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Sparing No Expense, but at Whose Expense? : Shoe war: Nike's recent 'Fab 40' fiasco, as well as its plunge into sports management, has some wondering if company is going too far to broaden its influence.

October 17, 1993|DANNY ROBBINS and ELLIOTT ALMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Nike Sports Management, an entity designed to give Nike greater control over athletes endorsing its products, has put Nike on the doorstep of the sports agent business, if not entirely through the door.

The company is currently overseeing the careers of three rising stars: Rick Mirer, the Seattle Seahawks' rookie quarterback; Harold Miner, the former USC guard who is beginning his second season with the Miami Heat, and Alonzo Mourning, the Charlotte Hornets' second-year center.

Nike has not been certified to act as an agent by the NBA or NFL players' associations, a prerequisite to negotiating player contracts with teams in those leagues. But the issue isn't holding Nike back.

In Mourning's case, Nike signed the former Georgetown star to a deal worth a reported $16 million and then hired an agent, David Falk, to negotiate the player's contract with the Hornets.

"That's where David's role ended," said Terdema Ussery II, president of Nike Sports Management.

The rest of Mourning's affairs, including financial matters and marketing agreements, are being managed in Beaverton.

"The objective right now is to do marketing and work with the best agents out there," said Ussery, the former commissioner of the Continental Basketball Assn. "Do we deserve the right to change our focus? Absolutely. But that's not on the immediate horizon."

Nike has also significantly expanded its presence in the college coaching ranks in recent months, signing Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina's Dean Smith.

Nike reportedly gave Krzyzewski, formerly with Adidas, a $1-million signing bonus and a 15-year contract worth $375,000 per year in exchange for the privilege of putting its shoes on the feet of the telegenic Blue Devils.

As for Smith, Nike induced him to end a 23-year association with Converse with a deal that will provide the university with $4.7 million in cash, shoes and athletic apparel over the next four years.

The deal calls for Nike to supply shoes and apparel to 24 of North Carolina's 26 men's and women's teams. Also included in the deal is $200,000 to finance an international exhibition tour by the Nike-clad Tar Heels.

The timing of Nike's play for Smith, just months after a Final Four in which three teams (Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina) wore Converse and only one (Michigan) wore Nikes, did not go unnoticed by those who lost out in the deal.

Said Gib Ford, Converse president, in a prepared statement released when negotiations had been concluded: "Converse has enjoyed an outstanding association with Dean Smith. . . . However, it's readily apparent that the success Converse is experiencing with its basketball business is causing Nike to implement new tactics in an effort to erode some of this growth."

Nike has cut the same sort of mega-deal with the University of Miami and is negotiating similar arrangements with USC and Michigan. Following suit, Reebok is attempting to arrange a deal with UCLA that would cover the full complement of Bruin teams.

In an era of tough financial choices for many college athletic departments, such deals can be lifesavers. But at what cost?

"Just think of it. Nike has the University of Miami, lock, stock and barrel," said Frank Vuono, president of Sports Integrated International, a New York company that arranges marketing contracts for athletes.

"That gives every one of their reps and promotional guys the opportunity to get into the locker rooms, supposedly to find out how a kid's shoes are fitting or how the uniforms fit or how the jerseys hold up. When those kids get out of school and are approached about representation, who are they inclined to go with?

"Nike knows full well what they are doing. . . . The biggest coaches, the Joe Paternos and so on, are constantly talking about morals and integrity, worrying about (athletes) getting degrees and what they do off the field, and their (athletes) are wearing the biggest 'swooshes.' "

For Vuono and others, Nike's web of summer basketball programs serves as yet another means of burning the "swoosh" into the minds of potential Nike Sports Management clients.

Nike's Ussery counters such talk by pointing out the limited nature of Nike's sports management interests.

Still, Nike's move into sports management has created a dilemma for the NCAA.

Under NCAA rules, a high school athlete can receive equipment as well as certain expenses from a company sponsoring a summer event without jeopardizing his college eligibility. However, an athlete's eligibility could be affected if he received similar benefits from an agent.

So, what is Nike?

Last spring, the NCAA Interpretations Committee ruled that Nike could continue to sponsor and fund its summer events without jeopardizing the eligibility of participants as long as the company's sports management division was not involved.

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