NFL getting ready to transition to new Nike era for apparel
After a decade with Reebok, NFL begins apparel deal with Nike on Tuesday
New Nike uniforms won't look much different, but will allow for higher performance
A report estimates the new deal could net the league $35 million per year
The long-awaited, much-anticipated sports business partnership between the swoosh and the shield kicks off officially in New York on Tuesday, when Nike will trot out its newly created NFL uniforms.
What will they look like? The answer to that question has been a well-guarded secret, but Dolphins safety Sean Smith apparently is one of the few members of the inner sanctum. Smith recently teased NFL fans when he posted a picture of Miami's new alternative orange jersey on Twitter -- well, at least one shirt sleeve.
"Exclusive!!! Since yall my 'friends' lol ill give you a sneak peak," Smith tweeted.
Since the NFL announced in October 2010 that Nike would replace Reebok as the league's exclusive maker of licensed on-field apparel (uniforms, sideline clothing and fan gear), fans have stretched their imaginations guessing what their favorite team's new unis would look like. Although at one time Nike brand president Charlie Denson said that the company was "changing the NFL jersey dramatically," don't expect a revolutionary new look.
It won't be as innovative as what Nike has done with some college uniforms. Although some teams are making tweaks -- for example, it has been reported that the Seahawks will add some feather trim and the Jaguars will make black their primary color -- no team will have a bazillion different helmet and jersey combinations like the University of Oregon does.
"Team logo [and] color changes have to be approved by the clubs and the league," NFL vice president of corporate communications Brian McCarthy told SI.com. "Aside from that, I really wouldn't want to get into what the unveiling would look like. It's Nike's unveiling, so I really wouldn't want to step on their toes."
More likely, the change will be in fabric composition rather than aesthetics. The jerseys are expected to be more performance driven.
In February, Nike President and CEO Mark Parker told CNBC's Darren Rovell: "We've innovated at a very high level. The uniforms are lighter, they're faster, they're better fitting. So, the athletes are actually very excited about what we're going to bring to the professional game. People are wondering, 'What are you going to do? Are you going to get crazy with the uniforms?' I think we're actually going to have some fun but respect the tradition of these teams at the same time."
The only discernible change on the uniform Smith tweeted showed that the Nike swoosh had replaced the Reebok logo on the sleeve. And even though the swoosh seems to stand out, it is the same size (a maximum of 2.25 square inches) as the old Reebok logo.
Nike takes over as the NFL's official on-field apparel provider after the league partnered with Reebok for a decade. The Reebok deal was worth a reported $250 million to the league. Although terms of the five-year Nike contract have not been released -- "We don't comment on financials," McCarthy said -- Bloomberg Businessweek estimated the deal could be worth as much as $35 million per year.
"Whatever the deal is it's obviously a better one than they had with Reebok," said Ira Mayer, editor of The Licensing Letter. "They're clearly hoping that the distribution will be better and the penetration in the stores will be better. If it works according to plan, it should be real good."
While McCarthy said Reebok had been "a tremendous partner," he said the league is always looking to improve and that it believes it can do even better with Nike. What does the NFL like about the Nike deal?
"Nike's long heritage of being innovative and performance driven, two of the hallmarks of the NFL," McCarthy said. "Its excellent commitment to athletes but also producing a wide range of fan merchandise. And then also being recognized as a first-class marketer."
That last point is the underlying advantage for the NFL with having Nike as its merchandise arm, according to Mayer.
"Nike has phenomenal distribution," said Mayer, who believes Nike will permeate ventures (he referred to them as "hot spots") where the NFL has never gone before. "It's not that I feel the NFL did poorly with Reebok. But life has changed, and sometimes you change things up. That kind of excites the troops and the folks at the stores.
"There's really no downside. The NFL has higher guarantees than before. When you get down to the distribution of goods, there's nobody better than Nike."
Nike declined to be interviewed for this story, a public relations spokesman citing that the company was withholding all interviews and comments about its partnership with the NFL until after Tuesday. Reebok also did not reply to an interview request.
Nike will not be the sole merchandiser of NFL apparel. At the time the NFL announced its pending agreement with Nike, it also said it was extending agreements with these companies: Under Armour (which sponsors the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis every year); G-III, former NFL player Carl Banks' company (outerwear); VF (T-shirts and fleeces); and Outerstuff (youth apparel). The league also has agreements with New Era (hats for sideline personnel and fans) and '47 Brand (hats for fans).
"New Era is known for its innovation and dedication to the headwear category," McCarthy said. "They've already revealed some of their looks [on their Facebook page]."
Of course, there had to be a little intrigue involved in the NFL's move from Reebok to Nike. After quarterback Tim Tebow was traded from the Broncos to the Jets recently, Reebok rushed to market Tebow Jets merchandise, including a jersey. But a U.S. district judge granted Nike a temporary restraining order last week that banned Reebok from selling any Tebow apparel unless it was made by March 1.
"The mystery to me -- and I made a comment on it in the daily I write -- is I'm surprised that it wasn't in the NFL's best interests to try to make peace between the two parties [Reebok and Nike] for these couple of weeks," Mayer said. "What happens when you have a high demand, which Nike is saying there is and Reebok feels there is, and you leave a void? That's the perfect storm for counterfeiters. Is that really where they wanted that to go?
"That's what happened with [NBA player] Jeremy Lin. All of the sudden we had a superstar and there was no merchandise. So who filled the gap? The counterfeiters. You could find plenty of that stuff on the street; you just couldn't find it in the store."
Controversy aside, Tuesday should be a big day in New York for the NFL, Nike and football fans. The occasion will be marked by the presence of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
"We're all looking forward to it," McCarthy said, adding that there will be "a lot of excitement and pent-up demand for new jerseys."