Under Armour and Adidas are coming after the reigning king of March Madness sponsorships

Nike reigns, for now.
Nike reigns, for now.
Image: AP Photo/Nick Wass
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Across the US, university students, office betting pools, and of course the athletes themselves have a lot invested in the outcome of the “March Madness” college basketball tournament, but they’re not the only ones.

The annual rite is also a competition-by-proxy of sorts for the teams’ official apparel partners, which can pay hefty sums to the schools to get their products and logos on the court and in front of the eyes of the tens of millions of viewers who tune in.

Nike has long collected the most teams among the NCAA’s big March Madness contenders, and still has the most by far. But in recent years, Adidas and Under Armour have been making inroads into Nike’s territory, as this sponsorship count from Apex Marketing Group shows.

For Under Armour in particular, the expanding team roster is a signal of growing financial power and brand prestige. The company is striving to establish itself as a genuine competitor to Nike, especially in the world of basketball.

According to Apex, Nike will be the apparel partner of 40 teams in this year’s tournament, down from 48 in 2015 and 41 a year ago. Meanwhile, Adidas has been increasing its partnership count, from 11 in 2015 to 15 this year, and Under Armour has doubled its representation over the same period. In 2015, it was the apparel sponsor for six teams, and this year will have its logo on 12. (Russell Athletic is down to just one team this year, Texas Southern University.)

Exactly how these partnerships translate to brands’ bottom lines can be hard to pin down, but the brands are attracted by the merchandising opportunities, the chance of locking down college athletes headed to the pros, and of course the halo of being associated with a winning team. Nike, for instance, likes to promote the fact that it has represented nearly 80% of the final four men’s and women’s teams in the tournament in the last decade, including all four for both tournaments in 2016.

One thing these deals aren’t likely to do, though, is help any of the brands much with US sales of basketball sneakers. That market has softened as consumer tastes shift away from performance basketball shoes and toward retro and lifestyle sneakers—a big part of the reason Adidas, which has nailed that lifestyle angle, is gaining ground on Nike in the US.

The official bracket is out for the massive “March Madness” US college basketball tournament, and tip-offs start this week. We’ll know soon enough which apparel brand will get the most bragging rights.