By Eric Prisbell and Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 1, 2009
When Lance Stephenson and his parents came to the area in late January for an official visit to the University of Maryland, the high school basketball standout from Brooklyn, N.Y., was courted by two suitors. His itinerary included not just attending a Maryland home game and meeting Terrapins coaches, but also a visit to the Under Armour athletic apparel company in Baltimore.
Maryland wanted the heralded guard to be the centerpiece of a recruiting class that would help make the Terrapins a contender in the ACC in the 2009-10 season. At the same time, industry sources said, Under Armour wanted to build a relationship with Stephenson so he would become part of its fledgling basketball shoe division if he reaches the NBA.
The most elite high school basketball players are often recruited by shoe companies, but rarely is a company also a major benefactor of a university pursuing the same player. Under Armour founder and chief executive Kevin Plank is a former Maryland football player and member of the school's Board of Trustees. That means the NCAA considers him a "representative of the institution's athletics interests," commonly known as a booster. Under Armour Inc. is acknowledged by Maryland as a member of its "Legends" benefactor group, meaning it has donated more than $1 million to the school.
NCAA recruiting bylaws can make such an arrangement dicey. A Maryland official said the school, after being asked by a Washington Post reporter about Under Armour's relationship with Stephenson, is investigating the case to determine whether any NCAA rules have been violated. The official said the school plans to speak to Under Armour personnel tomorrow.
Plank declined numerous requests to be interviewed for this story. The company referred all questions to senior vice president Stephen Battista, who via e-mail said of the general arrangement between the company and the school: "We meet with the University of Maryland administration frequently and compliance is part of those meetings. . . . Because compliance is a priority, we are not concerned."
Leaping into the cutthroat fray of the basketball shoe business will require any newcomer to persuade high-profile players to become living billboards for its products. But extra caution is warranted when the company is wooing the same player as a school to which it donates.
"You are treading in some dangerous water there," said Tim Parker, Virginia Tech's senior assistant director of athletics for compliance. "I mean, you have hit upon some issues that would have to be discussed in advance with the staff and with those executives that are classified as boosters, because you do run some risks there of jeopardizing that individual's ability to play at that school down the road."The Nike Model
Plank founded Under Armour in 1996, creating football undershirts that would not retain moisture. As the product took off, the company then started producing other apparel, also moving into cleated shoes for football and baseball. It decided to produce basketball shoes even though it faced direct competition from Nike, one of the strongest brands in the world.
Under Armour followed the Nike game plan by signing an endorsement contract with a top player. In this case, it was Brandon Jennings, a California summer league star who earned international headlines when he chose to play professionally in Europe rather than in college. Under Armour also reached out to Sonny Vaccaro, the godfather of shoe company-sponsored camps and events who helped Nike build its empire, making him an unpaid consultant.
The fledgling company is preparing to enter the grass-roots level of a multibillion-dollar industry that took shape in 1978, when a little-known company in Oregon began paying college basketball coaches to outfit their players with its shoes. Nike quickly gained a stranglehold on the industry, and the 1984 signing of Michael Jordan to a shoe contract launched Phil Knight's company into a different stratosphere. The aim was to build the brand and secure the next crop of megastars. Nike outfitted and bankrolled high school and summer league teams, attracted top talent to its annual summer camp and signed Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski to a contract that included a $1 million signing bonus in 1993. At the same time, Adidas's emergence as Nike's first legitimate adversary intensified the competition exponentially.
Shoe companies began targeting players in middle school, building relationships with those close to the preteens. High-profile summer camps became auditions for NBA careers and multimillion-dollar shoe contracts. In the summer of 1996, Tracy McGrady was a skinny, unknown player who finagled his way into an Adidas camp. The next year, he had a six-year, $12-million contract with Adidas. A few years later, the chase for a teenager wearing the King James T-shirt brought unprecedented theater, with Nike flying LeBron James and his mother to its headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., before his senior year of high school began. Nike ultimately signed James to a $90 million contract.
Stories of shoe company officials steering players to college coaches under contract with their respective sneaker companies became lore, and the annual tug-of-war over top high school players became ruthless. Earlier this decade, Amare Stoudemire switched from Nike to Adidas and back to Nike after a Nike representative allegedly gave his mother gifts and cash. A few years later, a Reebok official accused Adidas officials of acting as if they "owned" players. And in 2005, Nike dismissed Kevin Love from its sponsored team because Love had committed the cardinal sin: He played in Reebok's camp.
If Under Armour is to have any hope of making an impact in such a competitive culture, it will need high-profile players, and because these relationships are conceived long before players enter the NBA, that means targeting and wooing athletes at the same time colleges are doing the same thing. Vaccaro said Under Armour is trying to build a relationship with Stephenson to make him one of its first prominent faces.
"He would be a logical player you would want to sign," said Vaccaro, who has been a confidant of Stephenson's since inviting him to ABCD Camp as an eighth-grader, thus helping to create the prep star's outsize reputation. "He would be the O.J. Mayo of this class."
Shoe companies will go to great lengths to attract talent. In July 2004, Pangos, a company that had not even produced its first shoe, held a middle-of-the-night tournament in Las Vegas. And three years ago, Reebok pursued Renardo Sidney so aggressively that it hired his father before the player had even played one high school season. But which shoe company-sponsored camp attracts the best players ultimately is immaterial, Adidas representative David Pump has concluded, because "one camp might have the best players, but at the end of the day, who is selling the most shoes?"A Gray Area
From the NCAA's perspective, complexities arise when the company selling the shoes is owned by a person with a vested interest in a particular school: Is the company acting as an independent business or as a representative of the university's athletic department?
Vaccaro said Under Armour is "very conscious of Maryland's plight," referring to the fact that the men's basketball team is in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five seasons.
An important question considered in determining whether an NCAA violation has been committed, according to Josephine R. Potuto, a former chair of the NCAA Committee on Infractions, is whether the company's actions constitute a promotion of the athletic interests of the university with which it has an affiliation.
Potuto, who spoke in general about compliance issues and not about any specific school's practices, said one factor in that regard is the number of schools with which the company in question holds contractual partnerships.
"The more that the relationship is confined to a smaller number of institutions, the greater the possibility that the conduct will be seen to inure to the benefit of a particular institution," said Potuto, a professor of law and the faculty athletics representative at the University of Nebraska. "If you are doing it for 100 or 200, then the claim that you are promoting a particular athletics department is much harder to make."
In September, Under Armour announced a five-year, $17.5 million deal that made Maryland the nation's only school to outfit all its teams with the company's apparel. The company is the official outfitter for 10 college football programs. Maryland is one of the few Division I basketball programs outfitted by Under Armour, and sports observers most closely associate the company with Maryland. One of the company's first memorable television advertisements featured Terrapins football coach Ralph Friedgen exhorting his team to "protect this house."
Vaccaro said the company's interest in Stephenson is not contingent on his college choice.
"If he goes to St. John's or Kansas, Under Armour will still go after him because now the relationship with Under Armour is built," said Vaccaro, who recently visited Stephenson in New York. "So they made a good move by getting him down there. Whether he goes to Maryland or not is immaterial. And he got a bunch of Under Armour stuff he is running around with. That's good."
Stephenson denied receiving any gear, but he reportedly test-wore Under Armour apparel during a recent high school game, even though his Lincoln High team is sponsored by another shoe company. And industry sources familiar with the recruitment said Stephenson recently was left off a Nike-affiliated all-star game largely because of his ties to Under Armour.
The player's father, Lance Stephenson Sr., said Under Armour will have no influence on where his son goes to college and that the relationship with the company is "long-term talk . . . a hope and a prayer."
He added: "To be honest with you, we really don't care for the sneaker. The sneaker sucks."'Big Recruiting Advantage'
Regardless of the company's intent, Vaccaro, who has worked for Nike, Adidas and Reebok, concedes Under Armour's affiliation with the school gives Maryland a recruiting advantage with players the company has targeted as prospective clients.
"I think that is true," Vaccaro said. "It's like when [Nike's] Phil Knight turned me loose in the 1970s and 1980s. I did it, and he okayed it. Somebody had to get Lance down there. Kevin [Plank] didn't bring him down. . . .
"You can do things by implying without saying. If they know you are my friend, why would they not trust you? That's the advantage you get. Once Nike had every school in America, it was not that hard."
NCAA recruiting rules are designed to prevent such advantages. They are "designed to keep boosters out of the recruiting process," said Bill Clever, a compliance officer at the University of Oregon, a school outfitted by Nike.
How Stephenson's relationship with Under Armour pertains to Maryland's recruitment of him has evoked strong feelings privately in recruiting circles. Four current college coaches and a sports agency representative said they were aware of the situation; all declined to comment publicly. One assistant coach, who requested anonymity because he is not allowed to comment on an unsigned recruit, said it raised issues that probably would have to be addressed in advance by Maryland's compliance office.
Before Stephenson set foot in College Park on the first day of his official visit, he said, he and his parents were given a tour of Under Armour's headquarters in the morning by Kris Stone, who is involved in the company's grass-roots efforts. Stephenson said he observed how sneakers were made, adding, "They had this machine that could make 'em in like 10 seconds." He recalled examining the new sneakers for Jennings, who now plays professionally in Italy, and seeing his parents talk privately with Stone.
Asked about the facility Monday evening, Stephenson said, "It was cool."
Lance Stephenson Sr. confirmed the visit and said Stone, who knows the family from the summer league circuit, asked them to stop by.
Clever said an Oregon recruit would not be allowed to take a private tour of the Nike headquarters, located about 100 miles from the Eugene campus, during an official visit because "that would be an outside entity, other than the coaches and our staff, used to recruit the student-athlete."
Official visits, which are paid for by colleges, must adhere to strict NCAA rules. Parker, the Virginia Tech compliance official, said the purpose for an official visit is for a recruit to become more familiar with a school's campus, as well as its academic and athletic components.
During the tour of Maryland's campus, the Stephenson family met a variety of people and saw different aspects of college life.
Stephenson's father said they talked with Natasha Criss, an athletic department academic adviser. They also toured the dorms and met with an assistant athletic director.
During warmups before the Miami game on Jan. 31, Lance Sr. said Maryland junior guard Greivis Vasquez approached him and said: "I would love to work with your son. Me and him in the back court could really make an impact in the ACC."
Byron Mouton, a former Maryland standout, said he talked to Stephenson for 15 minutes at the game, telling him, "The ACC, the University of Maryland, the facilities, the exposure -- man, I think it is a great opportunity for you to come in right away and play on a big stage like this."
The day after the game, the Stephenson family ate breakfast on campus with all of the assistant coaches. Coach Gary Williams met with the family after the meal.
Later, Stephenson headed back to New York with memories of coaches, fans -- and shoe company executives.
"Maryland is a great school," Vaccaro said. "It's in a great location, a great conference. Now you have this company that -- when this depression is over -- is going to be what all of these kids want. They want a shoe with their damn name on it. That's the toy they all want. It's a big [recruiting] advantage."