Adidas signs long-term partnership with Arizona State to study athletes

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer
Arizona State guard Kodi Justice in a game against USC on Feb. 26, 2017. (AP)

Adidas and Arizona State University on Tuesday announced an extensive, long-term partnership that will involve research, on-campus presence, and live conferences, and could even have an impact on Adidas’s product pipeline.

The sports apparel brand and the school are calling it the Global Sport Alliance; a press release says the pact is “aimed at shaping the future of sport.” Adidas says the initiative has been in the works for more than two years.

ASU switched from Nike to Adidas for its apparel contract in 2014. The Global Sport Alliance is separate from the apparel contract, and represents additional investment by Adidas (the company declines to share how much).

“I think this relationship is going well beyond the typical university athletic gear partnership,” says Adidas US CEO Mark King, who deserves some of the credit for the company’s recent turnaround in America. “This is beyond, ‘We’re going to outfit your athletes, and it’ll be good for you, and good for us.’ We already have that with them. In speaking with the university president, I was really taken by him. The university is so cutting-edge.”

Indeed, US News & World Report named ASU the most innovative school in the country in 2015 and 2016. Its president is Dr. Michael Crow, an accomplished scientist and former chair of the University Innovation Alliance. Time Magazine included him on a ranking of the 10 best college presidents in 2009.

King says that Crow suggested “we combine our resources to look through the lens of sport and see how we could make a positive impact on the world. So this wasn’t about making ASU a better university, it wasn’t about making Adidas a better company, it was altruistic.”

Well, nothing a large corporation does is every truly altruistic. The alliance may produce compelling findings, and it may spur change in education and sports, but it also gets Adidas some positive attention outside the field, court, and sporting goods store. And it comes at just the right time: Adidas is flying in America and gaining footwear market share, as sports fashion rises and performance sneakers stall. (Adidas stock is up 25% in 2017, while Nike is up only 6% and Under Armour is down 16%.)

Adidas, Nike, and Under Armour stock in 2017

For now, the alliance is merely an announcement, focused on future plans. It amounts to a lot of nice talk. So, where might the partnership actually go?

“It goes everywhere,” says King. “We’ll be looking at athlete movement, biomechanics, how to improve human performance on the field, materials to make better products, materials that help the world through sustainability. And racial diversity is a topic we want to explore—what’s the impact of race on team ownership and major sports leagues?”

Those are certainly worthwhile avenues of inquiry. And in case anyone doubts the seriousness of the initiative, the Global Sport Institute, which will operate under the Global Sport Alliance and focus on research, will live on ASU’s Tempe campus in one of its (still-to-be-announced) buildings, and work closely with its Walter Cronkite journalism school.

If the dedicated real estate isn’t enough to impress, Adidas and ASU also got a longtime Wharton sports business professor, Ken Shropshire, to leave Wharton for ASU. Shropshire will be CEO of the Global Sport Institute (King and Crow will co-run the larger umbrella Global Sport Alliance) and also a “distinguished professor in global sports,” which the press release calls “a newly created position by Adidas.”

In other words, this partnership involves Adidas installing faculty at ASU, which is likely unprecedented in past relationships between sports brands and universities. You might call Shropshire higher education’s first Adidas professor.

It’s worth asking if this deal effectively puts ASU in the conversation for the title of Adidas’s flagship school. Nike’s flagship school, as almost any sports fan knows, is the University of Oregon, alma mater of Nike founder Phil Knight; Under Armour’s flagship is the University of Maryland, where Under Armour founder Kevin Plank created the company as an undergraduate football player. (Some argue Under Armour’s flagship is Auburn, one of its earliest sponsored schools and a much bigger sports powerhouse.)

Adidas doesn’t have any obvious flagship university. Mark King says that’s by design.

“I don’t know if we look at it that way,” he says. “We have Kansas, which is obviously one of the top two or three basketball programs in the country. They’re our flagship basketball school. But North Carolina State has been very strong with basketball too, and Indiana. Then we have Nebraska, a historic football program. We have Texas A&M, really great for overall athletics. Mississippi State, same thing, especially baseball. To me, Louisville has the best overall athletics of all our schools.”

Still, he acknowledges that this partnership “elevates ASU to a different level completely. Because we’re not just investing in changing their helmets every week with a different-color jersey. This is about global reach.”

ASU plays in the Pac-12 Conference; the Sun Devils have never won a football or basketball title, but in 2008 the men’s and women’s indoor track & field teams both won national titles, and the women’s golf team won an NCAA-record eighth championship this year.

For now, this news amounts to an announcement of intentions. Next, Adidas and ASU will have to make good on its ambitions. “Today is a bunch of aspirations and dreaming and what-ifs,” King says, “but I think within the next 90 to 120 days, we will have a lot to report. And when we have something to share with the world, we’ll be hosting conferences at ASU to share the findings.”

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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