At the Combine, Apparel Brands Go Above and Beyond to Impress the Soon-to-Be NFL Rookies

Video games, juices, massages and, of course, plenty of swag. The biggest brands—Nike, adidas and Under Armour—pull out all of the stops when it comes to recruiting the NFL's next rookie class at the combine.
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INDIANAPOLIS — On Illinois Street, in the heart of downtown Indianapolis and adjacent to the popular St. Elmo Steak House, sits the Le Meridien hotel. This past week, it operates as more than just a regular hotel with a restaurant on the ground floor. If you’re one of the athletes participating in the NFL Scouting Combine, walk in the front entrance and hang a left—and you’ll find yourself in Nike’s suite, where a player can get a massage or haircut from one of Nike’s approved, contracted workers.

Every year at the NFL combine, Nike, Under Armour and adidas—three of the world’s top apparel and footwear companies—all create pop-up spaces to hand out free swag and services to the combine participants as a way of luring some of the top players to sign with their brand once they turn pro.

Apparel lounges are rarely considered to be a major point of the combine. The week is about the 40-yard dash, medical testing, team interviews, free-agent gossip and information sharing. But behind the scenes it’s one of the players’ favorite parts of this week. They get catered to by all three brands for about a half-an-hour each and leave with some new shoes, cleats, gloves and gear, all just for being at the combine, walking into the pop-up shop and expressing interest in the brands.

When it comes to actual combine apparel, Under Armour has had a stranglehold on that aspect since becoming its exclusive licensee in 2009 (though this is the last year of the contract with no indication of what will happen in 2020 and beyond). All combine participants are dressed from head to shin in UA apparel during on-field workouts and media interviews. Essentially, if you’re participating in the combine and on camera, at least one UA logo on your body is visible at all times.

Because of its deal with the NFL, UA’s suite has a prime location in the players’ hotel—the Crown Plaza—in Indianapolis, which means The MMQB’s efforts to check out the suite were rebuffed. But an Under Armour source described the suite for us: a big space packed with cushy couches, video game systems, smoothies and a ping-pong table.

And because it’s exclusive, that means there’s no agents or handlers there. “It’s a place to relax,” the source said. “No one’s there to bother them.”

The adidas suite is located behind the registration desk at the Omni—walk back, take a right and enter into a dimly lit room with red accent lighting and the world-famous three-striped logo hanging front and center.

The back of the suite has two rooms: to the left, a room stocked with refreshments and to the right, a room with a 3D foot scanner that will put the player in the right shoe for him. This serves as a sort of private, personal shopping experience. An employee will emerge from the back with a few boxes of shoes and cleats for the player to try on and he’ll leave with a bag of goodies. There are some crazy requests: At adidas, one source said he’s been asked for Yeezys.

The brand will sign somewhere around 15-20 guys from this draft class, according to a brand source. adidas as a brand aligns itself with speed, so the company will always go after speedy skill-position players. Patrick Mahomes and Dak Prescott are probably adidas’s biggest names, and the brand announced during the combine that it had inked former Oklahoma receiver—and Antonio Brown’s cousin—Marquise “Hollywood” Brown to a deal.

The majority of their signings likely won’t come until after the draft, according to the adidas source. Brown is a top-five receiver in this draft so it makes sense to get him now, but adidas wants to have a presence in major markets. They could like a guy today, but how much good will a late first-rounder or second-round pick do them in a smaller market?

Jace Sternberger and Irv Smith Jr. (right) wait around at the NFL combine in their Under Armour apparel while wearing Nike and adidas cleats respectively.

Jace Sternberger and Irv Smith Jr. (right) wait around at the NFL combine in their Under Armour apparel while wearing Nike and adidas cleats respectively.

Nike used to have its suite at the Omni, but four years ago the company moved to Le Meridien to separate itself. One source mentioned there would be UA logos on things like the hotel key cards that the swoosh wanted to get away from.

For events like the combine, Nike flies in its preferred barbers and masseuses—these are men and women the company trusts, people who have been around high-profile athletes before and who won’t ask for selfies or try to sell them a demo tape. There are four barber chairs and two massage chairs, and one barber from the Pacific Northwest said he’ll do between 5-10 haircuts a day at the suite during the week.

Upstairs, you can get a smoothie from the bar before turning right, where Nike’s personal shopping experience begins. Nike tries to rope off the “shopping” area for multiple reasons. One Nike source told The MMQB that they use this interaction in a relaxed environment to get to know the player and pick up on character traits. Would he be a good fit with the brand? Is he respectful? But another reason is that agents get heavy-handed there (One common theme between the adidas and the Nike suites? The player agents are always involved.) The agent may ask for some shoes for him or herself. The more common scenario is an agent with a top-20 pick coming to the suite with a couple of fringe players and trying to get the same swag for them in a sort of package deal. At Nike, the craziest requests always have more to do with the volume of swag requested.

Nike will sign 40-50 guys in this draft class, a source said, and that’s down from years past after Nike got the licensing deal with the NFL. In short, you don’t need the down-the-roster guys to wear your cleats when the swoosh is already on their sleeves and pants during games.

The football deals pale in comparison to basketball, though, one Nike source said. There are no seven-figure per-year deals to soon-to-be rookies in the NFL. With the transition from college to the NFL, there’s no guarantee the player will be as good at the next level. There’s the inherent injury risk. And then there’s the simple fact that cleats don’t sell like sneakers.

Both adidas and Under Armour announced wide receiver signings during combine week, with Brown to adidas and Mississippi’s D.K. Metcalf signing with UA. Both are small coups for the companies, luring star players from Nike-branded schools to their side. Metcalf put together one of the most impressive combine performances of this year, running a 4.33-second 40, putting up 27 reps on the bench press and getting a vertical of 40 1Ž2 inches. “Oh my God, it was amazing,” an Under Armour source said.

But the prize of this year’s combine is undoubtedly Kyler Murray. The Heisman winner is the potential top pick, coming off a season that stretched into the College Football Playoff at the sport’s most important position, and he owns the most name recognition based off all that and his two-sport abilities. Oklahoma is one of a handful of Jordan Brand football programs, but as we’ve seen with Brown and Metcalf, what you played in at college doesn’t always mean you’ll do that in the pros.

Last year, former Oklahoma Heisman winner and No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield announced he had signed with Nike at his March pro day, outfitted in the swoosh from head(band) to toe. Might Murray follow a similar path?

On Friday, Murray stood at Podium 1 for 15 minutes in his first public availability at the combine. He wore his Under Armour issued black-and-maroon hoodie and black sweatpants. On his feet were off-white “Ghosting” Nike Air Force 1s.

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