STUDENT ATHLETES SNEAKERS & FASHION

Howard University Reaches Rare Air With Breakthrough Jordan Brand Deal

Howard Bison athletic teams will wear the iconic Jumpman as part of a landmark moment for HBCU athletics. Boardroom has the exclusive details.

Multiple sources have confirmed to Boardroom that Howard University will sign a school-wide deal with Jordan Brand to outfit the Bison athletic department’s teams for their upcoming seasons.

The new pact is the Jumpman’s first comprehensive venture back into the land of HBCUs since signing an HBCU as one of its original three “Jordan schools,” when the Nike subsidiary began to ink collegiate sponsorship deals in 1997.

Howard will soon join the University of North Carolina, UCLA, Michigan, Georgetown, Marquette, San Diego State, Houston, Oklahoma, and Florida as Jordan-branded collegiate athletic departments.

Jordan-sponsored NCAA teams recently received rare Air Jordan IV PEs

Howard has an active deal with Under Armour that is set to expire later this summer. Sources told Boardroom that the new deal with Jordan Brand will not affect the unique pact the university has with Stephen Curry’s signature Curry Brand, that provides Bison golf with resources, equipment, apparel, shoes, and other gear.

The Washington, DC institution is currently in its fourth year of receiving funding from Curry, who made a sizable cash donation to the school back in 2019 to fund the re-launch of its Division I men’s and women’s golf programs. Curry’s multi-year pledge has since seen both Bison teams outfitted in exclusive Curry Brand uniforms as the label’s premier collegiate golf partner.

Stephen Curry in Washington, DC at the launch of Howard University’s golf programs in Washington, DC, 2019 (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

When Michael Jordan collaborated with Nike, Inc. to launch Jordan Brand in 1997 — then known as Brand Jordan in its first inception — he tapped three collegiate programs to sport his namesake apparel. Along with St. Johns and Cincinnati, one of those schools was North Carolina A&T University, a historically Black institution in Greensboro, North Carolina previously attended by Michael’s brother, Larry Jordan, in their home state.

Signed in 1997, the deal lasted six years until the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference inked a new pact with Russell Athletic in 2003, ending NCAT’s relationship with Jordan Brand. The university and Nike eventually picked up where they left off in 2016, when the school reunited with the Swoosh.

Now, 300 miles up the road in the nation’s capital, a new era begins.

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How the Bison Got its Swoosh

A trail of HBCU crumbs leads to the news of these two enduring names coming together.

Earlier this month, Jordan Brand appointed Shannon Watkins, Aflac’s former Chief Brand and Marketing Officer, as Jordan’s Global CMO. Watkins engineered Aflac’s partnership with ESPN’s College GameDay, while guiding the insurance company to multiple sponsorship pacts with Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Watkins, a graduate of Nashville HBCU Fisk University, brought on Jackson State head football coach Deion Sanders for Aflac’s 2021 fall football campaign, as part of a committed effort to spotlight HBCUs. On the basketball side, Aflac sponsored the first-ever HBCU All-Star Game during Final Four weekend.

Meanwhile, Nike, Inc. was already strengthening its own HBCU bonds before Watkins’ arrival:

  • In 2019, Craig Williams, a graduate of South Carolina HBCU Benedict College, was named President of Jordan Brand.
  • In March 2021, Florida A&M University (FAMU) athletics announced a six-year apparel partnership with the Swoosh, a pact that will see the Rattlers outfitted in LeBron James signature-branded uniforms, apparel and footwear.
  • Nike also pledged an additional $3.3 million in commercial commitments to the university and began building out an internship pipeline to secure corporate opportunities for FAMU students at the company’s headquarters.

As it relates to Howard, multiple alumni contributed to Nike’s HBCU-centric Yardrunners program that launched in 2020. In its first edition, Yardrunners identified 100 HBCU students and alumni who “displayed dedication to their craft, [and] the drip they display and devotion to their HBCU is undeniable,” as noted by HBCU Buzz. In November 2021, Nike further enhanced Yardrunners by tapping Howard alumnus Arinze Emeagwali to lead the effort and recruiting Texas Southern alumna Megan Thee Stallion to join the initiative as well.

The agency behind the Yardrunners 2.0 program was League Twenty Two, a creative services company founded by Howard grad Ashley Henderson. The company is also responsible for Nike’s recent photoshoot celebrating its partnership with LeBron James and FAMU. As part of the Yardrunners program, Nike pledged $10 million in scholarships and academic partnerships to increase the number of interns and direct hires from HBCU and Hispanic-serving institutions.

CP3’s Big Assist

Sources explained to Boardroom that Phoenix Suns All-Star Chris Paul has pushed particularly hard behind the scenes to get HBCUs under the Jordan Brand umbrella. The future Hall of Famer signed with the Jumpman back in 2006 and remains one of the brand’s signature athletes today. When the MEAC and Southwestern Athletic Conference’s (SWAC) deals with Russell Athletic respectively expired in 2015 and 2016, a window of opportunity opened up for Jordan Brand to climb in through the proverbial HBCU sponsorship window. 

Behind closed doors, Paul has encouraged Jordan representatives to do bigger business with historically Black institutions. Out in the open, over the past three seasons, CP3 has worn player exclusive editions of his signature Jordan CP3.12 sneaker in colorways featuring various HBCU mascot logos and the names of several schools on the heel panel.

Chris Paul’s Howard-themed custom Jordan CP3.12s in 2020. (Photo by Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images)

Several of the spotlighted HBCUs inevitably held pre-existing contracts with rival brands that weren’t imminently expiring, but Paul still looked to provide visibility and spotlight each school through the custom themed sneakers that weren’t planned to launch at retail. Ultimately, Paul’s campaigning appears to have gained the intended traction — when Howard’s Under Armour deal expires later this summer, Jordan is officially taking the reins.

As one of the most prominent HBCU backers across the worlds of sports and entertainment, Paul’s influence in moving the needle of brand and corporate support should come as no surprise. His whole family is connected to and has attended HBCU schools, including Winston-Salem State University (WSSU) in his North Carolina hometown, Hampton University, North Carolina A&T, and Southern University. Those family roots have bloomed into the tree that is CP3.

Though Paul ultimately did not attend an HBCU himself – he starred down the street from WSSU at Wake Forest – he and his family continue to honor their profound connections to the broader HBCU community.

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His history of offering a lucrative helping hand also reaches back to 2011, when he donated $25,000 to WSSU and hosted a charity basketball game with multiple NBA stars. He has also led the planning and execution of the NBA’s last two HBCU-focused All-Star Weekends. Additionally, he has helped tee up the league to donate millions of dollars to historically Black schools, in the form of scholarships and partnerships with organizations like the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and United Negro College Fund.

More recently, right on through the end of the Suns’ 2021-22 season, Paul consistently incorporated custom HBCU gear into his pre-game arrival entry outfits. And just last month, President Joe Biden appointed the Suns point guard to the President’s Board of Advisors on HBCUs .

Beyond The Mecca

It makes sense that Jordan Brand would choose Howard to be its flagship HBCU partner because of the cultural and historic prominence the school exudes. The university ranked second in US News & World Report’s annual HBCUs rankings released earlier this year, and carries with it a profound history accentuated by a list of alumni that includes the likes of US Vice President Kamala Harris, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, writers Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Toni Morrison, Sean “Puffy” Combs and actors Chadwick Boseman, Phylicia Rashad, and Taraji P. Henson.

It’s all contributed to the northwest DC institution acquiring a monolithic nickname: “The Mecca.”

Naturally, The Mecca has had no shortage of past national exposure for sporting events. In January, the Bison played Notre Dame on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in a game televised nationally on FOX Sports. At the end of 2021, Howard crushed North Carolina A&T in the inaugural Legacy Classic basketball showcase, an event developed by actor Michael B. Jordan that included a startup pitch competition for HBCU students and alumni.

During the Legacy Classic, multiple members of Howard’s coaching staff sported “Air Kiys,” customized shoes inspired by the iconic Air Jordan 1 silhouette. Nickwon Arvinger (widely known as “Kool Kiy”) and David Weeks, the co-founders of the Air Kiy brand, launched a pop-up shop near the Howard campus last October to release custom-designed Howard Bison merchandise alongside their signature Kiy kicks. The line to get into the pop-up store wrapped around the building.

In the near future — and for years to come — Howard will fly its Jumpman flag high in the sky, heralding a new era for sneakers, apparel, and merchandise for not just one of the world’s most celebrated historically Black schools, but for the onward march of HBCU culture from coast to coast.

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