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March 07, 2004

High School Tools

FROM HIGH SCHOOL GYMNASIUMS ACROSS AMERICA come profound and piercing questions about the propriety of big shoe companies appealing to tender high school athletes. Borrowing from the playbooks of Saturday morning cereal shilling, video game hype and MP3 gadgetry, the collective energies of the sneaker guys have become quite visible at hundreds of high schools across the country.

Those from another footwear era remember days of basic canvas tops and rubber bottoms, of Pro Keds, PF Flyers, Bata Bullets, and for the serious hoopsters: Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars. And it was a big deal when they started making them in colors.

Things have changed. Big time.

Huge attention is being made at the high school level, where fashion conscious coming-of-age students parade about in their de rigueur logoed items, displaying USDA-like stamps of approval.

It is here that lasting loyalties can be forged with impressionable young teens who are wowed at getting free stuff.

The ultimate prize for the big shoe companies is the discovery of next Michael Jordan or LeBron James. High-profile stars are compelling spokespersons to influence the easily-influenced teenagers to buy expensive athletic footwear. To “be like LeBron.”

Revenues for logoed footwear and apparel business are in the tens of billions of dollars. Even allowing for the considerable marketing expenses of media advertising and sponsorships of teams and players, profits can be enormous. Some of that profit is a function of stiff $100-plus retail price tags for the latest LeBron Leaper sneaker. And some of that profit has to do with low-cost manufacturing expenses—can anyone say China? Myanmar? Singapore?

Schools face a moral balancing act as they weigh the costs of funding athletics vs. capitalizing on their athletes' fame.

"It's just a shoe war going on," one coach said. "It's like when you go to Wal-Mart and they give you the free samples. We just took the free samples."

Others see something more troubling: naive teenagers being compelled to work for the financial gain of their school and large corporations. They're concerned that kids are being exploited and influenced by outsiders who may not have the players' best interests at heart.

In Georgia alone, nine high school boys’ teams have equipment contracts with Adidas, Nike or And 1. Usually the companies will sponsor an entire team because they are interested in developing a relationship with just one star who they think might make it to the pros.

Adidas acknowledges sponsorship of about 75 high schools nationally; Nike has approximately a hundred. Reebok is expected to grow to the dozens soon.

For their investments, the shoe companies typically receive signage, PA announcements, gym time and exclusive selling rights. Plus players and coaches wear their products.

Many schools don't mind selling advertising space on their players and in the gym. "We're not a well-to-do community. I don't see a problem with it. It supplies things that would require fund-raising." said one high school principal.

Shoe companies invest an estimated $5 million on high school sponsorship efforts.

Since high school and college players cannot sign endorsement deals without losing eligibility, the shoe companies’ cultivate relationships with young (often naïve) athletes in other ways. Usually the shoe companies invite potential stars to a company-sponsored summer camp. Company reps fawn over the talent, extolling the virtues of their brand, and dispensing free stuff to bedazzle the young charges.

Players remember this largesse, and many that make it to the pro level sign with the company that originally invited them to a camp.

Nike’s George Raveling claims his company gives away equipment to help schools. "We try to provide opportunities for kids to fulfill their dreams." he said. Ahem.

Adidas’ Travis Gonzolez said, "Camps have been a way of building relationships. We let them know we're not just selling shoes. We talk to them about college, ask what they think of our ads." Ahem.

Footwear legend Sonny Vaccaro—currently with Reebok--sees it differently. "It's a marketing ploy," he said. "At the end of the day, we've got to sell a shoe and a sweat suit. The lowest common denominator (is) the high school kids. Everybody goes off the 17-year-old. They'll emulate him. They drive product sales."

The viewpoint of the innocence of youth was succinctly captured by one high school philosopher, "I'll take it any way I can. Let's get us some free shoes."

For many, life is just one big swoosh.

(this 731 word excerpt was extracted from a 7-part, 4948 word series in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 6 & 7, 2004)