Turf wars at the combine

The NFL Scouting Combine presented by Under Armour is over, and I’m sure Under Armour is happy with its sponsorship. It got considerable TV time and intimate connections with the top players in the country, complementing the relationships it had already begun building with the 2010 draft class at the Senior Bowl.

One of the terms of the combine sponsorship was that players were required to wear Under Armour (UA) apparel while performing the various drills. However, players were allowed to wear their own shoes and gloves. I’m sure that when this deal was put together, UA asked that shoes be covered in the deal, as well. But the NFL Combine people were experienced enough to know that you can’t tell a player what shoes to wear. Players are very particular about what they put on their feet – especially when it comes to the shoes in which they run their 40s. Combine organizers knew better than to put themselves in a position where they would have to force players to wear the sponsor’s shoes.

With shoe and glove choices being completely in the hands of the athletes, an interesting behind-the-scenes battle emerged among Under Armour, Nike and Reebok, with each encouraging players to wear their gear on their hands and feet while working out. Nike and Reebok both had suites at the Omni Hotel, strategically located across the street from the hotel housing all the players. All athletes were invited to the Reebok and Nike suite through their agents. Once there, they were given shoes, gloves and goodie bags of additional workout gear to wear in the future. Nike actually brought a truckload of its hottest shoes, the Vapor Jet, selling for $120 a pair.

When I escorted one of my players to the Nike suite, still wearing his UA-issued combine gear, there was a line of 15 players down the hall. The funny thing was that the Reebok suite was a few floors down, and guys made that their next stop -- wearing UA gear and holding Nike shoe boxes while collecting as much Reebok swag as they could get their hands on. Some players were considerate enough to ask a buddy to hold their new Nike gear before going into the Reebok suite. For a lot of guys, it was like double dipping on Halloween. While in the elevator, I heard one player telling another not to waste his time at the Reebok suite because their stuff “wasn’t tight.” But the next day, Reebok ran out of handouts, having prepared for only 100 guys to stop by – not the 200 who actually made their way to the suite to get their hands on the products.

The irony in all of this is that Reebok, which appears to be the third wheel now, is an official NFL partner. The league actually invested into the company several years ago, and its exclusive apparel deal doesn’t run out for another two years.

The frustrating part of this sponsorship deal for UA is that after paying big money to be the title sponsor, the majority of players ran their 40s and did their drills in Nike, Adidas and even Puma shoes. However, UA’s sponsorships (including the Under Armour All-America High School Football Game) are allowing them to cover some ground on the high school front, which has been historically dominated by Nike and its SPARQ events for youngsters.

The bottom line for players is that they’ll wear the shoe that’s most comfortable for them. It’s a personal choice, and swaying players isn’t easy, but that doesn’t mean the shoe companies won’t try. I think this war is just heating up on the pro football front.

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