Nike is well into launching a national seven-on-seven league, CBS Sports has learned, that has the potential to further change the face of recruiting, NCAA enforcement and college football.
That's mostly because it’s Nike that’s doing it.
Part of the new Nike initiative includes a sponsorship deal with Marriott and possibly a similar deal with an airline to transport players, according to a source.
Players would be required to pay up to at least $1,000 to participate. A team of approximately 25 players would spend their offseason practicing and playing in two tournaments.
Five cities are involved: San Francisco, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Kansas City.
Future plans may include junior-high, junior varsity and varsity teams all under the Nike banner, according to that source.
A request for comment from Nike was not returned to CBS Sports.
“The world has changed,” said former shoe executive Sonny Vaccaro. “There are no more virgins. The virginity is over now.”
In a week in which Ohio State signed a 15-year marketing deal with Nike and the Ivy League’s Yale signed on with Under Armour, perhaps we shouldn’t blink at growing corporate influence.
It can be argued that influence in college athletics has reached new levels. Nike dominates the market with apparel deals with at least 80 of the 129 FBS programs. Adidas and Under Armour have the others.
What was once referred to as “Shoe Wars” in basketball has now become a gridiron skirmish. That is, essentially using teenagers to push merchandise.
Seven-on-seven is approximately a decade-old “football lite” offshoot of the real game. Quarterbacks, running backs and receivers essentially play touch football games against linebackers and defensive backs.
What started as an offseason activity to sharpen skills has become a contrived “sport” monetized/legitimized by sponsors and corporations. If that sounds a bit creepy and unsavory, read on.
Thirty-plus years ago, Vaccaro was at the center of the discussion as a Nike marketer signing Kobe Bryant to his first shoe deal. Lately, he has become an athlete advocate and reformer helping recruit Ed O’Bannon in his landmark suit against the NCAA.
“All these things that were verboten, the first [basketball all-star] camps has now evolved into everybody doing everything involving the high school kids,” Vaccaro said.
“This covers everything. All the shoe companies now have shoe wars [regarding] seven-on-seven.”
One of the world’s largest sports apparel manufacturers has closed a loop of sorts on the burgeoning world of seven-on-seven. It is further engaging Under Armour and Adidas in that lucrative space.
Nike currently sponsors a seven-on-seven competition in conjunction with its well-known The Opening each spring, but the new event is more national in scope.
“They’re giving the kids, essentially, the swag they would get at The Opening -- the coolest uniforms, the best cleats,” said one person familiar with the process.
Nike is merely keeping up with the competition. This year, more than 200 teams will participate in the national Adidas competition that culminates in the “national championship” July 30-31 in Atlanta. IMG has sponsored a championship for five years.
“They [Nike] can flip the game,” 247Sports national college football recruiting insider Ryan Bartow said. “I’m surprised they haven’t done it yet.”
At the core of the endeavor, the apparel companies are using kids to hawk their product. While that’s basic American capitalism at its best, the concern is that another round of those “Shoe Wars” is breaking out in what is still supposed to be amateur football.
Fifteen years ago, authors Don Yaeger and Dan Wetzel detailed basketball corruption in “Sole Influence." Shoe companies went all out trying to identify the new Michael Jordan to which they could hook their brand.
It’s a bit more complicated to identify the next Jordan in a much larger team sport like football. But whittled down to seven-on-seven, apparently it’s worth trying.
The NCAA's enforcement division is doing its best playing defense. Seven-on-seven is arguably the NCAA’s biggest concern because of its similarity to the seedy side of AAU basketball.
AAU hoops has been blamed in the past for separating athletes from their traditional high school coaches, thereby creating a sometimes-unsavory recruiting environment.
“There’s a lot of activity there that many not be on the front page,” NCAA enforcement director Jon Duncan told CBS Sports last month. “It’s not the scholastic coach. It’s not mom or dad, it’s the people who say they are the guardian.”
When asked this week about seven-on-seven, the NCAA released a statement: “The NCAA membership continues to voice concern about outside influences in the recruiting process. We communicate regularly with industry leaders about those issues and concerns. The enforcement staff continues to focus on trends in the recruiting world, including the 7-on-7 environment, to ensure the recruiting process is fair for prospects and the membership.”
CBS Sports has since learned the NCAA met with organizers of what was called a new Nike-sponsored event. One source said Nike is choosing not to make a splashy announcement of its new seven-on-seven league.
Four years ago, the NCAA banned seven-on-seven competition from campuses, unless it was sanctioned by state high school associations. The SEC banned such activity in Sept. 2011.
The vast majority of state high school associations do not allow spring football. Seven-on-seven has filled that void as an athletic endeavor -- and a business.
“You don’t want it to get like basketball recruiting where there are diploma mills,” Bartow said. “At the end of the day, it’s not real football.”
Bartow says sometimes when he reports a football recruiting commitment, he’ll alert the high school coach, “and not the seven-on-seven coach. They have a problem with that. Some of [the seven-on-seven coaches] will take offense to it.”
One seven-on-seven assistant near Bartow in South Florida “knows the kids better than the coach at Miami Central [High School]. The [college] coaches are calling this guy instead of the high school coach.”
The third-party seven-on-seven influence cannot be denied even if it’s merely Will Lyles, a talent scout/coach who was at the center of an NCAA investigation that ended in penalties slapped on Oregon a few years ago.
His remains the most recognizable face of an issue the NCAA cannot fully get its arms around.
“I would venture to say 65 percent on the circuit are high school coaches,” said Joshua Borne, Pylon’s vice president for business development. “It’s not entirely disconnecting.”
The Nike endeavor is expected to employ local high school coaches. However, in theory, a van full of high school athletes playing on any apparel-sponsored team could make an unofficial visit to that apparel-sponsored school (Nike, Under Armour, Adidas) on the way to one of those tournaments. Fair?
“That’s an interesting question,” Borne said. “Our goal is we want to see every one of these kids in college. I don’t care what school they go to. If a kid likes Nike and wants to pick a school because of the clothes they wear … it might be an extra little thing.”
We’re talking about backyard football being refined into a corporate marketing tool. If a kid improves his skills and maybe gets a scholarship out of it, what’s the harm?
It doesn’t always end innocently and it doesn’t end there. There’s always a profit-related end game to the games. Under Armour (Auburn) and Nike (Oregon) went head-to-head hawking their brands at the 2011 BCS title game.
Next year, a 16-team college basketball tournament will be played in Oregon to celebrate Nike co-founder Phil Knight’s 80th birthday.
What’s a little organized touch football in comparison?
“It’s branding,” Borne said. “They’re looking to associate their brand with good events that are lifelong memories. Football has been a difficult sport to brand athletes because it’s so associated with the helmet … I think seven-on-seven can help players develop their brand.”
The lengths apparel companies will go to push their merch are obvious. In the last year, Nike has committed more than $670 million in long-term deals involving Texas, Michigan and Ohio State.
“The bar is being reset,” one athletic apparel industry source told CBS Sports. “What happened is kind of what happened to TV rights. Something was triggered and the market was reset.
“It doesn’t surprise me the influence of different brands on helping schools win, helping them recruit. It obviously brings value more than just providing gear.”