The recruiting competition for high school athletic talent no longer stops with the players on the field.
The race to land exclusive rights to outfit the best prep programs can be a lucrative deal for the big three sports equipment providers - Adidas, Nike and Under Armour. And the price those three nationally known companies are willing to pay to secure those rights runs into the tens of thousands of dollars for the high schools.
Such deals can mean anything from reduced prices on equipment like football helmets and shoulder pads to free apparel for all of a school's sports teams plus the gear discounts. That can add up to big savings for schools when some pay as much as $50,000 annually to outfit just their football teams.
"It used to be just the college programs that had endorsement deals, but now it's trickled down to a lot of high schools, too," East Hamilton football coach Ted Gatewood said. "With college programs, the companies have to give them millions of dollars for the right to outfit them. With high schools, they just give us discounts or free merchandise. But there's a lot of money to be made by outfitting high school kids."
Gatewood and East Hamilton athletic director Brad Jackson are negotiating with Adidas to outfit the schools' entire athletic programs. By outfitting more than 300 athletes in a variety of sports at East Hamilton, Adidas, like competing sports apparel companies at other schools, is banking on those kids remaining brand loyal even after their high school sports careers end.
"The kids get to wear the same type equipment they see the pros or college players wear on television, so they feel like they're a part of a big-time program," Gatewood said. "And it's really smart marketing by Adidas and the other companies who sign high schools to exclusive contracts because they know once the kids get used to wearing their brand, they'll continue buying those same running shoes, shorts and T-shirts years later because that's what they're familiar with."
Not surprisingly, the success of an athletic program directly reflects the financial value of the contract between each school and its equipment provider.
More wins mean more lucrative contracts for the schools, and a bidding war among the big three athletic outfitters can reach a fever pitch when wooing the most successful programs.
Depending on the size of the school and its on-field success, the average contract is worth $15,000 to $25,000 in apparel, shoes and accessories, but one local administrator, who asked not be named, said his school was offered a three-year deal that would be worth more than $70,000 in merchandise.
While Nike and Adidas still outfit the majority of Chattanooga-area athletic programs, Under Armour has become a serious player by recently wooing Baylor away from Nike. Just before landing Baylor's business, Under Armour also convinced state football powerhouse Alcoa to leave Nike and sign a three-year deal.
Baylor's athletic program has been ranked among the nation's top 25 by Sports Illustrated; the Red Raiders had 23 individuals or teams compete for state championships during the past school year alone. That on-field success, and the media attention that comes with it, made the Red Raiders a coveted free agent when their five-year marriage to Nike expired last month.
"We've had Baylor and Alcoa in our sights for years," said Mendy McMurtry, an Under Armour sales representative who works with high schools in Tennessee and Kentucky. She is one of only 34 Under Armour sales reps nationally.
"We are going after more high schools because that's our target audience," McMurtry said. "It's not just the money our company can make off the equipment, but it is absolutely about getting younger kids accustomed to wearing our products and gaining their business for the rest of their lives. It's the same reason people my age drink Gatorade instead of Powerade. It's what we knew growing up, so we stay loyal.
"Every football ad out there for us is geared toward high school-age kids or younger."
Attempts to reach representatives from Nike and Adidas were unsuccessful.
Baylor athletic director Thad Lepcio said the school switched because of the combination of an impressive financial package and Under Armour's new line of products - the company is in only its third year of making football uniforms and will introduce basketball shoes this year.
"Financially, it wasn't even close as far as what they offered us compared with Nike," Lepcio said. "They were up front with us that, because we are a nationally recognized program, they wanted our whole athletic department to come onboard. Because of the success of so many of our teams, and the media attention they get, they knew they would benefit from the free advertising. They really pursued us pretty hard, and that's a reality of where prep sports are now."
Under its new contract, Baylor has a two-year window for all of its athletic programs to change over and be completely outfitted by Under Armour. That even includes the T-shirts sold in the school bookstore. Baylor athletes and coaches will be in breach of contract if any of them chose to wear any apparel other than Under Armour.
"The first time any of our contracted schools didn't have all its players and staff outfitted in our apparel, it would simply be a warning," McMurtry said. "Beyond that, there really isn't a policy of what we would do, but it would be much more stern than a warning. We've never had that problem, however.
"If you want to act like a college program and sign an exclusive deal, then you have to treat it like a college deal and outfit every athlete, from head to toe, in every product we offer," she said. "If there's a picture of a Baylor athlete in the paper or on TV with a Nike logo, it's my job that's on the line."
Boyd-Buchanan football coach Grant Reynolds said he also believes that if his players and staff look as if they're from a college program, they will perform like one. That led him to sign a three-year contract with Nike last season.
Meanwhile, Signal Mountain, which won last year's Class 2A state championship in only the program's second year of varsity competition, opted not to renew its contract with Nike. Instead, Eagles coach Bill Price decided to use different equipment providers based on the best financial package for his program.
According to several area coaches, the average football program buys new sets of uniforms every four to five years; each set (home and away jerseys and pants for the entire team) costs an average of $12,000. Even when teams are not buying complete sets of new uniforms, they still can spend about $1,500 each season on replacement jerseys or pants when older models wear out.
While many teams require their players to pay for their own cleats, those programs that provide cleats spend another $4,000 per team on average for shoes. Add in shoulder pads, which cost about $250 per set, girdles ($25 each) and another $2,500 to have helmets reconditioned, as well as socks, workout T-shirts and shorts, equipment bags and various other paraphernalia, and it can easily cost more than $50,000 to outfit a team and its coaches each season.
"A lot of people get the wrong idea about what it means to be a 'Nike school' or an 'Adidas school'," Polk County football coach Derrick Davis said. "We use Adidas gear, and we get a good price on it for buying a lot of bulk. But there's not a contract, so while we look like an Adidas program, we're free to buy whatever we want."
Despite playing in the state's smallest classification, South Pittsburg is a sought-after program not because of its roster size but because of the program's success. The Pirates are the only team to have played for a state championship in all six decades of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association's playoff format, including three appearances in the finals in the past four years.
The Pirates have been an Adidas-sponsored program for three years, and coach Vic Grider, who also serves as the school's athletic director, just re-signed with that company for another three years to exclusively outfit every athletic program at South Pittsburg. Depending on how much apparel is needed - such as replacement jerseys, cold-weather gloves, etc. - Grider said his program's deal can run closer to $25,000.
"The year we beat Signal Mountain up there, the next day there was a picture in the [Chattanooga Times Free Press] of Terrell Robinson running down the field," Grider said. "And just as plain as day you could see the Adidas logo on his jersey, pants, everything. Our Adidas rep called me that morning and was just crowing about their logos being so visible. They want the kids to get used to wearing that logo, and they want people to identify that logo with teams that are on TV or in the newspaper for winning."
Nike is the exclusive outfitter of Bradley Central's football, boys' and girls' basketball and boys' and girls' soccer programs, but the school does not have a written contract. Without a written obligation, coaches of those sports are free to shop around for deals with other companies on equipment such as helmets and shoulder pads, but still choose Nike for the more visible apparel like jerseys and workout shirts and shorts as well as hats and visors and coaching shirts.
"We want to be seen as a Nike program because there are a lot of kids who come out just so they can look good and wear cool-looking gear," Bears football coach Damon Floyd said. "I'll admit it, we're with Nike to attract more kids to come out. We've adopted a saying about the kids, 'Look good, feel good, play good.'"
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.