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Even for kids, it's the shoes

 

By Dustin Dow

Cincinnati Enquirer

December 1, 2007

 

The newest sports marketing heroes are not part of an overt Madison Avenue advertising campaign.

Instead they are high school football players who will compete today for a state high school football championship in Canton. The players represent St. Xavier High School, the No. 1 team in Ohio and among the top five in the nation. And, thanks to the logo on their uniforms, they also serve as teenage billboards for Nike.

St. Xavier, Colerain and Elder high schools in Ohio are at the center of a growing trend to commercialize high school sports. No longer are shoe companies and apparel makers sponsoring just college and pro teams - they've moved down the ranks to high schools.

While the schools' affiliation with athletic companies is saving them thousands of dollars in uniform and equipment costs, administrators are concerned about using high school athletes as walking advertisements.

Nike has identified high school football as an emerging battleground for building brand loyalty.

The company has a $678.4 million advertising budget, according to the trade publication Advertising Age. But instead of reaching into high school locker rooms with slick ads, it's advertising by offering free and discounted products to select teams.

The company is in its second season of aggressively targeting schools in five football-loving states such as Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio, where the company is entering into informal pacts.

This year Nike also sponsored a clinic at Highlands High School in September before the Kirk Herbstreit Ohio vs. USA Challenge.

Nike representative C.J. Back said it's all about targeting the next generation of consumers.

"High school football is the pinnacle of what we think football is all about," he said. "We hope we build a relationship with student-athletes and students in that St. X community where they continue to want to buy Nike products as they evolve into young adults."

The bidding is so competitive that Nike lured Colerain away from adidas after last season. Nike failed to recruit Elder away from its relationship with the apparel company Under Armour.

It's a ruthless industry, said David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California's Sports Business Institute.

"High school football has become national and has the look and feel that these manufacturers really like," Carter said. "Maybe high school sports is where college sports was 20 years ago. It's no longer grass roots."

St. Xavier and Colerain, both nationally ranked, are two of the four teams in Ohio and about 35 across the country that have agreements with Nike.

St. Xavier coach Steve Specht said the relationship allows him to outfit his 140-man team at a cost of $5,000, instead of $35,000.

"If they think enough about St. Xavier High School to use us as one of their premier schools, I'm proud of that," Specht said. "Sure, it does bother me if our kids are being used as marketers, but Nike has treated us with tremendous respect."

At St. Xavier, the Nike agreement is limited to the football and lacrosse teams, and is informal.

Back said this eased concerns about students being used as marketing tools, an important concession for St. Xavier athletic director John Sullivan.

"They presented us with an actual contract," Sullivan said, "but we didn't want that because I think there's a danger of over-commercializing high school sports. We had very serious conversations about the commercialization at this level and how it can get out of whack."

The agreements at Elder and Colerain are also informal.

The Archdiocese of Greater Cincinnati owns Elder and prohibits official sponsorship deals. Elder's agreement with Under Armour saves the athletic department $20,000-$30,000 in football uniform expenses, but it's not a contract.

"More like a handshake agreement," said Elder athletic director Dave Dabbelt.

Elder began wearing Under Armour gear such as wrist bands and undergarments six years ago after the school's stadium was featured in USA Today. A photo with the story showed a player wearing an Under Armour shirt, so the company began sending free products.

Elder now is one of about 20 high schools nationwide to play in Under Armour uniforms.

Dabbelt said he resisted Nike's overtures out of a sense of loyalty to Under Armour.

"Plus, the uniqueness of Under Armour is another thing," Dabbelt said. "You see a lot of Nike around. In Under Armour's case, they've got our high school kids wearing it, then grade school kids go out and buy it."

Colerain, a public school, also has an informal agreement with Nike. A formal contract would require school board approval.

But Colerain's athletic department is self-sufficient thanks to football revenue, so it can keep its informal agreement with Nike within the athletic department.

"We don't spend school-board-approved, taxpayer dollars on uniforms that get exposure for Nike," said Colerain athletic director Dan Bolden.

The perks for schools goes beyond discounted gear.

Nike holds an annual high school football summit in Portland, Ore., in which it flies in several top high school coaches who listen to product pitches at Nike headquarters.

In September, Nike officials came to Cincinnati to meet the Colerain coaches, and let players test future products such as new balls and gear. Nike did similar exercises at Highlands High School in Fort Thomas and at St. X.

The economic value for Nike and other apparel companies is not quantifiable to a specific dollar. But it's a lucrative enterprise, said Eric Wright, an analyst with the advertising consultant Joyce Julius & Associates.

"While this approach has a limited reach," Wright wrote in an e-mail, "the individual impact these brands are making is potentially much more significant in building brand loyalty with this type of micro-sponsorship."

It's working. In the spring issue of the Elder newspaper, student council president and football player Joe Meyer wrote, "I want to bring back the pride and excitement that Elder used to have. That's why I wear Under Armour out on the weekends, so people know where I go to school ... Elder, baby!"

Carter, at Southern California, wasn't surprised. "There used to be a lot of reluctance for schools to accept these kinds of sponsorship agreements," he said. "Now, the manufacturers are able to rely on high school kids to market their brand for the next generation."
 

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