March Madness: How the shoe company’s influence has been neutralized

By | April 3, 2024

For about 40 years, Nike and Adidas ran college basketball. They sponsored the teams. They paid the coaches. They filled out the rosters… through everything from running massive grassroots systems to identify and vet recruits to paying players to sign with their favorite “blue blood” programs.

Not surprisingly, their top teams dominated the game in general and March Madness in particular.

The past few Final Fours suggest that Nike and Adidas’ influence on on-court results is waning, at least to the point of the past.

A year after a Final Four with three new entrants (Florida Atlantic, Miami, San Diego State), here come three more that never were (Alabama), or ending long droughts dating back to 1983 (North Carolina State) and 1980 (Purdue). Each is built in ways that wouldn’t have made sense even five years ago.

Connecticut, meanwhile, is back and looking for back-to-back national championships, but despite a Nike deal, the shoe company has never had to rely heavily on recruiting. Under Dan Hurley, the Huskies, like Jim Calhoun before him, are a product of intense coaching and culture.

It begs the question: Has the confluence of the NIL, the FBI and the transfer portal combined to finally break Nike and Adidas’ decades-long stronghold on college basketball?

“It’s not what it used to be,” said one basketball intermediary. “The shoe companies have become second fiddle to NIL thinking.”

“Much less influence than before NIL,” said one college coach.

MEMPHIS, TN - MARCH 14: A general view of Adidas sneakers during a game between the Houston Cougars and the Louisville Cardinals during the semifinals of the American Athletic Conference Tournament at FedExForum on March 14, 2014 in Memphis, Tennessee.  (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)MEMPHIS, TN - MARCH 14: A general view of Adidas sneakers during a game between the Houston Cougars and the Louisville Cardinals during the semifinals of the American Athletic Conference Tournament at FedExForum on March 14, 2014 in Memphis, Tennessee.  (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

Setting up the pipeline

In 1977, a Nike consultant named Sonny Vaccaro offered then-UNLV head coach Jerry Tarkanian free sneakers and a $2,000 contract if he would allow his teams to wear the swoosh. Previously, UNLV, like any other college team, had to buy its players’ shoes. The concept was so shocking that Tark wondered if it was legal. It wasn’t just legal, it was genius.

Soon, Nike had college stars (and therefore future NBA stars) serving as cheap billboards for its product. It was a simple marketing game.

But over the decades, especially as apparel deals with schools surpassed the $100 million mark, shoe companies became wary of leaving their investments to chance. You don’t just hand out that kind of money and leave Final Four trips to simple luck.

So they activated (or protected) those deals.

The companies were already tapping into a web of company-sponsored AAU coaches in an effort to identify a potential NBA endorser — the next Michael, Kobe or LeBron — as early as possible. Now they used those same people to provide recruiting access through company-run all-star camps and national tournaments.

When necessary, as a 2017 FBI investigation into the sport made clear, they gave money under the table to parents and used middlemen to send the best players to their schools. The pipeline was established: maintain control of the lottery picks by moving them through the system, with the college game positioned midway between AAU ball and the NBA.

Yet it went deeper than just the superstars, although they clearly helped. Shoe companies would even pay borderline talent to surround elite players with what was needed for deep tournament runs.

Take the case of Brian Bowen Jr., a top-50 recruit in the Class of 2017. He was very good, but hardly a major NBA prospect or a future signature shoe guy. Yet it was revealed during a 2018 federal trial that Adidas agreed to pay Bowen’s family $100,000 to let him attend Louisville, and send a reliable perimeter scorer to a school that had signed it to a nine-figure endorsement deal.

Much was made of whether Louisville’s coaches were aware of the scheme. Rick Pitino (like every other college coach) claimed he had no knowledge. A lot of eyes were rolled at that, but in reality, none of it mattered. Even if Pitino didn’t know it, the deal still got done.

It was a testament to how the old system worked: Adidas was trying to manipulate the sport because, as you would say, Nike was also manipulating it for its top schools.

The result was a fairly predictable parade; many of the same old schools won championships, or at least advanced far in the tournament. No, not all. And no, it wasn’t all Nike. It wasn’t all Adidas. There are too many variables for that: coaching, hard work, luck, etc.

However, it certainly didn’t hurt to have them. Just ask any rival coach stuck on the outside – even within the Nike family there were arguments over the pecking order of who got what. You always prefer better recruits.

But now?

UConn guard Tristen Newton (2) celebrates with teammates as he retires from San Diego State during the second half of the Sweet 16 college basketball game in the men's NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 28, 2024, in Boston.  (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)UConn guard Tristen Newton (2) celebrates with teammates as he retires from San Diego State during the second half of the Sweet 16 college basketball game in the men's NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 28, 2024, in Boston.  (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

The gatekeepers are gone

The sample size remains small, but growing. College basketball has never seen such parity — even UConn lost three times this season.

Name, image and likeness allow schools (or their boosters) to make deals directly and legally with players and their families. No need for AAU access. No monopoly on shoe company. And that includes parents, who can talk directly to school collectives without being blackmailed for violating NCAA rules. That has limited the power of Nike and Adidas coaches and executives.

Now that everyone is able to pay, the market has exploded, driving rates up. Even an Atlantic 10 starter could fetch $200,000 these days.

Additionally, in 2017, the FBI arrested ten men following a multi-year investigation into college basketball corruption. All were convicted and four served time in prison. That included Adidas executives and advisors, who effectively put a stop to any nefarious activity there and sent a chilling message to Nike, which somehow went unaddressed. No one wants to go to jail for this.

And finally, there’s the transfer portal, which has changed the way rosters are built. Finding proven and experienced upperclassmen is now more valuable than über-talented but raw freshmen.

“The transfer portal is the biggest deal these days,” said one college coach.

UConn, for example, is enjoying renewed success in the tournament despite losing five of the top eight players from last year’s national championship team. The Huskies only have one player (freshman Stephon Castle) who was a top-50 recruit out of high school and their two top scorers originally played for East Carolina and Loyola-Maryland.

The top three Alabama scorers are transfers from Ohio, Hofstra and North Dakota State. NC State’s big man was from Winthrop. Purdue has age, experience, continuity – plus 7-foot-1 Zach Edey, who was passed over by the sport’s elite coming out of high school.

Perhaps not coincidentally, three of the coaches (Hurley, Alabama’s Nate Oats and NC State’s Kevin Keatts) cut their teeth at the high school level, where systems must change from season to season due to roster turnover. The fourth coach, Matt Painter of Purdue, is only in his 20th season at the college level and has led good but never really great teams until (coincidentally?) the last few years.

It would be foolish to say that the “bluebloods” will never win or dominate again. They still have enormous resources and fan bases. They can and will adapt.

And maybe this is just a fluff: Programs from major conferences to mid-majors that never before had a great shot at the Final Fours suddenly do. Barriers have fallen. It’s no longer about rounding up top 10 recruits and pretending they all came because they were impressed by the campus architecture.

Many college coaches, administrators and commissioners still bemoan the evils of the NIL and the portal, but their fear-mongering that it would lead to the “rich getting richer” and upset the competitive balance of the sport has proven comical. and predictable) wrong so far.

It’s the exact opposite.

Compiling schedules is undoubtedly more chaotic. More players make more money. Change is constant.

But was it somehow better if a few shoe companies kept their fingers on the scale?

Weren’t those the rich who stayed richer?

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