GLENDALE, Ariz. >> It’s one thing to have Nike as a sponsor. It’s quite another to have the owner of Nike as your No. 1 fan.
After a 78-year absence from college basketball’s biggest stage, Oregon is at the Final Four this week. For a good deal of this success, the Ducks can thank Nike’s billionaire owner, Phil Knight — the man who keeps the money flowing into the hoops program, and all the rest of the sports, too.
One of Knight’s most recent, and benevolent, gifts to Oregon was a $100 million donation to help fund the school’s opulent basketball arena, named after Knight’s late son, Matthew.
“Phil Knight and Nike have essentially created a lab at the University of Oregon,” said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. “The students welcome that. As long as the programs perform well and stay out of trouble , it’s rinse and repeat.”
Among the other beneficiaries of Knight’s largesse: The football team, which has played for the national title twice this decade; and the men’s and women’s track teams, which have combined for 13 indoor and outdoor NCAA titles since 2010.
All this after Oregon spent decades playing in the second division of the Pac-12 and in relative obscurity in the college town of Eugene, population 160,000.
“It’s not a booming metropolis,” Carter said. “But every team in the conference has something to hang its hat on. At Oregon, their hat is a Nike-branded hat.”
He’s hardly one-dimensional: Knight also recently contributed $500 million to build Oregon’s applied sciences research center, one-upping himself on the $400 million he gave to Stanford, where he studied business, to establish a grad-school scholarship program.
But his biggest footprint has come in sports, where the company he co-founded five-plus decades ago is a leader in dozens of areas, not the least of which are basketball shoes and apparel.
No surprise, then, that it was Oregon that first took a chance with a wide-ranging palette of get-your-sunglasses-out uniforms, all in neon-shaded hues of the school colors — green and gold. These days, dozens of schools feature those sort of uniforms.
“You can’t market the players, you can only market the program,” marketing expert Joe Favorito said. “They recognized that those bright and unique colors help connect to the younger audience.”
Knight, who Nike officials said was not giving interviews this week, is hardly alone as a big-name, big-money donor at a major school.
T. Boone Pickens subsidizes Oklahoma State’s athletic program to the tune of hundreds of millions. At Maryland, Under Armour owner Kevin Plank recently gave $25 million to go toward a redo of Cole Field House .
It may not come as a coincidence that Under Armour is also taking nibbles out of Nike’s dominance in the college-sponsorship apparel market. Two years ago, Nike sponsored 48 of the 68 teams in March Madness, according to Sports Business Daily. This year, it’s 40. Under Armour is also making a debut of sorts at the Final Four, as apparel maker for South Carolina, which has both its men’s and women’s team in the title hunt.
But Nike has been in this business since it began, and has been pumping money into Oregon’s programs throughout the 2000s.
In 2001, Oregon reset the template on how to market a Heisman Trophy candidate, while also increasing its national profile, by spending $250,000 to splash quarterback Joey Harrington’s likeness on a 10-story billboard in Times Square. “Joey Heisman,” the sign read. From there, things only got bigger.
Among Knight’s investments were $30 million toward renovating the scoreboard at Autzen Stadium, $41.7 million for an academic center for athletes and $68 million toward a new football training facility.
“For the most part, the scholarships at these schools are all the same, they cover the same elements of someone’s life,” said Dan Rascher, director of academic programs for the Sport Management Program at University of San Francisco. “It can be hard to differentiate. So all these little things end up becoming important.”
They add up to big things, and the arena is one of the best-outfitted in the country. Opened in 2011, it cost $227 million and stood as the most expensive on-campus arena in the United States.
The details are painstaking:
The lettering on the marquee spells out “Matt” — “in a Japanese-inspired Torii gate shape,” according to the arena website .
There’s artwork outside the arena and fan-tribute displays on the concourse.
The floor, emblazoned with the “Matt” logo set above the words “Deep in the Woods” is designed with the silhouette of a Pacific Coast tree line, in honor of Oregon’s 1939 title team, known as The Tall Firs .
A few years ago at a basketball game, Oregon held “Uncle Phil Appreciation Night” for Knight’s 76th birthday.
Maybe they can hold another one at the Final Four, too.
“Phil Knight is one of the legends,” Ducks guard Tyler Dorsey said. “It’s great having him on our side.”