One university’s corporate partnership was impossible to miss this past week — and not just because it came emblazoned in gold, black, red and white.
When the University of Maryland football team burst into Byrd Stadium in Under Armour uniforms inspired by the state flag, the game itself was immediately overshadowed. From sports anchors to fans on Twitter, the uniforms led the discussion.
“I think it’s a brilliant marketing move,” said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, director of George Washington University’s sports management MBA program. “It’s like anything in business ... being a little bit different ... gets attention and people talk about it.”
But others wonder if the new designs were also a calculated move by the sports apparel maker to garner its own attention during a nationally televised game. After all, Under Armour’s chief executive Kevin Plank is a former player on Maryland’s football team and is now a member of the school’s board of trustees.
Maryland inked a five-year, $17.5 million contract with Under Armour in 2008 to outfit every varsity team. School officials said the uniforms were part of a larger effort to remake the football team’s image. With a new coach and athletic director at the helm, the university wanted to breathe new life into the program.
“It was more of a branding position than it was a marketing ploy,” said Nate Pine, the university’s deputy athletic director for external operations.
For its part, Under Armour said it was just responding to a customer’s request.
“One of the things I think we do as a business partner is make sure we accomplish the goals of those who we do business with,” said Matt Mirchin, Under Armour’s senior vice president of sports marketing.
The increasingly close relationships between universities and corporate entities bear watching, said Richard Southall, director of College Sport Research Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
“I don’t know implicitly that it’s unethical at all but it’s something you simply have to be aware of,” Southall said. The company’s “corporate mission may or may not be in alignment with the mission of the athletic department or the university.”
Then again, he said,“Is college sports education or is it big business?”