Click clack. It is code for teen “hipness” among athletes. Kevin Plank’s Under Armour dream, a modern-day sports apparrel Horatio Alger story that instead of shoes and waffle irons evokes dry wick technology undershirts being pedalled out of the back of a car is now part of Northwestern lexicon. The ‘Cats inked a landmark apparel deal with up-and-coming sports apparel outfitter, Under Armour. As part of the deal, each of Northwestern’s 19 varsity sports will be outfitted by the rock star brand, but that is only the tip of the iceberg between the two perennial underdog partners.
LTP was able to connect with both Under Armour’s Walker Jones, the senior director of sports marketing and Northwestern Associate AD, Mike Polisky who oversees marketing for the Wildcats athletic programs. As you can imagine, the exact date of when we’ll get to see the ‘Cat new football uniforms, always a hot topic, was not revealed. The financial terms of the deal are private as well. However, I was able to get some interesting info on how the process was done and what the key drivers for Northwestern were to part ways with Adidas and become the sexy brand’s lone Big Ten representative.
Under Armour has been very judicious in their college football partnerships as it continues to manage its growth against the 800-pound Gorilla that is Nike and other market share contestants like Adidas and Reebok. Northwestern joins a short list of BCS level Under Armour schools that includes the likes of Maryland( founder Kevin Plank’s Alma Mater), Texas Tech, Hawai’i, Boston College, Auburn, South Florida, South Carolina, Toledo and a few others. The company is a case study in branding, which in part stems from its authentic endorsement of quality products. They dry wick athletic apparel that was Maryland football player’s Kevin Plank’s baby has revolutionized the sporting goods industry. Simply
put, Under Armour is our kid’s Nike. The deal between Northwestern and Under Armour was announced last December 17, in part because the buzz it was creating among recruits that Fitz was talking to in this social media age made it difficult to keep it under wraps much longer. The actual deal goes in to effect June 1 of this year, but work has been well underway. This deal caught my attention in a big way so I started at the beginning. Why Northwestern? Not surprisingly, Walker Jones, Under Armour’s Senior Director of Sports Marketing had an answer:
“We saw a lot of Under Armour in Northwestern. When we look at deals we look at a lot of factors, but one of the first factors is the people. We look at the athletic director, the coaches and how we fit with them and how they fit it in with our DNA. We’re not for everybody and everybody is not for us. That was the first thing with Jim Phillips, Mike Polisky, Fitz, Coach Carmody, Coach Amonte Hiller and all the coaches that we met with, we just felt that connection.”
Obviously, the fact Northwestern offers Under Armour presence in the Big Ten didn’t hurt the opportunity! The ‘Cats are the first Under Armour sponsored team in the Big Ten and help give the once underdog brand representation in every BCS conference. Jones admitted the Chicago market and the Big Ten affiliation helped round out making this a “no brainer” decision for the Baltimore-based company.
I was curious to the Northwestern perspective on the deal and aside from the obvious uniform supply and financial investments that are a given from the Wildcats’s side, so I called on Northwestern Associate AD, Mike Polisky, who along with Jim Phillips, and the coaches, was heavily involved in the deal. Polisky deferred to Jim Phillips’ priority about the athletes being the top priority in the deal and echoed Walker Jones’ mutual “fit” factor between the two brands. However, what really caught my attention and made me smile was the retail component of this deal.
For years we’ve all discussed the frustration of walking in to Chicago-area sporting goods merchants and general retailers and being subjected to racks of Fighting Illini, Notre Dame, Ohio State and even Texas gear with little to no Northwestern gear in sight. I’m happy to report that will be changing dramatically this fall. “Under Armour is going to be very aggressive at retail and we’re excited because as Chicago’s Big Ten Team we want you to be able to walk in to any Chicagoland sporting goods retailer and be able to buy Northwestern Under Armour gear.” Polisky didn’t want to name the retailers for fear of leaving one out, but the translation to the above means you can expect a healthy Northwestern section at places that Under Armour dominates, like Dick’s Sporting Goods.
As you know, this is as much a branding component of a bigger marketing strategy than it is a true needle mover in revenue. For this, my friends, I am most excited about the deal. Polisky said retail leverage “is essential”. He also said “expect to see great Northwestern gear that extends not only throughout the Chicago DMA, but may extend to the far south side in to Northwest Indiana and to the north, southern Wisconsin.” When I pressed Mike on how important this element of the deal was for he and Jim Phillips he said “It was a major part of the deal. Jim was first and foremost about ensuring our student-athletes were treated the way they deserved to be. Then the “1A” priority was the retail presence. We understand Northwestern is the only private institution in the Big Ten and the smallest alumni base around, but people are growing to love us. Our retail side is aggressively ready for this launch. Now, all we need is for Northwestern fans to help us when they see a cool new piece of Northwestern Under Armour gear – buy it. We are going to need our fans and consumers to buy the product to get the reorders and expand our presence at retail.”
CNBC sports business reporter, Darren Rovell (ed note: a Wildcat diehard fan) is one of the most respected in the industry when it comes to the business of sports and apparel companies are his sweet spot. He also supported the retail differentiator that Under Armour can bring to Northwestern. “Adidas was more of a supplier of the uniforms, and while that is fine, Under Armour is going to be able to bring some real power at retail, ” Rovell said. “They can afford to make a smaller run for direct to retail that some of the larger suppliers can’t do as easily”.
Under Armour has already begun activating other elements of their investment to Northwestern. If you go to a lacrosse game you will see the fences adorned with slick looking purple banners that promote the national championships. Under Armour is subtle, but present. The softball and baseball stadium walls are completely covered with very cool looking “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” reinforcements alongside photos of past greats. Polisky said this will impact all varsity sports and the “beautification” of facilities will be aided by Under Armour. Walker Jones admitted that indeed plans are in the works for beautification for Ryan Field and Welsh-Ryan Arena, but that is going to be revealed at a later time. This is not to be confused with the reported massive athletics facilities overhaul that is in the works, but rather think of it as interim window dressing.
By now you’re likely saying “but what about the uniforms?!!!”. Afterall, Under Armour made national news and sparked the college football fashion show debate last season when they outfitted Maryland in the state flag uniforms that fell in to the “there is no such thing as bad PR” category as sports writers turned fashion critics blasted the outfits, but Under Armour sure hauled in a ton of media impressions. Meanwhile, Nike was outfitting specialty uniforms under their “Combat” line that Sparty got quite a bit of press for last season. The trend in college football uniforms is options, which was made famous by Oregon’s interchangable tops and bottoms sets by Nike. Since then each week seems to offer a new wrinkle in college football uniforms with specialty rivalry uniforms, throwback versions or even cause marketing like Under Armour did for South Carolina’s support of the Wounded Warrior project. Darren Rovell, however, brought to light a point that I hadn’t thought of from a much bigger picture perspective that he believes will really be a difference maker for the Northwestern football brand:
“Northwestern is the showpiece for Under Armour in the Big Ten and against the backdrop of the traditional palette of the conference’s traditional powers, they have a real opportunity to stand out. Do you think Nike is going to take risks with Penn State? Northwestern has something that no other Big Ten has and without the long-standing tradition that other schools have, you’d expect there will be some things they can do to really stand out.”
For a team that lacks the powerhouse tradition of retail killers like Ohio State, USC, Texas, Michigan and TTFSB, Northwestern diehards sure do put a ton of emphasis on the history of our uniforms. The granddaddy of all NU websites/blogs, HailToPurple has an incredible archive of helmet and uniform changes over the years, however much gets discussed about the stripe on the sleeve. Simply put, we’ve had so many variations over the years that toying with the look and even the much discussed inclusion or not of black (thanks to Gary Barnett) will continue until Northwestern unveils the looks. However, as Rovell notes, it is not like we are exactly fighting an untouchable iconic look that several of our B1G competitors have. So, Rovell believes that Northwestern fans are going to feel extra special as we are treated like a top dog by Under Armour and he points to Adidas’ seemingly last gasp attempt last year as an example. “The special night game uniforms Adidas rolled out made that night game seem that much more like an event. It created a buzz and Northwestern fans felt good about themselves as the program was getting special treatment and that is what Under Armour is going to be able to do consistently” Rovell said. He’s right. Say what you want about those not-so-TV friendly unis from 2011, however there is no disputing it created a buzz. Traditional fans are serving up the eye roll to this, but you can choose to fight that feeling or embrace the fact this is a major potential advantage in the lifeline of the organization – recruiting (more on that later).
You can trust that Under Armour has done their homework. Walker Jones and Mike Polisky both explained how in-depth Under Armour’s process was. Design teams literally followed around athletes on campus to get a feel for a day in their life. They studied the history, assimilated the traditions and in general fully immersed themselves in Northwestern culture before experimenting with designs that would work for all 19 sports. According to Jones “giving Northwestern a competitive advantage with our product is a top priority” and each of the coaches had direct input and feedback in to the uniforms. When it comes to consistency in brand and customization by sport, it is clear that Under Armour has done its homework. But when will we get to see the football uniforms and when will be able to buy product?
Well, neither Under Armour or Northwestern would commit to a specific unveiling date, but they both estimate that product will likely be shipped in July with the opportunity to buy merchandise rolling out sometime in August. As if my beating the drum on our NEW season ticket goal (200) wasn’t enough, season ticket holders will get exclusive discounts over the general public. I can only imagine the buzz on this site when they do indeed serve up the photos of the uniforms. It’s been amazing how the current players and recruits have responded. Polisky admitted the current player reaction has been “fantastic, the student-athletes love it”. More importantly recruits are gobbling it up. I actually saw Under Armour cited by a recent top tier recruit who was quoted by Wildcat Report’s Louie Vaccher as mentioning it as part of what appealed to him (after the seemingly scripted education benefits and family feel of Fitz). You might think I’m blowing this out of proportion, I’m not. Gear matters to 17-year-olds. It also offers NU a halo effect of cool, an intangible that is hard to quantify in the overall differentiator process.
There is one major brand consistency byproduct that will likely emerge from all of this and Darren Rovell brought it to my attention – the color purple. I’ve written posts in the past about the inconsistencies in both the Northwestern font and the seemingly endless variations that exist among the various purples on court, on merchandise and in print. Rovell was quick to point out that this is an area he believes Under Armour will address as he pointed out the Northwestern basketball court as exhibit “A” of the various shades of purple that exist. “I’m confident that Under Armour will nail down the right pantone color and ensure that the proper PMS for Northwestern’s purple will be used” Rovell said. It’s a point that I had overlooked and just added one more reason to smile about this landmark deal for NU.
This relationship will surely evolve over time with the biggest bang coming this summer as the partnership officially launches and the PR starts rolling in around our football uniforms. Under Armour’s marketing budget is around $200M according to Rovell, a mere fraction of Nike’s budget, so “they have to be very stealth in their approach” Rovell said. I pushed Walker Jones to elaborate on this. “It’s not only a product piece, it is a marketing and activation story” Jones said. “You’ve already started to see some of the things like the teaser video, the banners that have dressed up many of the facilities and you’re going to see some really cool things inside the football stadium co-branded Northwestern and Under Armour. Then you’ll see a lot of us in the social media space – Twitter, Facebook and digital media spaces because that’s where kids talk these days and where communication takes place between coaches and recruits.” Since Under Armour’s national commercial spots are possibly their most pronounced stake in the ground for the cool factor of the brand, I wanted to know if Northwestern stood to be involved in any way. “We have a full activation plan around this that spans social media, in-stadium, websites and at some point we’ll likely include Northwestern as part of our national TV campaigns as well” said Jones. As you can tell by this story, both partners are pretty jacked about the relationship and now it is full steam ahead until the uniforms are complete and the coaches sideline wardrobes, training gear and the countless other merchandise offerings are complete. This is a story that is just beginning and we’ll be diving deeper in to all summer long.
I’ll finish with a PSA that the B1G produced several years ago (CJ Bacher era) that I was proud to have been involved in for the conference. I have to point out that this college football campaign, called “I Will” rolled out a full season before Under Armour launched its now ubiquitous “I Will Protect This House” football campaign (had to get that in there). However, the primary reason is to show you what I believe will be part of the tone and quality that Under Armour will be bringing en masse to the partnership through the communication strategy Walker mentioned. Bottom line I am fired up about this, how about you?
LTP Ticket Challenge
OK, you just read that season ticket holders will be getting special discounted deals on new Under Armour gear, so it is starting to get way too easy to convince fans of why they should pony up for the best value entertainment in Chicago. We’ve been stuck at just over the 10% of goal mark on our way to posting 200 NEW season ticket holders. Please send me your stories of who and how you’ve converted friends, colleagues or even enemies to become Northwestern season ticket holders. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Protect This House
The B1G and their network partners announced the 2012 primetime TV schedule and the ‘Cats will be playing under the bright lights only once this season – the home opener vs Vanderbilt on September 8 at 7pm ct. I love night games for atmosphere and attendance boost, but candidly we’ve performed so darn miserably at home under the lights I’m all for taking wins over attendance boosts. Indiana continues to use the night game slot to help its attendance and the Hoosiers will be in primetime three times on BTN this fall. You can bet Under Armour will be using the primetime game to capitalize on the new NU relationship.