UCLA head football coach Jim Mora at a news conference. (Reed Saxon / AP)

My favorite assessment of big-time sports came from the movie “North Dallas Forty,” when a frustrated John Matuszak, typecast as a football player, slams his coach, Charles Durning, against a locker and yells, “When we call it a game, you call it a business. When we call it a business, you call it a game!” When the UCLA Bruins football team opens the season against Texas A&M on Saturday, the players’ focus will be on football. But for the coaching staff, UCLA officials and representatives from Under Armour in attendance, it will also be a matter of business. In May, UCLA signed a deal with the sports apparel giant worth a cool $280 million over 12 years, the most lucrative apparel contract in college sports history. (Part of the deal included $15 million upfront for UCLA, around $11 million annually in rights and marketing fees, and contributions of $2 million per year over eight years for upgrades to athletics facilities.) UCLA, though, shouldn’t spend too much time congratulating itself for being No. 1. Most likely, the new No. 1 will be whoever inks the next deal. The Under Armour-UCLA contract, like every deal between college powers and competing sports apparel giants Nike and Adidas, means that the company will supply shoes, shirts, pants and other equipment for all the school’s teams. In return, players and coaches will display its logo on their uniforms. That’s right—the entire team, down to and including the equipment managers and water boys—will be walking billboards for the sports apparel company. Here are the top 10 contracts, according to Forbes—not the top 10 football teams, but the football teams with the top 10 contracts:
Rank School Company Avg. Annual $ (Mil) Duration
1. UCLA Under Armour $18.67 2018-32
2. Ohio State Nike $16.80 2019-33
3. Texas Nike $16.67 2017-31
4. Michigan Nike $15.73 2016-27
5. Wisconsin Under Armour $9.60 2017-26
6. Notre Dame Under Armour $9.00 2016-24
7. Auburn Under Armour $7.81 2016-25
8. Texas A&M Adidas $7.70 2014-22
9. Miami Adidas $7.50 2016-27
10. South Carolina Under Armour $7.15 2016-25
Which of the big three is ahead in the race? What month is it? The lead has changed hands five times in the last two years and is bound to change yet again when several major contracts expire at the end of this season. And all bets are off when Alabama, whose contract with Nike puts it at No. 26 on the list (tied with Kentucky), negotiates a new deal in two years. But it hardly matters who is in the lead because Nike, Adidas and Under Armour have 64—count ’em: 64—of the top 65 contracts with American colleges. Only one school—Georgia Tech, which checks in at No. 47—isn’t signed with one of them, going for Russell Athletics’ offer of $2.3 million a year through 2018. Back in the 1960s, before sports apparel companies became huge corporations, football, basketball and other college sports teams simply ordered their uniforms from vendors. That, of course, was before television took over college sports, and the apparel companies realized that this was the best place to spend their advertising dollar. From the 1970s on, a war as competitive as anything on the field or court broke out behind the scenes. Three years ago, a sports economist told Time magazine, “The degree of competitiveness for these sports apparel companies to get their brand name out there is at an all-time high. They realize a lot of people are watching.” The dollar sum of the contracts is only what’s on the surface: Companies are thrilled to hand out free caps, travel bags, headbands and other goodies to players and their families just for the advertising. And the universities are only too happy to reciprocate with perks of their own: tickets, free parking and loads of free advertising in and around the stadiums, courts and fields.
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