Michigan and Jordan Brand Are Up to Something with Groundbreaking Deal

Sanjay Kirpalani@@SanjayKirpalaniNational Recruiting AnalystOctober 11, 2016

One phone call between Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and Michael Jordan last summer led to an unprecedented apparel partnership between the Wolverines and Jordan Brand.
One phone call between Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and Michael Jordan last summer led to an unprecedented apparel partnership between the Wolverines and Jordan Brand.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Jim Harbaugh thought he was being pranked on the phone.

"Come on," Harbaugh said. "Come on! Who is this, really?"

"This is Michael Jordan," the caller repeated.

Last summer, the greatest basketball player of all time was calling to propose a business opportunity that the second-year Michigan head coach couldn't refuse: for the Wolverines "to be the first and only football school, program, in the world to be Jordan," Harbaugh said, according to Adam Schnepp of MGoBlog.

Harbaugh recalled the conversation at the Aug. 2 launch event for Michigan's groundbreaking apparel deal with Nike and its Jordan Brand subsidiary.

The only thing missing for Harbaugh must have been the blaring horns from the intro to "Hail to the Victors" playing in the background.

The apparel deal between Michigan, Nike and Jordan Brand—which became official on Aug. 1—could be a game-changer on a few levels.

Sure, there's a lot of money involved. As Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press reported, the deal's value could reach north of $170 million over the next 15 years. At the time the deal was announced last summer, it was the richest of its kind—though it has since been surpassed by those of Ohio State [Nike], Texas [Nike] and UCLA [Under Armour].

But the Michigan program and Harbaugh are the biggest winners. Because when it comes to this deal, the student-athletes wearing maize and blue are the only ones "up to something."

Two months into the deal, Michigan is basking in the glow of the partnership with events such as the DJ Khaled-assisted uniform launch for basketball on Sept. 30.

What began as a pep rally to see the new threads turned into a concert featuring the nation's most famous hype man. Sneakerheads around the nation gasped at the maize-and-blue colorways showcased in a number of different retro Jordan shoes on display. Michigan basketball players were shouting out their social media channels on Khaled's Snapchat account, as For The Win's Alysha Tsuji detailed.

It was far from a typical uniform reveal, and events such as these bring the type of energy and hype Michigan hopes is the new normal in Ann Arbor.

It's too soon to know what kind of effect the partnership will have on Michigan recruiting, but there may be clues in the buzz. J'Marick Woods, a 4-star safety commit from Florence High School in Alabama, says news of the deal instantly struck a chord with him and his classmates.

"The first thing that came to my mind was how unique it was," Woods says. "Michigan is going to be the first college football team to have the Jumpman logo on their jersey. I really like that, and I think it's cool. A brand like Jordan speaks loud nowadays. Why not be associated with one of the best brands in the world?"

Woods says the members of the 2017 recruiting class have a group text, and the conversations have revealed how excited they are about going to the only school wearing Jordan Brand.

Michigan fans are also excited. They set social media ablaze when the new merchandise was revealed, as Dan Carson of Fox Sports highlighted.

The gear went on sale at The M Den—Michigan's official merchandise retailer—at the stroke of midnight on Aug. 1, and in the early-morning hours of that day, the average shopper spent $300, ESPN's Darren Rovell reported.

Whitney Wagoner, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, says that kind of hysteria is great for the momentum Harbaugh is trying to create at Michigan, which has long had a huge and passionate fanbase but has never been considered hip or cutting-edge.

"If you combine hiring a new head coach with a larger-than-life personality that Harbaugh has, I think signing with a company like Jordan Brand helps re-establish them as a leader in the modern space," Wagoner says.

But Harbaugh has had fans at a fever pitch since he came back to Michigan. It's on the recruiting trail where the Jordan Brand contract will be measured.

The deal is "meant to appeal to 17- and 18-year old recruits," says Kristi Dosh, a sports business analyst with Forbes. "That's what it's really all about. Partnering with Jordan Brand gets you a lot of PR value and buzz, and it's attractive to recruits."

Steve Wiltfong, director of recruiting for 247Sports, says he doesn't expect the switch in apparel providers to factor directly into the Wolverines landing more 5-star recruits, but he says it's a tool that could help put them over the top with a handful of players who may be torn on where they would like to attend college.

It's clearly a tool Michigan was anxious to use.

Aug. 1 was the first day that programs could send official offers to top prospects, but the Wolverines waited a day—until after the Jordan launch event—to send theirs out. It wasn't by accident that Michigan offer letters prominently featured the Jumpman logo.

"Recruiting is a game of inches, and you never know which inches will win you a commit," Wiltfong says. "So anytime you are getting positive media attention, it's a good thing. For Michigan to wear the Jumpman jersey, I think it looks fresh, and I believe most recruits feel the same way."

Michigan's 2017 class currently ranks No. 9 in the Scout.com team rankings. Its 18 commits hail from 10 different states—including Alabama, Florida and Georgia in SEC country.

Like many sneakerheads, Woods admits he grew up coveting retro models of his favorite Jordan shoes. His favorite shoe is the Retro 11.

As sneaker enthusiast Erich Dela Cruz Jr. captured on Instagram (h/t Brad Crawford of 247Sports), he may get the chance to wear a player-exclusive, maize-and-blue model of the Retro 11s during his time in Ann Arbor.

"Growing up, I'm kind of like everyone else who loves Jordans," Woods says "That's what you see everyone walking around in, and it's a big deal when you have the newest pair that came out. It was the biggest trend in shoes when I was growing up."

Harbaugh with 'Jumpman' himself.
Harbaugh with 'Jumpman' himself.Tony Ding/Associated Press

In Harbaugh's world, the status quo in college football is like a disease. Judging from his tenure to this point in Ann Arbor, to destroy it is the unofficial mission statement of his program.

He ruffled the feathers of talking heads and coaching peers with his cross-country, barnstorming tour of satellite camps in the summer and the digs he took at Alabama head coach Nick Saban and other rivals whenever the opportunity presented itself.

No team commanded as much attention as the Wolverines did this summer, but the Jordan deal was the ace up Harbaugh's sleeve.

Under its previous deal with Adidas, a provision in the agreement stated that Michigan would always be the highest-paid university in the sports apparel giant's catalogue, according to Matthew Kish of the Portland Business Journal.

But the Adidas era had its share of issues, as The Big Lead's Ty Duffy detailed, including problems with quality control and aesthetics.

"To me, it sounds like this is more of a cultural fit," Dosh said. "Adidas and Michigan just weren't on the same page when it came to how they wanted the brand represented, the feeling you get when you see the uniforms and the apparel and that kind of thing."

All the same, Kish reported that Adidas wanted to keep Michigan under its umbrella, and Under Armour was also courting the Wolverines.

Considering Under Armour just signed UCLA to a 15-year, $280 million pact—more than $100 million richer than Michigan's Jordan contract—Michigan perhaps left money on the table by choosing to go back to Nike, which had the university's first apparel deal.

"It's likely that Under Armour and Adidas both offered more than Nike," Kish says. "Michigan's provision with Adidas meant they would always be No. 1 with them. I don't know that that kind of deal existed anywhere else. It does a take a little bit of a chance by getting rid of that language."

"Their deal now goes out 11 years with an option for four more," Kish adds. "So there could be a risk at the back end of the deal where other schools are getting more than Michigan and their deal is no longer the best in class."

Sources close to both sides confirmed that Harbaugh was instrumental in pushing for the change to Nike and Jordan Brand. As Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com noted, Harbaugh even designed the coaching shirt he is wearing on the sidelines this fall.

While Jim Hackett, then the interim athletic director, led a thorough vetting process of all three brands, Harbaugh understood the ramifications of teaming up with Jordan and the impact it would have on recruits.

"Michigan is a football facility right now where if you think of a good idea, they are going to try and do it—whether its recruiting or anything else," Wiltfong said. "This was obviously a great idea because it adds swagger and buzz to your program. Not only in the uniform, but with the type of star power it attracts to your brand."

In the 10 years prior to Harbaugh's arrival, Michigan went 73-53. In that period, the Wolverines had three coaches and the same number of five-win seasons as double-digit-victory totals: two.

With that in mind, it made sense for Harbaugh to want to bring a fresh approach to his team's look on game day.

But what made Jordan Brand want to move into a sport foreign to the one its namesake forged his reputation in?

Of course, there's money to be made on a retail level with Michigan apparel. It doesn't hurt that the deal would help them speak on a broader level to a key target demographic: young, male athletes.

Tony Ding/Associated Press

"It's signaling a strategy for Jordan Brand beyond basketball," Wagoner says. "Jordan Brand has non-basketball on their list of athlete endorsers. They have a few NFL players, a NASCAR driver and a couple of other baseball players and figures in other sports. But this might be the most aggressive move beyond basketball from a communications standpoint that we've seen."

As MJ himself referenced in his initial conversation with Harbaugh, the company has bigger plans for this deal, as Schnepp noted. It wants the marriage between the Jumpman and Michigan football to resonate with consumers in a manner similar to the University of Oregon's connection to Nike.

Wagoner admits she and her colleagues in Eugene have often discussed the role and the strength of the bond the Swoosh has with Oregon's program and the impact it's had in the Ducks' rise to prominence.

While it's nearly impossible to put a dollar amount on it, there's clearly a symbiotic relationship there. Both parties have thrived since aligning. If Jordan Brand is able to execute its vision for the partnership, the Jumpman will loom large in Ann Arbor for the foreseeable future.

"I would imagine it will happen in Ann Arbor also," Wagoner said. "The difficulty becomes how you quantify that and how you put it into an algorithm and come up with an ROI. But all of these things, brand position, interest and chatter, and the fact that people are paying attention and talking about it. The impact it has on the fanbase, recruits and the community, it definitely plays a part in the overall valuation of this deal."

If the deal is as successful as both parties anticipate it to be, the next question for Jordan Brand undoubtedly will center on whether they choose to outfit additional universities. After all, there's no language in the Michigan contract that prohibits Jordan Brand from partnering with other schools in the future.

Because footwear figures to continue to be Jordan Brand's bread and butter, there isn't the same type of pressure to add to the portfolio as Under Armour had after launching its breakout deal with Maryland in 2008.

But Wagoner says she won't be surprised if, after the novelty of exclusivity wears away from the Michigan deal, Jordan Brand explores the possibility down the road.

"This is Brand Jordan's investment, and it has to make sense for their business," Wagoner said. "So they will keep a close eye on whether or not they are seeing some of the returns they anticipate. But I would say we also don't often see brands doing deals such as these with only one school. We can't point to any that have just one."

Given the overwhelmingly positive response to the Jordan deal from Michigan fans, alumni and recruits, other programs are likely to listen to Jordan Brand's pitch.

For now, the Big House will be the only football field that has athletes and fans alike jumping like Jordan.

Ever the competitor, Harbaugh has a chance to revel in the standard of greatness Jordan set during his legendary playing career on the hardwood.

Listening to him speak at the launch event about what the Jumpman signifies to him, Wolverines fans could easily imagine his words outlining his goals for the Michigan program in the coming years.

The Jumpman symbol personifies where he wants to lead the Maize and Blue.

"It's evident here when you talk Jordan," he said that day. "Michael Jordan, Jordan Brand. It's at the highest level. The track record is there in every single way. It's not a person who is trying to get there or aspiring to get there. He's there."

            

Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all recruiting information courtesy of Scout.com.