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December 10th, 2003 Joel Smith | News Stories
 

Hats Off to Reebok

Nike retreats from its sideline skirmish.

     
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IMAGE: BWANA SPOONS
Two years of trash talk and prevent defense suddenly petered out in the National Football League last month when Nike ended its opposition to a rival's hat, capping a baffling marketing war that was as invisible to fans as it was irritating to players.

So what happened?

Before the 2001 season, Nike dropped a licensing agreement with the NFL that gave it the rights to provide the official apparel to 13 of the 32 pro football teams. It retained, however, its right to provide the shoes for any player with a Nike endorsement contract. After the Nike turnover, Reebok handed the NFL $250 million for 10 years of exclusive rights to the uniforms and apparel of every team in the league, from headbands to socks.

Nike responded by scooping up all the players it could (some suggest up to 80 percent of the league) and signing them to endorsement contracts, hoping to keep the Swoosh alive, at least below the ankles.

Then it went on offense. Though Reebok held the right to outfit football players with jerseys, pants, gloves, etc., Nike balked at the baseball-style caps donned by players on the sidelines. Perhaps it's because the caps clearly display Reebok's brand. Or maybe it's because NFL sidelines have become one of sport's biggest billboards, prominently showcasing the Motorola/Gatorade crowd.

Last season, Nike sent letters to its players pointing out the conflict in a Nike endorser wearing a Reebok product that is not a part of the NFL uniform. At the beginning of this season it sent another letter, warning that wearing the caps "would be a violation of your Nike football contract and could result in a termination of this contract."

Gene Upshaw, head of the NFL Players Association, responded with a letter of his own, declaring Nike's threats "inappropriate and unacceptable" and assuring players that the union would defend their rights to don Reebok caps. Doug Allen of Players Inc., the union's marketing arm, called Nike a "petulant shoe company...trying to have their cake and eat it, too." Reebok CEO Paul Fireman deemed Nike's actions "sour grapes."

Nike, however, held its ground, telling the Portland Business Journal in October, "We don't consider [the letters] a threat."

The players, meanwhile, didn't know whether to wear a Reebok cap, a Nike cap or a nacho sombrero on the sidelines. To avoid conflict, many went without.

When league officials last month stepped in and reiterated their position that the caps were indeed part of the uniform (a decision reached in 2001), Nike finally backed down. "The definition of what was part of the official uniform changed," said Nike spokesman Rodney Knox. "We retracted our position."

Industry insiders, however, say other factors were probably at play. Perhaps Nike feared its no-cap stance would push some of its endorsers over to Reebok. Or maybe the league flashed its ace in the hole, the deal that still allows Nike footwear to appear on NFL fields.

Knox insists the shoe contract had nothing to do with Nike's sudden cease-fire, but Allen thinks otherwise, saying Nike "is only on the field because the Players Association permits them to be."

Whatever happened between the league and our local cobblers, the war is over. Somehow. So put your cap back on, Joey Harrington, and remember this: Gatorade loves you.

 
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