The Fresh Prince of LA is leveraging his Swoosh sponsorship for one of college basketball’s first player-led launches at retail. Is it a sign of more to come?
Bronny James is in class, in season, and in stores.
The famous freshman at the University of Southern California is not just an acclaimed recruit and son of The Chosen One but also among Nike Basketball’s inaugural class of NIL athletes. Since signing with the Swoosh as a senior at Sierra Canyon in 2022, he’s double-downed on his Beaverton brand loyalty by balling for the Nike-endorsed school down the road.
Since 1993, the USC basketball team has been outfitted by the Oregon-based company, dressing the likes of Lisa Leslie, DeMar DeRozan, and Nick Young. While each amateur athlete went on to ink sneaker deals with the Swoosh as pros, the NIL era and family ties have made James Jr. a shoo-in to work with the $156 billion brand in an official capacity.
Today, the partnership bears fruit in the form of his No. 6 Trojans jersey being released at retail with his historic name and number on the back.
Following a short-sleeved t-shirt of the same styling that sold out immediately at Nike, this is a first for the Swoosh in college hoops and a quick-turn test on scaling a business.
Notably, this $90 replica jersey triples the price point of the $30 tee.
Currently sold at Dick’s Sporting Goods in both home and away styles, the NIL Nike jersey is a big step for Bronny and his Swoosh sponsor. Historically, rules around amateurism have allowed big brands to sell jerseys worn by popular players in the NCAA ranks without their names attached and all the money split between the brand, vendor, and school.
This season, Nike’s new approach to NIL in the hoops space has both Bronny James and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark cashing in on their likeness. It may seem simple, but it’s more nuanced than one might think.
In recent years, female hoopers have led the charge in the NIL sneaker space. What few have had is synergy with their school sponsor.
Azzi Fudd, Flau’jae Johnson, Angel Reese, and Hailey Van Lith all have strong social followings and impressive footwear deals. However, all the above-mentioned stars have signed shoe contracts with brands that do not outfit their universities.
This savvy yet disruptive approach allows private labels such as Urban Champs, ProSphere, and the Retro Brand to produce replica jerseys, but not in one-to-one fashion like that of Nike, Adidas, or Under Armour, who outfit teams.
In 2023, Nike may have found the through line for being everywhere at once.
Stars such as James Jr. and Clark can endorse both licensed fan gear and performance footwear not just on social media but also in televised games that tip the scale. Such was seen in the 2023 NCAA Women’s Championship Game, in which Iowa and LSU brought in 9.9 million viewers.
Clark, who also signed with Nike in 2022, is both a catalyst and recipient for much of this movement.
This year, Clark is embarking on her fourth season at Iowa, allowing a fanfare and NIL presence that’s grown over time.
Notably, her viral tournament run amplified her notoriety both IRL in Iowa and around the world online. Her passionate personality and aspirational game make her the focal point of Nike’s NIL efforts in the women’s game, though she’s not alone.
In accordance with Bronny and Caitlin, recent Nike NIL signees Paige Bueckers and JuJu Watkins will also have their jerseys sold this season. Each athlete plays at a Swoosh-sponsored school, allowing such an opportunity to occur.
Additionally, Jordan Brand NIL athlete Kiki Rice is seeing her jersey sold thanks to playing at the Jumpman-endorsed UCLA. Down the road from Kiki in LA, Bronny brings a fanfare that’s still slightly different from his NIL peers.
Aside from televised outings, Bronny boasts 7.6 million Instagram followers and a storybook narrative. His NIL opportunities are endless, not only wearing the family name on his back but the family brand on his feet.
To top it all off, he does so in Los Angeles, a “college town” with over 18.5 million residents surrounding his school’s quaint campus. While the USC Trojans may compete with the UCLA Bruins for local fanfare, the market Bronny plays in dwarfs that of other NCAA programs and most NBA teams at that.
The fact that Bronny could either pop as a freshman or stay for multiple seasons both build equity in his NIL brand. In college, continuity is king — or queen.
Across the arena, female college athletes have ascended in the NIL space not just due to prolific play but also the fact that WNBA age requirements keep the best players in school for multiple seasons. This rule, right or wrong, does allow athletes to connect on campus and on television for years at a time.
There was an era when this trend influenced both fanfare and fan gear in the men’s game.
Thirty years ago, the Nike basketball boom began officially when the Swoosh signed the University of North Carolina to a four-year, $4.7 million endorsement deal. A year later, the University of Michigan followed suit, signing with Nike for a six-year deal worth $8 million.
At that time, The Washington Post reported that NCAA schools generated $2.5 billion in retail product sales.
All the while, Nike NCAA basketball jerseys were proliferating programs across the country and reaching the backs of A-list celebrities. You could catch 2Pac sporting a Jeff Capel No. 5 Duke jersey or Ma$e making money in an Antwan Jamison No. 33 UNC tank.
While one would see Nike embroidered on the front of each jersey, they wouldn’t see the player’s surname who made it popular on the back. This reflected the earnings on the product and in each paid party’s bank account.
As sales soared and unofficial endorsements made millions for big brands and large schools, the numbers only increased.
By 1997, North Carolina renewed their Swoosh sponsorship by signing on with Nike for another $11.6 million over five years. The trend continued among programs even as college jerseys took a backseat in pop culture. In 2019, Michigan announced a deal with Nike and Jordan Brand worth $169 million over the course of 15 years.
At that time, it was reported as the richest deal in all college sports. Only four years later, times have changed in some sense, considering the advent of NIL and the rise of roundball’s royal family. Interestingly enough, the irony of the Nike NIL basketball jersey is its arrival on the back of an already financially secure star.
In a sense, Bronny becomes the trojan horse at USC, ushering in an era of potential player profit if this retail release registers with fans. It’s undoubtedly an opportunity undersized and underserved college stars such as Mateen Cleaves or Ed Cota would’ve loved when they cut down nets and covered magazines.
Although NIL deals from footwear companies seem shrewd and select in their infancy, it’s an opportunity to test the waters for brands and ballers alike. The quick printing logistics of basketball jerseys, the rise of social media shopping, and the foothold of campus spirit stores provide pathways to see if a co-branded business model actually exists.
From headphones to footwear, NIL has been big bread for athletes on the rise. Even so, the enormous market of licensed fan gear has gone overlooked in an official capacity because the brands, brand partners, and school sponsorships rarely align.
As Bronny James partakes in USC’s season opener on Monday night, the stars will align where dollars and dunks are concerned. Even so, there’s still uncertainty about whether he will start or come off the bench for his first college game.
What is certain is that he won’t be the only one in the arena wearing a No. 6 jersey, blessed by his name on the back and a Swoosh on the chest.
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