The “Ceiling is the Roof” as the Jordan Brand Continues to Grow

With the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend in the books, we now have only 16 teams remaining to compete for the coveted national championship, starting this evening. Given the tournament’s enormous exposure, it not only represents a branding opportunity for the participating schools, but the apparel providers that outfit the programs on the court. Out of the 16 teams remaining, Nike once again dominates the market by outfitting 12 of those teams, with adidas and Under Armour both with 2 each.

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However, within their 12-outfitted programs, two of the Nike schools on this list are underneath the company’s Jordan Brand, North Carolina (MJ’s alma mater) and Michigan (in their first season under the Jordan brand). The 2016 calendar year, along with the beginning of 2017, has been a year that has seen the Jordan brand expand beyond just the basketball court and seemingly looking to break away from being just another Nike in-brand.

Let’s start with the most recent and biggest move the brand has made in the last year… Moving into the sport of Football.

It began in July of 2015, when it was first announced that Michigan would not be renewing their apparel contract with adidas and were returning to the Nike brand that were partners with the Wolverines from 1994-2007. This was seen as a huge coup for Nike to take back such a prominent collegiate brand and excited the Wolverines’ fan base that were starting to question the adidas brand as the school’s “maize” began to become a much brighter yellow.

One month later, an announcement on Twitter rocked the Sports Business world as Michael Jordan himself announced that Michigan Football was going to feature the “Jumpman” logo once the Nike deal was in place on August 1, 2016. Before this announcement, the Jordan brand had not been appeared within any prominent sports setting other than a basketball court. Analysts began to ponder why Nike would make a move like this now with the Jordan brand? Could this be the beginning of an expanded use of the brand?

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After the Michigan deal was announced, more and more Jordan brand deals began to come to fruition. Brazilian soccer/futbol star Neymar became the first player in the sport to partner with Jordan. In a sport that is dominated by two clothing brands and led by the sponsorships of Cristiano Ronaldo-Nike and Lionel Messi-adidas, this partnership could be considered the most notable non-Nike or non-adidas within the globally loved sport. The brand then celebrated the new partnership by releasing a special edition Brazil jersey, with the Jumpman logo emblazoned where the Nike swoosh would be.

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We also saw a bit of Jordan in Major League Baseball this year, specifically in the playoffs and on the feet of the Cubs breakout star Javier Baez. The picture below show Baez and his Air Jordan 1 baseball shoes, in Game 1 of the NLDS, where his solo homerun helped the Cubs to a 1-0 victory over the San Francisco Giants. For the remainder of the postseason, his flamboyant style of play and shoe choice became a talking point among league followers and furthered the Jordan brand’s reach across a sport other than basketball.

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But back to the aforementioned Michigan deal, as once the football season began, the Jordan-Michigan partnership began to reap its benefits. The Jumpman logo featured prominently on the uniforms, sideline polos and equipment and of course, head coach Jim Harbaugh. Derek Jeter, the former New York Yankees shortstop and Jordan brand partner, had his “RE2PECT” sloganed shirts given to Wolverine players. MJ himself was the honorary captain of the Wolverines in the season opener.

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The partnership was bringing an incredible amount of notoriety and publicity to the program in just the first few weeks. It even spawned another Nike in-house brand to enter the football market, when Lebron James and his “King 23” brand designed football cleats for Ohio State University before its encounter with Michigan, adding another wrinkle into the already contentious rivalry.

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Now, with the success of partnering with their first football program, Jordan appears to be slowly looking into expanding further. Earlier this month, the brand announced that they would be partnering with his alma mater’s football program, North Carolina, confirming that the brand is looking to build on their success with Michigan. MJ joined UNC personnel and staff to make the announcement during halftime of the Duke-North Carolina game on March 4th, the scene of his now infamous quote of “The Ceiling is the Roof”.

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This is a move that indicates to the market that the Jordan brand is a rising star in the industry. The fact that Michael himself is involved with all of these announcements is a strong statement that he wants “Jumpman” to become as iconic as the Nike brand that launched it. His competitiveness and need to be the best shows me that he may intend on having his brand break out on its own, potentially adding a fourth competitor to the “Big Three” of Nike, adidas and Under Armour.

Now, with both Michigan and North Carolina in Sweet 16 matchups tonight and tomorrow, the Jordan brand will be front and center with two of the top stories in this year’s tournament. It is also a great excuse for CBS/TBS to talk about the brand’s expansion and growth this past year. Now just imagine if both of these schools make it to the Final Four…

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The Final Four – NIKE Wins Again!

They have done it again! Nike is on top of the College Sports world for another prime postseason feature.

Once again another NCAA “final four” is going to be going to be dominated by the Nike Swoosh. In fact, Nike is dominating the entire College Basketball landscape this weekend as they are represented by all four participants in the Women’s Final Four as well! But this write-up will only focus on the Men’s Final Four because let’s face it… UCONN will win in Indianapolis and we all know it.

North Carolina, Oklahoma and Villanova were all considered to be contenders to make it to Houston this year, given that all three were ranked #1 in the country at some point this season. Syracuse was just lucky to have even gotten into the tournament, but clearly took advantage of their fortune and the upsets all around their Midwest Region.

Nike was definitely dancing for joy as for the first time since their three-year streak from 2009-2011, the Final Four consists of Nike clients. In fact, in what will be the 16th time in the last 19 years, Nike is guaranteed to be the apparel provider of the College Basketball National Champion. The only exemptions are Louisville in ’13, Kansas in ’08 and Michigan State in 2000… And they are now one of Nike’s biggest clients anyway!

This will only be the second time that a team under the Jordan brand has made the Final Four, in North Carolina. Obviously, the fact that Michael Jordan went to UNC is a big reason why his brand is the “provider” of the Tar Heels apparel (in basketball at least) and obviously his likeness will be a permanent feature at the university for years to come.

But if you recall from my last podcast, the previous Jordan Brand team that made the Final Four had a significant redesign in store once they took the floor at the Final Four. However, North Carolina has a bit more brand notoriety and power than Wichita State. They have a brand that is recognizable throughout the country, thanks to the Carolina Blue, the unique argyle design and the history that the school has in this game. I don’t expect a new uniform for the Tar Heels in Houston.

Syracuse is a team that has a brand that is recognizable throughout the College Basketball landscape. A unique color scheme, legendary coach, incredible consistency and a fat Nike contract are just to name a couple things that gives the Orange their clout. This year, they have reached their sixth Final Four under Jim Boeheim, but this year was probably the most surprising not only for being a 10 Seed, but given that they were suspended from postseason play last year due to many NCAA violations.

The other semifinal pits two schools that are trying to receive more notoriety in different ways. Oklahoma has maybe the best player in the country in Buddy Hield, but even this Final Four run alone can’t change the fact that the Sooners are a football school. While it does have the distinction of reaching the “Final Four” of both major men’s sports playoffs, most people will recognize their football accomplishments first. It’s kind of like when Michigan made it in 2013, LSU in 2006 or Texas in 2003… You get the point. Fans say, “Oh yeah! We did do that.” But they don’t remember it too much because they didn’t win the National Championship. In my opinion, for the Sooners basketball brand to elevate their status to a level similar to their football program, they’ll need to win the National Championship.

Villanova is a team and brand that is known for their Basketball program, but mainly because they have not reached nationally known status. In fact, not all of Villanova’s sports programs compete at the Division 1-A level. Their football team for example actually plays in Division 1-AA and even though the team won a Division National Championship in 2009, I don’t know if anyone past the local Philadelphia area even knows about that program! In fact, without a significant football program, you could say that the Wildcats brand as a whole does not have a brand resonance beyond this region. While the basketball team has won a National Title (1985) and made a Final Four in 2009, but this could very well be ‘Nova’s coming out party for this modern era.

If you look on Nike’s website, the Wildcats have the fewest amount of goods available out of the Final Four teams. This would change if the Wildcats were able to pull off a victory not only in the National Semifinal, but in the title game as well! A national championship can led to leverage for a renegotiated contract with Nike that could bring the Wildcats to national coverage and advertising by the brand, and with Kyle Lowry’s success in Toronto, there is a potential new face for Nike to use.

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In short, this Final Four is simply another showcase for Nike and their brand. The question is whether it will be a standard bearer like North Carolina or can a smaller brand like Villanova begin an ascension national recognition.

UPDATE: So, as it seems like the script is following my last sentence above. Tonight, it will be the National Brand Name in North Carolina versus the Regionally prominent Villanova. If the Wildcats can defeat the powerhouse brand that the Tar Heels represent, I believe it will start an entire summer of the school becoming a focus of campaigns by the NCAA and Nike. Space on the Nike website and social media pages, maybe Kyle Lowry being the face of Nike’s new “Always Reppin” college campaign, etc… will be in their future. The question is can they take advantage of this golden opportunity, for their team, their school and their brand!