Jordan Sneaker Dispute Spotlights College Sponsorship Business

Colleges reap millions from sports sponsorship deals.

Oct. 23, 2009 — -- How important is a college freshman's footwear to his university? If the college is the University of Central Florida and the freshman is Marcus Jordan, the answer is very.

Jordan, the son of NBA legend Michael Jordan, has made waves by declaring he wants to wear his father's namesake Air Jordan sneakers, made by Nike, instead of the Adidas shoes mandated by a sponsorship deal between UCF and the Germany-based company. Whether Jordan will be able to follow through on his preference remains uncertain. The drama, meanwhile, has opened up a window into the money-driven world of college sports sponsorships.

Since the 1980s, corporate sponsorships of college athletic programs have grown to be a major source of revenue for universities. Experts say that sports sponsorship agreements can net a school as much as $5 million or even $10 million in free apparel, sneakers, gear and cash, depending on the university's size. They can prove a reliable source of revenue, especially in uncertain economic times such as these.

"The amount of money you can make from your sports team can rival the amount you can make in tuition," said Boyce Watkins, a finance professor at Syracuse University.

Exactly how much UCF receives through its Adidas deal, which dates back to 2005 and is up for renewal next year, is unclear. The Orlando Sentinel has reported that the current contract is worth $1.9 million and that a new contract could be worth as much as $3 million, but university officials dispute those figures.

Adidas did not immediately respond to questions about the contract.

However much UCF receives from Adidas, the university has made clear that it values the deal.

"There is a great deal of respect for the Adidas brand and the partnership," the university said in a written statement.

It informed Adidas "of this unique set of circumstances since the start of Marcus' recruitment to play" at the university, UCF associate director of athletics Joe Hornstein said in an e-mail to "We are confident, with our long-standing positive relationship with Adidas, that the subject will be worked out amicably."

Unlike professional athletes, college athletes usually have little choice about what sponsorships they take part in, but that rarely leads to disputes between the athlete and their university, said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College and the author of "The Bottom Line: Observations and Arguments on the Sports Business."

"Most college athletes, even though they might be disturbed or bothered or even outraged by an issue like this, they don't have the time and they don't have the money to pursue it, so they just let it go," he said.

One case where a college was taken to task for its sponsorship dealings was that of James Keady, an assistant soccer coach at St. John's University, who claimed he was forced to resign after refusing to wear Nike apparel.

Under a multimillion-dollar deal between St. John's and Nike, both university coaches and athletes were to wear the sportswear giant's clothing. Keady said he objected to Nike's treatment of workers at overseas factories. He later sued Nike and St. John's, but the lawsuit was dismissed.

Jordan's case "doesn't seem like such a pressing social issue," Zimbalist said, but, "nonetheless, it's a conflict."

Professional athletes generally have more freedom when it comes to endorsements. If, for instance, they don't agree with their team's choice of sneaker sponsor, they might wear their own preferred sneakers and cover their logos with white athletic tape while on the field, said Jim Andrews, senior vice president of IEG, a Chicago-based sponsorship consulting and research firm.

"It's kind of accepted: If your're going to sign a deal with a professional team as an official supplier, you understand the way things work is that a team cannot control their players to that extent," Andrews said.

Jordan's famous father, himself, demonstrated his independence from team sponsorships some 17 years ago as a member of the U.S. Olympic basketball team. The team was sponsored by Reebok, but Jordan and fellow teammates had endorsement deals with Nike. During the medal ceremony, Jordan obscured the Reebok logo on his warm-up outfit by draping an American flag over his shoulder.

"I don't believe in endorsing my competition," Jordan told The Boston Herald before the ceremony. "My contract with Nike is more lucrative than something with Reebok."