. Adidas and Under Armour demand similar exclusivity. Items purchased by students, such as shoes or headbands, are supposed to be exempt.
Nike’s agreements go even further. Making clear its marketing intentions, Nike all but prohibits players from doing anything to “cover or obscure any portion of any Nike trademark.” A player could not, for instance, place tape over a Nike uniform logo in protest of commercialization. That would be “inconsistent” with the purpose of Nike’s deals and could prompt the company to yank its support.
Representatives for Nike, Adidas and Under Armour all declined interview requests to discuss their strategies for outfitting high school teams in Oregon and nationally. But the companies have been outspoken in the past.
Three years ago, Under Armour pushed to secure deals near its home base of Baltimore, saying that “owning our backyard” was a “top-line priority.” Adidas, with North American headquarters in Portland, similarly acknowledged its desire to grow in Oregon and shrink the reign of “Nikeville.”
Expanding into high schools simply makes sense, said T. Bettina Cornwell, academic director for the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. Shoe companies, much like other product manufactures, target young people in an attempt to influence lifelong behavior and brand loyalty.
Nike already has exclusive contracts to design NBA and NFL uniforms. It dominates in collegiate apparel. High schools are the next frontier, with many students more than happy to sport big-name brands.
Cornwell speaks from experience. Her three boys began receiving team Nike gear as ninth-grade soccer players.
“It does make them feel like they’re really part of a team,” she said. “Like the teams they see on TV.”
Nike deals are not created equal.
To quantify the reach of Nike and its competitors, The Oregonian/OregonLive reviewed more than 100 pages of apparel deals covering Oregon’s largest public high schools. The newsroom also contacted private academies, such as Jesuit in Beaverton and Central Catholic in Portland, to inquire about Nike’s support. But those institutions, known for their bounties of Nike apparel, are not subject to public records law. Officials refused to divulge details.
One of Nike’s flagship public school deals can be found in Portland. Nike inked its initial agreement with Portland Public Schools in 2012, said district spokesman Dave Northfield, making it among Oregon’s first to do so.
Each of Portland’s nine high schools receives a $15,000 annual credit to spend on retail-priced merchandise of its choosing. After that, the schools get a 40 percent discount on shoes and 45 percent on apparel.
The district’s athletic director, Marshall Haskins, said the Nike credit is nearly enough to outfit each varsity squad except football. Teams typically receive new uniforms every three years.
Nike’s deal with Portland Public Schools is a boon. The district has shaved its athletics budget to $5.4 million, down about 10 percent in the past two years.
Like most districts, Portland also charges student-athletes a participation fee to help cover costs. Students pay $200 per sport or a maximum of $400 per year. Low-income students are charged $35 for each sport.
How vital is Nike’s money for Portland? “It’s not enough, if that’s what you’re asking me,” Haskins said.
But there’s more.
Nike gives the district a $5,000 credit each year to be spent at Haskins’ discretion, a rarity according to The Oregonian/OregonLive’s review of apparel agreements. Haskins said he evaluates the needs of each high school and distributes money accordingly, helping cover additional uniform expenses or pay for other merchandise for a given program.
But there’s even more.
In 2015, Nike dramatically sweetened the deal by offering a $50,000 wholesale credit each year toward Nike shoes for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders from needy families. It also agreed to provide an unspecified number of uniforms and hoodies for middle school teams.
The deal is set to expire this year. But, in another rarity, the company — not the school district — has the option to extend the agreement. Nike maintains the exclusive right to keep outfitting Portland high schools through 2021.
Lake Oswego is another outlier. The district’s two high schools receive several special perks, most notably annual credits of $25,000, more than any other public schools in Oregon’s largest classifications. The reason isn’t clear.
Christine Moses, a district spokeswoman, said officials no longer have records to determine when Nike officially began providing apparel schoolwide. But the company’s supersized support likely ties back to Kevin Love, who was among the nation’s best prep players a decade before he became a five-time NBA All-Star with a championship ring.
Reebok, then a rival to Nike, reportedly offered Love’s high school a deal for $50,000 a year, Love’s father, Stan, said in an interview. But Lake Oswego officials, wary of rocking the boat, stuck with Nike.
And then there’s Beaverton.
The school district, which surrounds Nike World Headquarters, has one of the most unique deals in the state.
District officials signed their first apparel agreement with Nike in 2014. Each high school receives the standard $15,000 annually for items at retail price.
More importantly, however, the schools also receive a buy-one, get-one-free perk for uniforms. On top of that, the district can also purchase those uniforms at a discount.
In practice, that means a Beaverton team looking to buy 20 uniforms at $100 a pop would face a $2,000 bill. Yet thanks to various discounts, the district would pay only $550.
That’s not all.
When Beaverton renewed its agreement with Nike in 2016, the district secured a one-time credit of $6,500 for each of its six high schools to cover apparel for coaches.
There’s one final perk. And it’s a big one.
Beaverton opened a new high school, Mountainside, in September. Nike agreed to provide free uniforms for the football, basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball, soccer, tennis, track and cross-country teams.
The deal isn’t limited to varsity. Nike is also providing uniforms for junior varsity and freshman squads.
Beaverton officials never calculated the value of that sweetener. But, when pressed, district spokeswoman Maureen Wheeler said the junior varsity and freshman uniforms alone would retail for more than $170,000.
Factoring in Beaverton’s various discounts, the school district is saving at least $38,000.
Nike’s deal-making also extends to several prestigious basketball programs in Oregon, providing hand-picked teams with thousands of dollars a year in free merchandise.
The most publicized deal involves Jefferson High School in North Portland. Despite having fewer than 700 students, the Democrats are a basketball juggernaut, with seven state championships since 2000.
Jefferson is sponsored by Nike’s Jordan Brand. The backing is unmistakable: Jefferson’s gymnasium features a large painting of Michael Jordan’s iconic Jumpman silhouette next to the message, “BECOME LEGENDARY.”
This year’s sponsorship featured 95 pairs of mesh shorts, 60 pairs of shoes, 60 pairs of socks, 50 warm-ups, 36 bags, 20 fleeces, 15 pairs of compression shorts and 12 balls. Nike also offered 10 pairs of shoes and 10 polo shirts for coaches.
Haskins, the district athletic director, said the sponsorship allows Jefferson to direct its $15,000 Nike credit to other sports.
Nike similarly sponsors other top basketball programs, The Oregonian/OregonLive found. But officials for those school districts did not initially provide records detailing those arrangements, claiming they did not know about them.
Portland Public Schools, for instance, repeatedly denied that Grant High School had an agreement with Nike. But after several weeks of questioning, Northfield, the district spokesman, confirmed that Nike provides 100 pairs of shoes for the boys and girls basketball programs.
A spokeswoman for Lake Oswego High School was similarly insistent that the basketball team did not have its own sponsorship agreement. In an email, Moses said: “There are no other signed agreements that exist between LOHS basketball and Nike. I have been totally forthcoming.”
But after additional questioning, Lake Oswego turned over its order form for Nike’s elite sponsorship program. The team ordered 15 pairs of shoes, 30 pairs of socks, 23 warm-ups and 15 bags for its players, as well as eight pairs of shoes and eight polo shirts for coaches.
Part of the confusion stems from the fact that Nike works directly with coaches at those schools. Each fall, Nike sends them an email with “all information about your sponsorship package,” including the specific allotment. In some cases, orders are shipped to the personal addresses of coaches, not to school facilities.
Wheeler, the Beaverton spokeswoman, said district administrators had not been aware of the individual team sponsorships until questioned by The Oregonian/OregonLive. She said high schools are authorized to make sponsorship deals, but those arrangements are not submitted to the district office.
Nike sponsors Westview’s girls and boys basketball teams, plus Southridge’s girls squad. In all, the players and coaches were allotted 78 pairs of shoes this season.
Nike teams typically receive a shoe called the Hyperdunk. It retails for $140.
Redmond is one of the few large public high schools in the state that doesn’t have a Nike deal. That’s on purpose.
Nike supplies uniforms for the other high school in the central Oregon town, Ridgeview, which opened in 2012. Redmond didn’t want to be like Ridgeview.
“We just wanted to brand ourselves a little bit differently, and Under Armour helped us do that,” said Tony Pupo, Redmond’s principal when the agreement was signed in 2016.
Redmond received a buy-one, get-one-free deal for football uniforms, with a maximum value of $10,500. It also gets $15 in free products for every $100 spent by the school or parents who buy booster merchandise with the Under Armour logo.
Nathan Stanley, Redmond’s former athletic director, said Under Armour’s sales representative visited the school three times a year. There were also plans for the school’s manufacturing class to partner with Under Armour for a project, he said.
“You’re not going to get that kind of attention” going with a different company, Stanley said.
Redmond and Reynolds, in Troutdale, are the only large Oregon schools with Under Armour deals.
Adidas made a play for Eugene and Roseburg schools in recent years but lost to Nike. It now has agreements with three high schools: Dallas, Grants Pass and Parkrose. Adidas gave its best deal to Grants Pass, offering $15,000 a year in gear plus buy-one, get-one-free football uniforms and a one-time, $5,000 “loyalty bonus.”
Tyler Norman saw the Nike machine coming. Eight years ago, the owner of McKenzie SewOn in Springfield had deals in place with about 20 high schools for team uniforms, he said. Back then, players still wore brands like Badger Sport or Russell Athletic.
But then Nike moved aggressively into team sports, forcing his branded-merchandise company out of that market. “We recognized that wasn’t a fight we could win,” Norman said.
Norman said it’s a smart strategy. A teen who wears a Nike football jersey at school, he said, is probably more likely to buy a sweatshirt with a Swoosh.
“Obviously, they’re one of the best marketing companies in the world,” he said, “so they must have a pretty good reason to do it.”
Only five large public high schools now remain untethered to any single apparel company.
Dennis Burke, athletic director at Wilsonville High School, said his coaches considered an all-school deal but decided to stick with a hodgepodge of brands instead. The football team wears Under Armour, the track team wears Adidas, the girls basketball team is in Nike while the boys basketball team plays in Adidas, he said.
The boys basketball team is coached by Chris Roche. He is listed in state records as the president of a company called Pacific Coast Athletics, which in the past has touted itself online as “Oregon’s premier Adidas team dealer.”
Burke said Wilsonville purchased from Roche’s business, but there was no conflict of interest. Roche declined to discuss the matter.
Burke acknowledged that Wilsonville could likely secure special discounts if it joined West Linn, the only other high school in the district, and agreed to an exclusive deal with Nike.
“We don’t get caught up in the thinking that we have to look a certain way,” he said, “based on all the other incentives that come.”
Even when Nike doesn’t roll out its biggest incentives, the most basic apparel agreement can be enticing.
Take David Douglas High School, the state’s most populous high school. Nearly three-quarters of the student body at the east Portland school qualify for free or reduced lunch.
David Douglas doesn’t get those buy-one, get-one-free uniform deals, or the other perks enjoyed by more successful programs. But Nike’s $15,000 credit goes a long way, nonetheless.
Last year, the school was able to buy 144 warm-ups and 88 jersey-and-short combos for its track and field team, records show. District officials expect those uniforms will last four years, a spokesman said.
It’s a similar story at Sandy High School, where the former athletic director arranged that fateful trade show back in 2016.
Lockett realized he could outfit athletes in apparel from marquee companies for the same price as generic uniforms, thanks to the incentives being offered. The school considered signing with Adidas or Under Armour but then Nike got involved.
Lockett created a spreadsheet to figure out which deal made the most financial sense. Ultimately, Sandy signed with Nike in July 2016.
Lockett didn’t stick around to see how it played out. That fall, he started a new job at Silverton High School, about 40 miles south of Portland.
By July 2017, Silverton had its own agreement. With Nike, just like Sandy.
Silverton’s agreement runs five years, giving the Foxes at least $75,000 toward the cost of uniforms and other apparel from Nike.
“I’ll be honest, I pushed for that,” said Lockett, now Silverton’s principal. “I want that deal.”
Information from: The Oregonian/OregonLive, http://www.oregonlive.com