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An insider's view of Tennessee Football's transition to Nike

There are many concentric circles in this particular Circle of Trust, and the view from this one unfortunately isn't really much different than yours.

Many of you know that back in 2011 I retired from the practice of law and opened a business that sells, among other things, licensed apparel and accessories to sports fans. Primarily, due to geography and my unnatural and sometimes irrational fondness for the team, that means Vols stuff to Vols fans. Of course, my beloved Tennessee athletic program picked just then to commence the worst four year period in the last 100 years of its history, and as I have often repeated to customers, when your favorite stock isn't doing as well as you'd hoped, it's good to have a diversified portfolio. Yes, that means what you think it means: I also sold some Alabama and Gators stuff to get through the hard times. Don't judge. Actually go ahead and judge. I am ashamed.

Anyway, because I deal in licensed apparel, many people have asked me for the faintest hint of a whiff of a scoop on Tennessee's transition to Nike. I've kept largely silent on it for a couple of reasons. First and most importantly, I really don't know anything that you don't know. Sure, I have a kind of insider access to official information, but -- and this should come as no surprise -- unofficial leaks are always swifter than official memos. Second, those official memos don't really reveal very much anyway, because the writers are worried about leaks. So yeah, I received an official Tennessee launch letter last week as an authorized Nike dealer, but (1) we were sworn to secrecy, and (2) there isn't any information in the launch letter that would tempt anyone to spill the beans anyway.

There are a few things I can say, though, although much of this is pure speculation on my part and will be moot by noon today anyway. But here are some answers to the questions I've been asked most frequently over the past six months or so.

Have you seen it? Nope. We committed a fairly large sum of money back in November last year to an order that wouldn't ship until July, and we did so site (or product, more accurately) unseen. Our decisions were based on the following procedure: Look at the catalog (which consists primarily of drawings rather than actual images anyway). Find the Texas version of the item. Mentally change the orange to the right shade and the logos and wordmarks to Tennessee's. Cross fingers. Order.

The catalogs had pictures of almost every team's version of every item, but there was a bold "TBD" where Tennessee's should have been. So no. We don't know what it looks like. Maybe the bigger chains with actual reps and stuff have seen it. But not us. As I'm writing this, it's the day before the big launch, and they still haven't released web images. I think we're going to see the actual product for the first time at exactly the same time you do.

So what about that stuff that someone snapped a picture of at JC Penney last week, was that the new line? I honestly don't know, but if Nike hasn't shipped it (and they said they're not shipping anything until July 1), then how would JC Penney have it? The lawyer in me is still alive and well, and so I will say nothing more, but you can draw your own conclusions.

Okay, how about the uniforms I saw pictures of on Tuesday? Okay, those might be a different story. I said earlier that Nike said they're not shipping anything until Wednesday. But there is one exception to that, and that is that they're reserving the entire first day to themselves to sell through their own official store on campus. That, plus they're having a launch party today at noon, so it stands to reason that the stuff arrived there early. The launch party isn't going to be an un-boxing video, after all. The players, coaches, and staff are all likely to be wearing it. It's not too implausible that some intern or an administrative type surreptitiously snapped some pictures while folks were rehearsing. So I think those may well be legit. Could be wrong.

Is there anything else you can tell us about Nike and the transition? Why did the school do it if it's not as lucrative on its face as the adidas deal was? Is Tennessee going to become Oregon? I hate Oregon. You may want to pick up a copy of this year's Rocky Top Tennessee preseason annual, in which I provide in-depth answers to these questions and more, but here are the bullet points:

  • The cash and merchandise portion of the agreement may not be as financially lucrative as the adidas deal, but the royalty rate the University will earn on the sale of merchandise is actually much better. Bottom line, they're banking on coming out ahead by selling more merchandise. And they're probably right. They also have an incentive to actively promote the stuff, and they're doing a really good job of that.
  • I don't think Tennessee's going to turn into Oregon for several reasons, the detail of which are in the magazine. But it boils down to this: First, history. Second, the licensor (not the licensee) is in control, and Tennessee's much more traditional and conservative in design than Oregon. And third, uni gimmicks are most often employed when needed, and Tennessee doesn't need to. With the switch in apparel companies and the general trend of the team, I don't see stale on the horizon any time soon. If the team tanks, all bets are off, though. Then everybody's going to be scrambling to recoup their money.
So bottom line, even as a retail store owner, I'm really in no better position than you to know what's going to be on that stage when they draw the curtain today at noon. They've done a really good job of teasing it out and building anticipation, and I can't wait to see it.