In college basketball, shoe companies walk a thin line between support and scandal

This college basketball season’s indelible moment came when Duke star Zion Williamson’s size-15 Nike burst apart at the seams just seconds into a much-anticipated game against rival North Carolina.

Williamson, the ACC Player of the Year and expected No. 1 overall NBA draft pick, missed the rest of the regular season. Nike executives flew to Durham the next day — part damage control, part relationship management — and worked to find a solution to get Williamson back on the court for the ACC Tournament a month later in a retrofitted shoe.

It was another reminder of the vital role shoe and apparel companies play in basketball at all levels and underscored the near-impossible task of diluting the influence Nike, Adidas and Under Armour hold. The shoe and apparel companies that support the sport at the amateur, collegiate and professional levels have created a pipeline through which elite talent, like Williamson, flows.

A McClatchy look at the top 100 high school basketball recruits over a five-year period found that nearly every recruit played for at least one shoe-backed grassroots team and matriculated to a shoe-backed college team. The most talented played in the NBA, where the best of the best get their own signature shoe.

That shoe-strewn career path is under scrutiny by federal law-enforcement officials and the NCAA after a wide-ranging scandal involving Adidas representatives who gave money to the families of top prospects in exchange for the players’ commitment to Adidas-sponsored colleges. Three people, including two former Adidas executives, were convicted in a federal trial last year and sentenced to prison earlier this month.

“That probably represents just the tip of the iceberg in that realm,” Arne Duncan, the former Secretary of Education in the Obama administration and co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, said of the convictions in October.

Text messages displayed at the trial showed Adidas executives believed Nike and Under Armour were making the same types of deals to secure players.

LSU head coach Will Wade was suspended and did not coach in the SEC tournament after being caught on tape allegedly discussing payments to secure a top high school basketball player. Associated Press

A second federal trial is set to begin next month, which could uncover more transgressions and cost more coaches their jobs. Will Wade, head coach at SEC regular-season champion and Nike-sponsored LSU, has been suspended after being caught on tape allegedly discussing payments to secure a top high school basketball player.

The NCAA responded quickly to the federal charges, setting up a commission on college basketball led by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to offer recommendations to help the sport, then adopted many of that group’s proposals a mere four months later.

Williamson, the biggest star in college hoops, played for an Adidas-backed AAU team while in high school. He chose to play at Nike-sponsored Duke, which has been partnered with the shoe giant for more than 25 years.

Data collected by McClatchy showed that Williamson was an outlier here, too: Most high school players stay with the same shoe company from high school to college.

  • Of the top 15 players in the 2018 recruiting class, 10 attended a college sponsored by the same shoe company that sponsored their primary AAU team.
  • In 2017, 14 of the top 20 players signed with a college sponsored by the same shoe company as their AAU team, with 13 of those being Nike-Nike.
  • In 2016, seven of the top 11 players signed with Nike colleges after playing for Nike AAU teams.

Some stars played on several different AAU teams, often with different sponsors. Despite the data, many top-rated players said the shoe companies played no role in what college they ultimately attended.

“I played for every sponsor’s team. I played for an Adidas team. I played for an Under Armor team. A Nike team. It didn’t matter,” said North Carolina freshman Nassir Little, a top-five recruit in 2018.

North Carolina’s Nassir Little (5) drives on Florida State’s Mfiondu Kabegnele (25) for a dunk during the first half on Saturday, February 23, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C Robert Willett

The coach of Little’s Adidas-sponsored 1 Family AAU program was indicted and arrested in connection with the bribery scandal. The felony charges against Brad Augustine were later dropped by federal prosecutors.

One prominent North Carolina AAU coach said shoe sponsorship is not a primary consideration for most players. Dwayne West runs the Adidas-sponsored Garner Road AAU program. His top player this year, 6-foot-11 Kadin Shedrick of Holly Springs, is going to Nike-backed Virginia, having chosen the Cavaliers over Nike-backed Xavier.

“Best opportunity. The best fit. The college experience they want to have,” said West, whose brother is long-time NBA standout David West. “If we’re going to funnel anybody, you’d think you’d take your best one and send an Adidas school your best one. That doesn’t have a factor at all in the recruitment and the decision process for us.”

Other top prep players say shoe companies did not play a role in their decisions. Vernon Carey Jr., a Duke commit, played for Nike Team Florida. His final five college choices included four Nike schools and an Adidas one.

“I don’t really care about the shoe brands, I care about the programs,” the 6-foot-10 Carey told The News & Observer this summer in an interview at an AAU event. When he committed, Carey said he chose Duke because of coach Mike Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils’ vision of him as a positionless player.

Wendell Moore Jr., the top-ranked prep player in North Carolina, played for a Nike-backed AAU team, but his final five college choices included an Adidas school and an Under Armour school along with three Nike programs. Moore picked Duke, too.

“The brand doesn’t matter,” Moore told the The News & Observer in an interview at an AAU event this summer. “I just want to go somewhere where I can win games and fit in when I go to college.”

If some players say it doesn’t matter, the brands clearly care. Shoe companies have used the summer basketball circuit to pay the family members of talented players. The practice is not against NCAA rules.

Duke’s Marvin Bagley III (35) slams in two during the first half of Duke’s game against Syracuse. Ethan Hyman

Nike sponsored The Phamily, run by the father of Marvin Bagley III. Bagley played one season at Duke and was selected No. 2 overall in the 2018 NBA Draft by Sacramento.

Romeo Langford, a freshman at Adidas-sponsored Indiana, played for Twenty Two Vision, an Adidas-sponsored program directed by his father, Tim. Adidas won a bidding war with Nike and Under Armour to support the program, former Adidas-sponsored Louisville coach Rick Pitino told The Washington Post. Langford chose Indiana over Adidas-sponsored Kansas and Vanderbillt, a Nike school.

Duke signed 14 top-100 players between the 2016 and 2018 recruiting classes — 10 of them played for Nike-sponsored AAU programs. Mississippi State, an Adidas school, signed nine top-100 players in that three-year span; six played for Adidas-sponsored AAU programs. Kansas signed three top-100 players in 2018, all three played at Adidas-sponsored AAU programs.

Shoe influence

Beaverton, Oregon-based Nike is the dominant athletic brand among college athletic departments.

Of the top seven college basketball conferences, Nike sponsors at least half the teams in every league. That includes many of college basketball’s biggest powers: Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Villanova, Michigan and Arizona.

Among Adidas’ top programs are Kansas, Indiana, Louisville, Miami, Mississippi State and N.C. State. Under Armour has big deals with Maryland, Notre Dame, UCLA and Auburn, among others.

Shoe contracts in the top college basketball conferences (2018-19)

ConferenceNikeUnder ArmourAdidas
Big East82-
Big Ten833
Big 12811

Source: McClatchy research

In 2018, 68 Football Bowl Subdivision teams wore Nike, 39 sported Adidas and 22 were sponsored by Under Armour, according to FootballScoop.

The deals can be worth millions. Michigan, for example, signed a $169 million, 15-year deal with Nike that started in 2016. Kansas is working on a 14-year, $191-million extension with Adidas. UCLA signed a $280 million, 15-year deal with Under Armour, the largest in NCAA history, in 2016. UCLA had previously been an Adidas school. Washington, which won the Pac-12 football and regular-season basketball titles, is moving from Nike to Adidas next year, on a 10-year, $119-million contract.

Nike reported $36.4 billion in revenues in 2018. Adidas reported $21.9 billion. Under Armour reported $5.2 billion in revenue.

“They have an appropriate amount of influence. They should,” said former NBA star David Robinson, a member of the Rice and Knight commissions and the father of Duke basketball player Justin Robinson.

“They provide money to the universities. They provide a bunch of gear for athletes. For a lot of the programs, that’s kind of nice — a whole bunch of Under Armour or adidas gear and pretty much that’s all your wear through college.

“I like the involvement of the shoe companies in the universities. I just think the shoe companies need to do a better job of policing what’s happening. Obviously their budget for basketball may be insignificant on their balance sheets, but it’s not insignificant in how their company is viewed.”

The Knight Commission, created in 1989 to promote reforms that support and strengthen the educational mission of college sports, has proposed including all athletic-related outside income to the university in annual public reports and mandating the public disclosure of outside income to coaches if players are required to wear jerseys or apparel with corporate logos.

North Carolina’s head coach Roy Williams encourages his team during the second half of Duke’s 74-73 victory over UNC in the semifinals of the 2019 ACC Tournament in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, March 15, 2019. Ethan Hyman

North Carolina, for the first time, this year disclosed men’s basketball coach Roy Williams’ contract with Nike. Williams, a three-time national championship coach, was paid $250,000 this season by Nike. As part of the 10-year deal, he will get an additional $10,000 on top of that amount each year. In 2017-18, Williams listed one speaking engagement on behalf of Nike on a form he was required to file with the state, The News & Observer previously reported. North Carolina football coach Larry Fedora delivered several speeches as part of his personal services contract with Nike.

“It’s unfortunate that shoe companies have this kind of leverage over athletic departments and coaches but what makes it unfortunate is that it’s largely hidden from public view,” said Jay Smith, a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who teaches a course called “Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes.”

“We’re not able to examine these relationships openly, transparently and, as a result, any time that practices are being disguised, hidden and concealed, there’s going to be corruption, there’s going to be unsavory behavior going on.”

The NCAA adopted proposals from the Rice Commission aimed at reducing the influence of shoe companies on youth basketball, largely through changing the summer recruiting schedule. But USA Basketball, which will be in charge of camps for national-team level players, relies partly on the shoe companies to help find elite young players.

“The shoe companies do a great job of identifying young talent through their travel teams as well and we have good relationships with all three shoe companies,” Sean Ford, men’s national team director at USA Basketball, told McClatchy last year at a Knight Commission event.

Basketball coaches watch a game during the opening night of the Nike Peach Jam at Riverview Park in North Augusta, S.C., Wednesday, July 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Todd Bennett) Associated Press

West, who runs the NC-based AAU program, said the NCAA rule changes will hurt many players, including Shedrick, by limiting the amount of times college coaches can see them during the summer. Another of his players, D.J. Horn, is headed to Illinois State. It was only through the summer competitions against top players that Horn was able to prove to college coaches he belonged, West said.

And, he added, the corruption won’t end.

“If you have a guy that’s out there trying to make money off a kid, using a sneaker company and get him to a certain school, they’re going to find a way to do that,” West said.

The AAU programs, West said, have a deep relationship with many of their players — who were playing for those teams long before college coaches were calling.

“We have second-graders. We’ve got kids that have started out at 8 or 9 years old and end up at Kansas or Carolina or N.C. State. If you think you’re going to cut off the influence of grassroots, that’s not going to happen,” West said. “By the time they get to high school, the connection and trust and loyalty is there already.”

Robinson eschewed the shoe-sponsored team route for his son. Instead, he created a small team of local players. He said the decision had less to do with the shoe-inspired politics of an AAU program and more with a focus on teaching his players how to play. Robinson said he had no problem with the AAU system, which is often derided by outsiders for not teaching players the value of winning and for unscrupulous coaches or managers.

“Only when the guy running the league has motivations other than providing these kids the very best opportunity, the very best coaching, the very best experience,” Robinson said.

Largest shoe and apparel contracts with colleges

SchoolYearsBrandTotal yearly payout (amount in cash)
UCLA2017-32Under Armour$12.76 million ($9 million)
Louisville2018-28adidas$10.96 million ($7.9 million)
Texas2017-31Nike$9.76 million ($7.5 million)
Michigan2016-31Nike/Jordan$7.79 million ($5.12 million)
Notre Dame2014-23Under Armour$7.5 million*
Washington2019-29adidas$7.89 million ($4.97 million)
Ohio State2018-33Nike$6.85 million ($3.17 million)

Source: Forbes; * Notre Dame is a private school and does not dislose its contract

Looking for the next LeBron

In 2018, Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League had 40 teams, including two from Canada, in four divisions. Each team played 16 games and the top six in each division advanced to the Peach Jam in Augusta, Ga., for a tournament. Jahmir Young, a Class of 2019 point guard at DeMatha Catholic in Maryland, led Team Takeover to the title, scoring 16 points in 15 minutes.

The Nike league was established in 2010 and featured 52 of the ESPN”s Top 60 players that year.

In 2018, Adidas had 54 teams in its Gauntlet gold tier, many named after current or former NBA players, and 36 qualified for the Gauntlet Finale, a tournament held over four days in New York. Jonathan Juzang, a Class of 2020 forward, scored a team-high 18 points to lead Compton (Calif.) Magic to the title.

Under Armour’s Association includes 30 teams. The finals were held in Atlanta in mid-July.

The hope is that there’s a Michael Jordan or LeBron James or, maybe, a Zion Williamson in the bunch — a basketball superstar with marketable talents who can sell shoes for 20 years or longer.

Little chose Nike-affiliated North Carolina, which wears Jordan Brand apparel. Jordan played at North Carolina before becoming basketball’s biggest star with the Chicago Bulls — and a pioneer in the then-burgeoning sneaker business. Jordan created the template that generations of basketball stars have followed: commercials, signature shoes (Air Jordan) and a paycheck from Nike that dwarfed his basketball salary.

James, now in his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers, signed a lifetime contract with Nike worth more than $1 billion, according to his business partner.

That’s the dream for many players. About a dozen NBA stars have their own shoe with a domestic company — a list that reads like a who’s who of NBA superstars. Kevin Durant with Nike. Steph Curry, Under Armour. James Harden, adidas. Several other players have signature shoe deals with foreign companies, mostly China.

shoe tight.jpg
Duke’s Zion Williamson (1) leaves the court with his damaged shoe after taking a fall during the opening moments of the Blue Devils’ game against North Carolina on Wednesday, February 20, 2019 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C. Robert Willett

Williamson was wearing a version of Paul George’s Nike sneaker when he was injured. He returned for the ACC Tournament in a specially made version of Kyrie Irving’s sneaker — and won tournament MVP honors, averaging 27 points per game.

And if a shoe company can find the next LeBron as a youngster and support them through AAU basketball?

“If and when these kids make it to the point where they’re going to sign a contract as a pro, I think that’s where that relationship comes into play,” said West, the N.C.-based AAU coach. He added, however, the decision may come down to which company is willing to pay the player the most money.

Dennis Smith Jr. played for Adidas-sponsored Team Loaded. Smith Jr. went to N.C. State, an Adidas school, after the shoe company allegedly funneled $40,000 to his family through former N.C. State assistant coach Orlando Early, a former Adidas representative testified during the federal trial. Smith, however, signed with Under Armour on a three-year deal worth up to $6 million, according to ESPN.

Bagley, whose family was supported by Nike’s contract with his father during his AAU days, signed a five-year deal with Puma, which is trying to reinsert itself into the basketball sneaker game. ESPN reported the deal is worth $2 million to $3 million annually. Nike cut off its contract with Bagley’s father, but Puma reportedly agreed to fund a program.

“It’s a bunch of business entities colliding. The NCAA is in the business of educating and March Madness. You have the shoe companies and they have their business they’re trying to conduct and it involves finding good players early and they have travel teams and so it’s a collision,” said Ford, of USA Basketball.

“Player representation is a business. It’s an industry. The G-League is an industry. The NBA is an industry. USA Basketball is a business. We’re all in it. And so that’s a lot of overlap. It’s hard.

“And when it’s competition, there’s a gray area that it seems like some people have gone over.”

Jonas Pope IV of The News & Observer contributed to this report. Reporters from The News & Observer, The Miami Herald, Kansas City Star and Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed to the database.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or