Nike knocks out Russell for five-year on-field sponsorship

Jeremy Chisenhall

WKU athletics got a big boost in branding and appearance on Tuesday when it announced a new five-year deal with Nike as its official on-field apparel provider beginning July 1.

WKU had been partnered with Russell Athletics for the past 10 years, but the two mutually ended their on-field agreement on Monday. The financial terms of the deal have yet to be released.

“All of our sport programs and student-athletes will benefit from the relationship with Nike,” athletic director Todd Stewart said in a statement. “We are very excited to partner with the leading and most recognizable brand in athletics.”

While Russell will remain an apparel licensee to the school, meaning it will continue to sell licensed WKU apparel in stores, Nike will now provide all 16 WKU athletic teams with their on-field apparel.

Since 2007, Russell has been WKU’s exclusive on-field sponsor and has signed multiple contract extensions with the school since then.

In 2011, the two sides put a deal in place worth $1.735 million before later signing a five-year, $3.5 million extension with the apparel company in 2015, which  was scheduled to be in effect from 2016-2021.

According to the terms of the contract extension,  the two parties signed in 2015;  WKU will not owe any money to Russell because of the mutual nature of the termination.

WKU’s move to Nike comes at a time when Russell continues to fall further out of the college sports landscape. The company recently lost its namesake in the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando, Florida as it was announced last month that the bowl will now be called the Camping World Bowl.

Ohio University also ended its agreement with Russell last month, as the Bobcats are now sponsored by Adidas. The only notable school still under contract with Russell is Georgia Tech, whose deal ends in 2018.

With WKU cutting its ties, Southern Mississippi is the only Conference USA school still locked into a Russell deal, which is set to expire in 2019.

While it’s a significant move for the athletic department, those within the program are still giving public support to Russell, which is established at the Fruit of the Loom headquarters in Bowling Green.

“We have enjoyed a terrific partnership with Russell Athletic over the last 10 years,” Stewart said in a statement on Monday. “Our athletics programs have experienced significant growth during this time, and we are deeply appreciative to Fruit of the Loom and Russell Athletic for their vital role. We look forward to continuing to work with them in growing our licensed apparel business.”

Stewart wasn’t the only one to express gratitude toward the longtime outfitter of WKU athletics. New head football coach Mike Sanford took to Twitter to express his thanks in his short time involved with Russell.

“Thank you to Russell Athletic for all you have done for WKU sports and WKU football. You have been a great partner for us!” Sanford said in a tweet on Tuesday.

Russell responded, pleased to have been a part of the partnership.

“It’s been a pleasure working with you and we’re proud to have been a part of the team,” Russell’s account responded.

Rising senior wide receiver and Bowling Green native Nacarius Fant said he supported Russell in a tweet, and also expressed his excitement on the new apparel deal.

“Excited to wear that swoosh for my senior football season at WKU,” Fant tweeted.

WKU will join Charlotte, Marshall, Middle Tennessee State, North Texas, Old Dominion and Texas El Paso as members of C-USA who are outfitted by Nike.

Nike has been the premiere provider of apparel in college sports, as they have clothed the last seven national champions in college football  and eight of the last nine national champions in college basketball.

The success of WKU’s athletic programs in recent years has helped position the school for a significant branding upgrade. The athletic programs at WKU have more conference championships than any other C-USA school since the Hilltoppers joined the conference back in 2014.

The football team is 31-10 over the last three seasons with back-to-back C-USA Championships, as well as three straight bowl victories.

Head basketball coach Rick Stansbury is bringing in a consensus top-15 nationally ranked recruiting class to the Hill next season, headlined by WKU’s first-ever McDonald’s All-American, Mitchell Robinson.

The women’s basketball team, led by head coach Michelle Clark-Heard, has made three NCAA Tournaments in the last four seasons, winning two C-USA championships along the way.

WKU and Nike will have a full uniform reveal this summer, according to the school.

Reporter Jeremy Chisenhall can be reached at 859-760-0198 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @JSChisenhall.