NCAA Tournament Showcases Uniform Manufacturers

March 01, 2017

When the teams storm the court for NCAA Tournament, there will be more at stake than the NCAA basketball championships. There’s a second tournament hidden in plain sight, one that has millions of dollars riding on the outcome and causes reverberations throughout amateur and youth basketball across the country. Instead of 64 teams, this tournament will be played by a handful of competitors, but the teams on the court ultimately will decide the outcome. This tournament will be watched by just as many people as the NCAA Tournament, but few will be fully aware of what’s at stake or who will be the ultimate winner.

This competition is between the top manufacturers of college basketball uniforms — Under Armour®, Nike, Russell Athletic and adidas. Although it may not be apparent to the average viewer watching the NCAA Tournament, it’s just as hotly contested as any matchup on the bracket. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is expected to generate more than $1 billion in revenues for the NCAA and its partners, and uniform manufacturers are eager to have their brand on as many of the participating teams as possible.

The competition has become much fiercer in recent years, as the upstart Under Armour® and other manufacturers have begun to make serious inroads where Nike used to reign supreme. As of the start of the 2016 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, Under Armour® provided the uniforms for 10 of the 68 participating teams, compared to 41 for Nike, 14 for adidas, and three for Russell Athletic. When highly prized schools’ contracts for uniforms come up for bid, manufacturers scramble over one another to make a deal. In 2015, Under Armour® signed an exclusive deal to outfit the University of Wisconsin’s teams valued at $96 million — a figure perhaps justified by how frequently Wisconsin’s basketball and football teams compete in the national spotlight. That same year, Nike sewed a major deal of its own with one of Wisconsin’s chief Big 10 rivals, the University of Michigan, a known powerhouse on the court and on the field. That deal is reportedly worth $11.1 million each year until 2027. Keep in mind, these deals are what these manufacturers pay the schools for the right to be their exclusive uniform suppliers, not the other way around.

On Display

The reason these companies fight so hard to get their brands on college basketball uniforms is simple: With TV ratings for the NCAA Tournament consistently high, it’s become extremely important to gain the increased visibility that comes from having their uniforms displayed front and center during as many of those tournament games as possible. Every game is ostensibly a three-hour commercial for their brand, and if they have contracts with both schools taking the court, there’s zero competition for the viewer’s attention.

In essence, the NCAA Tournament court becomes the world’s most action-packed fashion runway, and manufacturers like Under Armour® and Nike use it to their advantage by unveiling new basketball uniform designs each year. In recent years, big-name manufacturers like adidas and Nike have used the start of the tournament to debut new designs and materials that are rolled out to other markets later in the year.

In some cases, these new uniforms bear some unified design elements that make them instantly recognizable as being products of a particular manufacturer. For example, adidas created a special set of uniforms for the 2016 NCAA Tournament featuring distinctive waistband stripes that unified the designs. Even though each school’s uniforms included its unique school colors and other design elements, the waistband stripes made it clear that in each case, those uniforms came from adidas.

The focus on specialized uniforms has become an increasingly large part of the hype related to the run-up to the NCAA Tournament. Manufacturers take advantage of social media to drive excitement before the uniforms are unveiled, and it’s even become common for these brands to share videos of the players reacting to their new uniforms for the first time. Even a team’s warmup gear becomes part of the action, as companies often emblazon their warmup gear with special slogans or logos for the tournament.

Looking Like Champions

Understandably, all the work that goes into promoting these new basketball uniform designs makes them very popular among youth basketball leagues. The kids who play basketball want to look and feel like their heroes on the court, and they want what they wear to be as close to the real thing as possible.

As a partner with Under Armour®, Cisco Athletic has a direct pipeline to the latest trends in youth basketball uniforms. We work consistently with youth sports teams to help them get uniforms that are the same or practically the same as the ones they see being worn on television during the NCAA Tournament. No matter whose uniforms are worn by the team cutting down the nets at the end of the tournament, anyone can look like a winner.


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