SWAC — NIKE Partnership Shows Low Corporate Appeal of HBCU Sports

Last month, the University of Texas athletic program signed a 15-year, $200 million extension with Nike to serve as its official apparel and equipment. Believe to be the largest deal in college sports history, some business experts estimate that the deal will generate UT $15 million annually in revenue, a fraction of what ESPN estimates to be a $4.6 billion industry shared between universities and athletic manufacturers.

And then there’s the Southwestern Athletic Conference, which two years ago signed a five-year deal with Nike that will provide no cash for championship event sponsorship, no payouts to member schools desperate for resources to build recruiting and development.

According to AL.com reporter Casey Toner, the SWAC-NIKE contract calls for its 10 members schools to receive the following every year:

  • Nike gives the conference 750 plain white t-shirts every contract year.

  • Nike gives each SWAC school 600 pairs of shoes every contract year. The shoes are for the following teams: football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, volleyball, softball, baseball, and men and women’s track and field.

  • Beginning in the 2015–2016 year and each contract year, Nike gives the conference 40 footballs, 24 men’s basketballs and 24 women’s basketballs.

  • Nike gives two conference athletes an internship in Nike’s internship program.

  • Nike receives four free tickets to the Bayou Classic, four tickets to the SWAC Championships, and four tickets to all home games of participating schools.

  • Nike can also buy an additional four tickets to the SWAC Championships. “All tickets shall be for adjacent seats, in prime, lower level locations,” the contract states.

  • The conference is required to place a one-page ad for which Nike will have sole discretion over its content and layout for both the Bayou Classic and the SWAC Championships.

  • SWAC shall make Nike products available to the schools to be worn by team members and staff during practices, games, exhibitions, clinics, sports camps, locker room and sideline presentations, or other official school sanctioned activities.

And the most unique part of the deal? SWAC Commissioner Duer Sharp receives a personal, $10,000 annual allowance for Nike Elite equipment. His comment on the swag stipulation?

“That’s my personal business what I do with it,” said Sharp, who made $240,000 in 2013 according to the SWAC tax records.

There’s nothing wrong with Sharp receiving a creative commission on brokering a deal between his conference and the apparel giant. There’s nothing wrong with the conference having in-kind sponsorship for shoes, clothing and equipment worn by athletes and coaches every year.

But there is something wrong when Sharp, and other member presidents who may have been privy to this deal, signed off without without any consideration for what the schools really could have gotten from Nike or any other apparel maker courting black colleges.

There’s no way that the SWAC, perennially criticized in media and among fans for being the worst Division I conference in the country, allows Nike to co-brand with its product, among the nation’s best mid-major conferences when it comes to attendance and media coverage, without looking out for its most pressing needs. Shoes and clothes don’t mean more than refurbished weight rooms and renovated team rooms, things which aid in landing better recruits, and certainly affordable by Nike market spending standards.

And even if you can’t press Nike to send new weights and to pay for paint jobs at every school, at least you can encourage member schools to invest in competing by brokering renovation clauses for schools who win conference titles, and/or who finish as runners-up. Whatever you do, you certainly don’t let Nike get away with giving less money to SWAC schools than the NCAA, which regularly smacks HBCUs in the face with APR penalties while paying out millions to support academic improvement at select schools.

Or you ask Nike to support sending conference officiating crews and coaches to clinics, or athletic directors to development training seminars. You absolutely demand more than sneakers and t-shirts, and basketballs and footballs schools didn’t even start receiving until this year, two years into the agreement.

Sharp and others involved with this deal probably never imagined that its details would ever be sought and exposed to the public, and if this deal was the best that the conference received from a number of corporations, then the SWAC needs to seriously reconsider its entire Division I business model.

Given that many fans and coaches are still sore about the Celebration Bowl and being left out of the FCS Playoffs, the SWAC — Nike revelations are another drip in the imaginary bucket of inferiority we are forced to carry around as fans and HBCU supporters. It’s not the first puzzling contract we’ve seen in HBCU sports, and definitely not the last, but its the latest to leave stakeholders wondering about the true worth of our teams and athletes, and how little we demand in leveraging the attention they actually earn.