Director of athletics Lee De Leon surprised most people when he unveiled a new five-year contract between the Department of Athletics and Nike that will put Wildcats in the Oregon-based company’s gear well into 2021.
The partnership goes into effect on July 1, 2016. De Leon did not disclose the value of the contract.
Rewind a few months however, and De Leon and the athletics office would tell you that Nike was not a part of ACU’s immediate future.
“Originally we started contract negotiations with Adidas, and then Under Armour came into the picture and made us an offer, but in the end, we couldn’t turn down Nike,” De Leon said. “We have nothing against Adidas, they have done a great job the past three years, but in the end, we have to do what’s best for us and for where we want to be in the future.”
When negotiations began, it appeared that ACU’s next sponsor would be from Baltimore, Maryland.
“About three months ago I went to a conference and met some representatives from Under Armour, and they started coming after us pretty hard,” De Leon said. “They told me that they had 16 schools that they sponsored and they wanted ACU to be the 17th. So at that time, I started going back and forth between Adidas and Under Armour, who both had given us great deals, but I really wasn’t sure which one to choose.”
One afternoon changed all that for De Leon and the Wildcats.
“I was meeting with our student body president Beau Carter one afternoon and he saw some Adidas and Under Armour stuff in my office,” De Leon said. “I told him we were negotiating between the two and he asked me ‘Why aren’t we Nike?’
“I know there are a lot of students on campus that want ACU to be a Nike sponsored school,” Carter said. “I honestly was just curious as to whether or not ACU joining Nike would be realistic.”
That single question would be the beginning of the negotiation process with the largest sportswear manufacturer in the world.
“I told him that Nike wasn’t really interested in ACU, we didn’t have a big enough program and that it probably wasn’t going to happen,” De Leon said.
In July, Nike signed Michigan to a 10-year, $169 million deal and Tennessee to an eight-year, $35 million deal. The company also already partnered with four other universities from Texas, in Baylor, Texas Christian, Texas and Southern Methodist, making it unlikely that the sports apparel juggernaut would find interest in ACU.
“Beau looked at me and said, ‘Well have you asked them?’,” De Leon said.
He had not. But as only a politician can do, Carter convinced De Leon to do just that.
“After he said that, I found the phone number for the director of collegiate athletic wear for Nike and called him up, put him on speaker with Beau, and we discussed if there was any possible future where ACU and Nike are partners,” De Leon said. “The three of us talked and eventually it was through his connection with (ACU alum) Lance Barrow that got us through the door and talking about a possible deal.”
To be a part of that phone call, with the director of athletics of a Div. I university and a director with Nike, was something Carter was not expecting.
“Originally, I was coming in to talk to him about the Student Association’ Tailgate Initiative that we have going on this fall,” Carter said. “I had no idea that this would happen and that I would at all be involved in the process.”
In the week’s that followed, De Leon continued to negotiate with Nike, but received little response.
“At the board meeting a few weeks later, Lee pulled me aside and told me that Adidas and Under Armour had both given us incredible deals but we hadn’t gotten anything from Nike yet,” Carter said.
Eventually, Nike did get back with De Leon and offered the Wildcats a deal they couldn’t refuse.
“Things got busy and we followed up about a week later and I told him what we were looking for and he came back with an offer that was exactly what we wanted,” De Leon said. “I hung up the phone and let out the biggest yell that everyone could hear in the office. I had to apologize but at the same time, I got to tell my staff that we just hit a home run.”
The move to Nike opens up several doors for ACU. The new deal gives the Wildcats more flexibility financially, a huge recruiting tool and another step in becoming an established Div. I university.
“I hope this will primarily impact athletics’ recruiting over the next few years, as it is definitely a selling point to be wearing the top athletic brand in the world on your jersey,” Carter said. “I also firmly believe that this will accelerate our transition into becoming a name in college sports regarding our Div. I transition.
“One of the big points we talked about in the office the day of the phone call was how big this would be for putting the Wildcats on the map. We hope that this, paired with student involvement in sporting events through tailgates and game attendance, will fuel our transition and bring our school together behind our athletics department.”