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The $300 Million Michigan vs. Washington Sneaker War

Jordan Brand’s Big 10 behemoth and Adidas’ West Coast kingpin are going toe-to-toe in historic fashion. Boardroom breaks down the unprecedented apparel battle.

On Monday night, the Michigan Wolverines and Washington Huskies face off in Houston for the College Football Championship.

Back in Portland, much more is at stake.

For the first time ever, Jordan Brand and Adidas will battle head-to-head for football bragging rights. Despite the Swoosh subsidiary’s start on the Chicago courts and the German juggernaut’s soccer pitch prominence, both billion-dollar brands have invested hundreds of millions in American football.

Since reuniting with Nike, Inc. in 2015 for a then record-setting $169 million deal, the Jumpman-branded Michigan football team has won four division titles and made the College Football Playoffs three times.

photo by Will Lester/MediaNews Group/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin via Getty Images

On Monday night, the Wolverines have a chance to hoist the national title trophy for the first time since 1997 — the same year Charles Woodson won the Heisman trophy and the same year Nike introduced Jordan Brand.

Across the gridiron, the stakes are just as high.

In 2019, the Washington Huskies left a long-term partnership with Nike in favor of $119 million from Adidas. Since then, they’ve won two division titles and find themselves in the national title game for the first time since 1991.

Just the same, Adidas is back in the conversation with college football’s best for the first time since Tee Martin led Tennessee in 1998.

Over the last quarter century, it’s been an uphill battle for both brands trying to gain traction in the amateur trenches.

For decades, Nike has dominated the Saturday sport, absolutely owning the college game to the tune of outfitting 23 of the last 24 National Championship teams. The lone exception during said stint was Under Armour, sneaking in a single title by way of Cam Newton and an Auburn deal then valued at over $36 million.

via Adidas

In a playoff landscape loaded with sizeable schools and lucrative fan bases, the No. 2 and No. 3 footwear companies in the world have already upset No. 1 Nike.

In last week’s semi-final, Michigan dethroned an Alabama squad backed by a $63 million Nike deal — one validated by six national titles in the Nick Saban era.

Later that night, Washington did their part as they defeated a Texas team that possesses a $250 million partnership with Nike — once reported to be the biggest deal in collegiate athletics history.

So, just what does Monday night’s matchup mean to the most powerful executives in sportswear? Boardroom breaks down the game within the game.

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Midwest Swing

Throughout its 25-year history, few endorsement deals have paid off for Jordan Brand as well as that of the Michigan Wolverines.

While signature shoe deals with Carmelo Anthony and b-ball buildouts for Cincinnati have kept the legacy line young and relevant since MJ’s retirement, the brand’s big-picture vision to expand beyond basketball is crystalized on a mass scale by that of The Victors.

photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In 2015 when Jordan signed Michigan away from Adidas, the Jumpman umbrella entered the wild world of college football by way of a ravenous fanbase rich with history.

The returns were immediate.

“One thing that jumps out is the whole Michigan deal,” Jordan Brand chairman Larry Miller told Boardroom in 2022. “That helped us move the needle when it came to football because up to that point, we had football athletes that were signed but our logo couldn’t show up on the NFL field. When the Michigan deal happened, that opened up the idea of Jordan Brand on the football field.”

photo by Will Lester/MediaNews Group/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin via Getty Images

While the Air Jordan empire had long-laced NFL superstars such as Randy Moss, Warren Sapp, and Terrell Owens, inking the Ann Arbor institution meant more than signing on a traditional talent or even a mega-market team.

“Michigan was a perfect match for what they represent and what we brought to the table,” Miller said. “The first weekend that we launched, MJ and all of us were out there. On that weekend, they sold more products at the bookstore than they had the whole year before.”

Since the days of Desmond Howard, the University of Michigan has remained resident in the top ten merchandise sales among schools, ascending in recent years thanks to prominent programs on the gridiron and a loyal base beyond its college town corridors.

Simultaneously, the parallel rise of Jordan Brand as not just a footwear purveyor but a lifestyle brand in both a fashion and licensed sense has only added buzz to the multi-million dollar union.

To see both the block ‘M’ and Jumpman logo on National Championship t-shirts, hats, and hoodies, Jim Harbaugh and Jordan will have to take down an undefeated squad from Seattle.

West Coast Bias

For 20 years, the University of Washington was a Nike school.

Located 180 miles from the Beaverton brand’s campus, the Huskies sported the Swoosh, outfitting the likes of Budda Baker, Corey Dillon, and Lawyer Milloy. The Swoosh was synonymous with Washington’s purple and gold until only years ago.

In 2019, Adidas spent $119 million on making the Huskies their West Coast flagship.

photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

No longer outfitting UCLA and having an extra $80 million freed up thanks to Michigan jumping ship, the Three Stripes sought UW to restore order for the brand in their US backyard of the Pacific Northwest. Thus far, the big bet has been worthwhile on the field as the Huskies have gone 40-16 in Adidas.

Timing, as they say, is everything as Adidas arrived at Husky Stadium right on the eve of NIL and transfer portal prospect Michael Penix Jr.

Already an Adidas athlete by way of playing previously at the Three Stripes-sponsored Indiana University, the star quarterback hit the ground running at Washington, leading the FBS in passing yards in 2022.

That single season in Seattle proved enough for Adidas to invest even more green in purple when they signed Penix the following fall as the brand’s first football student-athlete endorser.

via Adidas

“I couldn’t be happier to be teaming up with the Adidas family, I’ve been in the Three Stripes my entire college career,” Penix said in a statement at the time. “I’m appreciative of their investment in my university, my teammates, and myself.”

Joined in NIL royalty by his favorite target, Huskie wideout Rome Odunze, Penix Jr. and his teammate both balled out in their first official season as individual Adidas athletes, climbing NFL draft boards while seeing their purple Adidas jerseys sold at student bookstores.

Though Washington may lack the national fanfare and apparel sales of its opponent across the field on Monday, they have something Michigan does not: three future first-round picks projected to make major noise on Sundays.

For the Huskies, it all starts and ends with Penix.

For both brands, the battle in the trenches has been taking place for decades before the Monday night matchup.

Eye for an Eye

As idealized in big-screen fashion by Ben Affleck, Adidas infamously missed out on Michael Jordan in 1984, paving the way for Nike to become the $162 billion brand it is today.

While that battle was lost in the boardroom and thus the basketball court, the Swoosh’s massive market share has allowed them to own sportswear across categories, namely college football as seen by the last 25 years of dominance.

On Monday night, the Phil Knight proper will not be represented in Swoosh styling thanks to Washington defeating Texas and Michigan magnifying the Jumpman logo.

The sliding doors scenario of Mike not joining Adidas in ’84 and Michigan leaving the Three Stripes in 2015 all set the stage for the brand battles that took place in 2023 and show no signs of cooling down in 2024.

In August 2023, Statista published data stating that Jordan had leaped Adidas as the second most popular footwear brand regarding global market share.

Across categories, Jordan Brand’s big bet on youth, fashion, and, yes, even football, had paid off in a big way on a global scale. MJ’s empire posted a career-high in revenue, racking up $6.6 billion on the way to overtaking Adidas.

Despite the Three Stripes coming in third, the brand was not without wins.

In November 2023, Adidas CEO Bjørn Gulden turned the Footwear News Awards into The Source Awards. Stepping on stage to accept honors for the Adidas Samba winning Shoe of the Year, the man in the Stripes sent out shots.

“To the people from Nike here: Watch out,” Gulden warned. “We have a lot in the pipeline.”

Following Gulden’s swipe at the Swoosh, Jordan Brand quickly proved their brother’s keeper.

“I want to say to the brands and folks that called us out earlier: Bring it on,” Jordan Brand chairman Larry Miller retorted. “We’re ready for you.”

SIGN UP FOR BOARDROOM’S SNEAKER GAME

A biweekly email from industry authority Nick DePaula packed with exclusive sneaker news and access to the athletes, designers, and executives that move the business.

On Monday night, the battle between the basketball brand and fútbol force will enter a new arena.

It’s an odd twist in a 40-year rivalry that’s touched Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing, Landon Donovan and David Beckham, and even Pusha-T and Drake.

It’s a chance for two titans that have fought over the No. 2 spot for the last decade to become No. 1 in a space neither know as native.

It’s a war in which no exec will take a single snap, but all employees will take personally.

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